Five Japanese oil workers believed seized by al-Qaida-linked Islamists in Algeria

Kyodo, AP, AFP-JIJI

Five Japanese nationals working at an oil facility in southern Algeria are believed to have been taken hostage by Islamist militants, the local office of Japanese engineering company JGC Corp. said Wednesday.

There were mixed reports on the number of people who were kidnapped along with the five Japanese. Reuters reported that a French citizen has also been seized, while AP said the Islamist militants killed a security guard and abducted at least eight, including English, Norwegian and Japanese, quoting an Algerian security official and local media.

Algerian forces, however, caught up with and surrounded the kidnappers and negotiations for the release of the hostages are ongoing, the Algerian security official said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.

JGC’s local office said one Japanese worker at the plant stopped responding to a telephone call after telling the office gunshots had been heard.

One of the attackers told AFP by telephone that they were al-Qaida loyalists who had slipped into Algeria from northern Mali, where France launched a major offensive against the jihadists on Jan. 11 to prevent them from advancing on the capital of Bamako.

“We are members of al-Qaida and we came from northern Mali,” the militant said. “We belong to the Masked Brigade led by Moktar Belmoktar.”

Belmoktar, renowned for the eyepatch he has worn since losing an eye, is one of the historic leaders of the jihadists’ North African connection, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.

In a hastily arranged news conference Wednesday night in Tokyo, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga confirmed that “several Japanese nationals” were seized and that the government has set up a situation task force.

The British Foreign Office meanwhile confirmed “a terrorist incident is ongoing” near the facility in Ain Amenas, 100 km from the Libyan border and 1,300 km from the capital in Algeria’s vast desert south. It could not confirm if any British nationals were involved in the incident.

BP, together with the Norwegian company Statoil and the Algerian state oil firm Sonatrach, operate the gas field. JGC is constructing a liquefied natural gas plant there.

In a statement Wednesday, BP confirmed there had been a “security incident this morning” at their Ain Amenas gas field in east central Algeria.

JGC has been involved in numerous projects in Algeria for more than 40 years since it first joined in the construction of an oil facility in the country in 1969, according to the company.

Terrorist acts and abductions of foreigners are not uncommon in North and West Africa, with the involvement of groups believed to be linked to al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb suspected.

Al-Qaida’s North Africa branch has long been active in northern Algeria and occasionally in the desert south, but it has never before attacked the country’s many oil and gas facilities.

As of October 2011, about 560 Japanese lived in Algeria.