Several Japanese employees of Yokohama-based engineering company JGC Corp. were among dozens of foreign workers taken hostage by heavily armed Islamic militants at a natural gas complex in Algeria on Wednesday, the government confirmed.
Algerian troops surrounded the Islamists holding the hostages Thursday after a deadly attack the gunmen said was in reprisal for Algeria’s cooperation in French operations in Mali.
In a new development later in the day, various pieces of information, apparently conflicting, emerged.
Reuters cited local security officials as saying 25 hostages, including two Japanese, were released by their captors. But in Tokyo, officials only said they were trying to verify the report. JGC officials said they had no information regarding the safety of its employees.
A separate report by local media said 15 foreigners and 30 Algerians being held hostage managed to escape from their kidnappers. It wasn’t clear if any of the Japanese workers were among those people.
Then, Al Jazeera reported that 35 hostages were killed along with 15 militants when the Algerian military conducted an airstrike. The Algerian government said it has not confirmed this report.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the government was deeply concerned and will “never tolerate” the hostage-taking by the military group.
Suga declined comment on the militants’ possible motives, saying the government had yet to determine a full picture of the incident, though it has obtained information from various sources.
The government’s priority is to save the lives of the Japanese workers, and Tokyo has arranged or will arrange bilateral teleconferences with foreign ministers of other countries whose citizens were taken hostage in the deadly attack, including Britain, France, and Norway, Suga said.
“At 9 a.m. today, I called Prime Minister (Shinzo) Abe, who was in Vietnam, and reported developments up to that point,” Suga told a news conference at the prime minister’s office. “We’re now gathering information at full stretch.”
Suga declined comment on the exact number of JGC workers taken hostage. The company likewise declined comment on the number of hostages to help ensure the safety of its employees and the others.
A senior Liberal Democratic Party official said Wednesday that the government believes at least three Japanese were taken captive by the militant group.
According to government officials, JGC won a contract to build part of the natural gas plant, which is now operated by BP and an Algerian state-owned firm.
Parliamentary Vice Foreign Minister Minoru Kiuchi was scheduled to arrive in Algeria by the end of Thursday to work closely with the Algerian government, the officials said.
Algerian Interior Minister Dahou Ould Kablia, speaking on national television, insisted Algiers would not negotiate with the “terrorists,” who he said were surrounded by the army and security services.
The Islamists told Mauritanian media they were holding 41 Westerners at the Ain Amenas gas field in eastern Algeria near the Libyan border.
Their captives included French, British and Japanese citizens, as well as seven Americans, they said, adding that the action was in response to Algeria’s opening of its airspace to French warplanes involved in an assault on Islamists in neighboring Mali.
Kablia said the attackers were “around 20 men from the region,” denying reports they had come from either Mali or Libya. The group was led by veteran Islamist fighter Moktar Belmoktar, he added.
One Briton and an Algerian were killed when the Islamists launched their attack at dawn Wednesday. Six people were wounded: another Briton, a Norwegian and a Scot, as well as an Algerian security agent and two policemen.
The U.S. State Department confirmed that American citizens were being held and the White House said it was “closely monitoring” the situation.
Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and Kurt Campbell, the assistant U.S. secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs who was visiting Tokyo, agreed Thursday to work closely on the hostage crisis.
The senior U.S. diplomat told reporters after a meeting with Kishida that the two countries are “in very close, hourly consultations” on the crisis, which he described as “very serious.”
A group calling itself the “Signatories for Blood” claimed responsibility in a statement published by the Mauritanian website Alakhbar.
“Algeria was chosen for this operation to teach (President Abdelaziz) Bouteflika that we will never accept the humiliation of the Algerian people’s honor . . . by opening Algerian airspace to French planes,” it said.
The group called for an end to the French offensive.
Belmokhtar was until recently one of the leaders of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) but was pushed out of the group toward the end of last year.
Known as “the One-Eyed” — he wears an eye patch since losing an eye — Belmoktar has been blamed for previous abductions and the killings of both Algerians and foreigners.
The attack took place at dawn on Wednesday, when armed Islamists targeted a bus carrying oil workers to the Ain Amenas airport, the interior ministry said. Fought off by security escorts, they took hostages at the gas field’s residential compound.
BP confirmed that the gas complex had been attacked at around 5 a.m. GMT.
An official for Norwegian firm Statoil said 12 employees, including nine Norwegians, had been “implicated” in the hostage-taking, without elaborating. The company said it had just less than 20 staff members at the facility.
France launched a major offensive against the Islamists in Mali on Jan. 11 to prevent them from advancing on Bamako.
France said Sunday that Algiers had authorized overflights by Rafale fighters.
Algeria said Tuesday it had closed its porous 2,000-km desert border with Mali.