Algerian Hostage Situation Still Unfolding Among Conflicting Reports

Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
Jan. 18 2013 12:44 PM

We Still Don't Really Know What's Going on With the Algerian Hostages

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US Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta delivers a speech in the Great Hall of King's College in central London on January 18, 2013.

Photo by Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images.

On Wednesday, Islamist militants took over a gas field facility in the middle of the Sahara desert, taking hostages from among the hundreds of workers at the plant. Three days later, a good chunk of those workers have been released or have escaped, but no one really seems to know what's going on at the remote Ain Amenas natural gas plant in Algeria. Why?

First, some background. Slate's Fred Kaplan explains the timeline of events, which traces to a current conflict in neighboring Mali:

Insurgents allied with al-Qaida mount an assault on southern Mali. The French send troops and launch air strikes to stave off the attack. Islamist militants seize a foreign-owned gas field in Algeria (whose government had let the French planes use its air space) and take at least 20 westerners hostage, including two Americans.
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Algerian officials are reportedly negotiating with the hostage takers on Friday to attempt to bring about a peaceful resolution to the situation. Despite its international reach, the story right now isn't exactly brimming with details, but here are some of the numbers making it out, even if the reports are unconfirmed: according to the Associated Press, citing Algerian state news, about 30 foreign hostages are still unaccounted for. But Reuters, via an unnamed "security source," reports that 30 hostages and 18 hostage takers were killed Thursday in an Algerian military raid that freed about 650 workers from the plant. But even that last number is unclear. As the AP notes, many of those workers may have been freed shortly after the plant was taken over by the militants themselves.

There's a geographic reason for the conflicting reports coming out of Algeria: the Ain Amenas plant is remotely located, near the Libyan border, in the middle of the desert. But more importantly, as the New York Times explains in their piece rounding up what we know so far, the Algerian government has been "tight-lipped" with information on the hostage situation, releasing few tallies of those captured, killed, and escaped. They even began their military operations on the plant, jointly controlled by BP, without alerting the governments whose citizens are among those held hostage. Right now, there are reports that the hostages come from 10 countries, including Algeria. Other hostages are from the United States, Britain and Japan, according to their governments. Foreign casualties from the situation total anywhere from 4 to 35, depending on whose reports you believe.

Abby Ohlheiser is a Slate contributor.

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