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Thursday's Mali (and Beyond) Live Coverage: France Prepares Ground Operations While Insurgents Seize 41 Foreigners in Algeria
There were so many deaths. I was shocked. I can't say the exact number. Foreign hostages died, Algerian hostages died and there were deaths among the terrorists.
The hostage said one of the leaders of the assailants was killed. Some of the attackers are still in the central working area of the gas facility. People from the area warned, "It's very difficult for the army to stage an assault because everything could explode. It's dangerous."
Another Algerian hostage said:
One American hostage who had been with his Algerian colleagues was wounded after a fall, another was shot by a militant. "I don't know if they'd seen he was American or if they were afraid when he moved," he said. The American did not die immediately, he said, but he understood the man had since died.
2107 GMT: Bahrain. An EA correspondent sends information on the woman arrested during today's marches in the capital Manama....
Her name is Zahra Alshaikh, and this is her second arrest. During her previous detention, she was allegedly mistreated, stripped naked, and threatened with rape. Activists claims she was beaten today as she was taken to the police station.
Claimed footage of Alshaikh's arrest, as she is surrounded by police:
A protest march in Manama tonight:
"What's extraordinary is that the employees of [state utility] Sonatrach at the site decided to shut down the factory and to put the equipment in a state of decompression so that it doesn't present an immediate danger for the people, first, and for the facility second," Minister of Energy Youcef Yousfi said.
The facility is estimated to account for 18% of Algeria's total gas exports.
The crowd gathered after word spread that a Christian man sexually assaulted a 6-year-old girl. Several shops and cars owned by Coptic Christians were reportedly set on fire overnight.
1652 GMT: Algeria. State news agency APS now says 100 of 132 foreign hostages have been freed at the In Amenas gas plant.
At least foreign staff have been reported as killed, leaving 25 unaccounted for.
Radio France journalist Lelia Beratto reported that between seven and 10 attackers, armed with explosives. are still in machine room.
1647 GMT: Mali. Journalist Alan Boswell reports that insurgents have withdrawn from the town of Diabaly in central Mali, which they seized on Monday:
Prefect: Rebels have withdrawn from Diabaly without fight, not sure if retreat or tactical #Mali— Alan Boswell (@alanboswell) January 18, 2013
1645 GMT: Algeria. Algerian State TV footage of freed hostages, including interviews with Algerian staff in Arabic and with British, Turkish, and Filipino employees in English:
(Hat-tip to The Guardian)
1625 GMT: Bahrain. An EA correspondent writes from the Kingdom, "Heavy clashes in [the capital] Manama today as many protesters answered the call of the 14 February coalition. Manama entrances were almost all closed by Ministry of Interior since noon but activists and protesters still managed to get in and gather mostly in small groups."
Twelve men and one woman were reportedly arrested:
One of the marches:
Police throwing tear gas as protesters shout:
Yousif was seized on 7 December as he watched a protest in the capital Manama. He was accusing of posting false information on Twitter.
Bail was set at 100 Bahrain dinars ($268), with trial set for 29 January.
1415 GMT: Algeria. The Mauritanian news agency ANI reports a new demand from the attackers at the In Amenas gas plant:
FLASH:Algeria kidnappers seek release of Aafia Siddiqui, Omar Abdel-Rahman, known as "Blind Sheikh" in exchange for American hostages: ANI— Reuters Top News (@Reuters) January 18, 2013
Abdel-Rahman, 74, is serving a life sentence for conspiracy in connection with the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City.
The assailants have also offered to swap US hostages for Pakistani Aafia Siddiqui, a neuroscientist who was detained in Afghanistan and sentenced by a US district court to 86 years in prison assault with intent to murder her American interrogators.
1349 GMT: Algeria. The official Algerian news agency APS is reporting that about 30 insurgents took 132 foreigners hostage in the attack on the In Amenas gas plant. More than half have reportedly been freed.
APS also said 573 Algerians had also been freed or escaped among 650 people who are out of In Amenas.
Assuming that seven foreigners have died, that would leave up to 48 still missing or in the hands of the assailants.
According to Mauritania’s ANI news agency, which seems to be in contact with the Battalion of Blood, the terrorist group behind the hostage crisis, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the group's leader, is offering to release the American hostages in exchange for the release of Egyptian Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman and Pakistani Aafia Siddiqui, who are in jail in America on terrorism charges.
Belmokhtar has recorded a video message, which he is going to send to the mass media, in which he offers the same swap and calls on the French and Algerians to negotiate an end to the war in northern Mali.
We cannot independently verify this, although ANI has been broadly right in its reports throughout this crisis.
"Terrorists should be on notice that they will find no sanctuary, no refuge, not in Algeria, not in North Africa, not anywhere. Those who would wantonly attack our country and our people will have no place to hide," he said.
The insurgent victory in Konna last week prompted the intervention of French warplanes and troops.
Journalist Kodji Siby said he had spoken to residents in Konna, about 550 kilometres (340 miles) north of the capital Bamako, who said the Islamists fled the town when Malian soldiers deployed.
"We have wrested total control of Konna after inflicting heavy losses on the enemy," the Malian army claimed in a statement.
Meanwhile, the UN refugee agency says it fears the fighting could force 700,000 people from their homes.
About 150,000 people have already fled to neighbouring countries. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees has said that 400,000 more could leave Mali, with a further 300,000 displaced within the country.
1237 GMT: Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has promised that no Jewish settlement will be dismantled during his next term in office, if he wins elections on Tuesday: "The days when bulldozers uprooted Jews are behind us, not in front of us."
About 500,000 Jews live in more than 100 settlements built in the West Bank and East Jerusalem since Israel occupied the area in 1967.
"We haven't uprooted any settlements, we have expanded them," Netanyahu said in an interview. "Nobody has any lessons to give me about love for the Land of Israel or commitment to Zionism and the settlements."
A report by the Israeli organisation Peace Now said approval of new settlements tripled in 2012, accounting for nearly 40% of construction.
Last weekend Netanyahu ordered the Israeli military to overrun a new Palestinian village, Bab al-Shams, in an area where he supports new Jewish settlements.
1210 GMT:Algeria. Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron has given a statement in Parliament stating that the rescue operation is still continuing and expressing sympathy for the hostages and workers embroiled in the crisis, although there was also a sense of frustration that the Algerian authorities did not consult with Whitehall before beginning the military operation.
1158 GMT:Algeria. In light of the ongoing hostage crisis, BP has said that “hundreds of workers from international oil companies have been evacuated from Algeria on Thursday and many more will follow.”
1041 GMT:Algeria. Information is only slowly trickling out about the rescue operation to free dozens of hostages taken by Islamist militants, but it seems that Algerian military are combing the facility for personnel and possibly also insurgents.
The Guardian’s latest Live Blog update notes that The Algerian news service TSA (Tout sur l'Algerie) quotes a "well-informed local source" as saying only a few Islamists remain in the facility.
The same source told the agency that yesterday's operations had resulted in the deaths of 31 people: 20 hostages and 11 Islamists. Two further militants were captured alive, the source told TSA: one from Mali, and the other from Algeria.
This information has not been independently verified.
TSA also cites a a local leader, Knaoui Sidi, as saying attempts were made to negotiate with the hostage-takers yesterday but that no further efforts would be made today.
"There is no possibility of further negotiations," Sidi said, noting that the hostage-takers had refused to receive a delegation of local Touareg leaders yesterday. "Algerian special forces will mount an assault."
0935 GMT:Algeria. The Guardian is reporting that one French hostage, Alexandre Berceaux, an employee of a French catering company, told Europe 1 radio he had remained hidden under a bed for nearly 40 hours in a separate room from other foreign hostages, eating supplies brought to him by Algerian colleagues. He said:
When the military came to get me, I did not know whether it was over. They arrived with colleagues [Algerians who worked with him], otherwise I would never have opened the door.
Berceaux said Algerian military forces were still combing the enormous gas site for hostages when he was escorted to a nearby military base. "They are still counting them up." He expected to be taken home to France soon.
He said there could be other hostages still hidden on the site and that the Algerian army had found British hostages hiding in the roof.
Angelique Chrisafis reports from Paris that the “living quarters” at the In Amenas site have reportedly been secured, with a total death-toll that has not yet been officially released. But the Algerian special forces are still surrounding the working area of the gas facility where hostage-takers remain.
"We've agreed to help the French with airlift. And we're now working out the details," said a defence official. He added and another defence official that there was still no final approval on a request from Paris to assist French warplanes with American tanker aircraft.
Washington is already providing intelligence to the French, including information from surveillance drones and spy satellites.
"We are supporting the French operation in Mali with intelligence and airlift," US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton confirmed.
The American transport planes will likely be used to ferry French tanks, armoured vehicles and other heavy equipment.
Meanwhile, the first West African regional forces arrived to reinforce French and Malian Government troops battling insurgents..
A contingent of around 100 Togolese troops landed in the capital Bamako and are due to be joined by Nigerian forces already en route. Nigerian and Chadian forces are also gathering in Niger, Mali's neighbour to the east.
McFaul told his family that he survived because he was on the only one of five jeeps not hit. His brother Brian passed on the account:
They were moving five jeep-loads of hostages from one part of the compound. At that stage they were intercepted by the Algerian army. The army bombed four out of five of the trucks and four of them were destroyed.
The truck my brother was in crashed and at that stage Stephen was able to make a break for his freedom. He presumed everyone else in the other trucks was killed.
Brian McFaul said the hostages had their mouths taped and explosives hung from around their necks.
At different points, the insurgents have been linked to groups in Libya and in northern Mali, where fighting has escalated in the past week with the intervention of French forces.
Eight Algerians and seven foreigners, including two British, two Japanese and a French national, are among the dead, an Algerian security source said.
Nine foreign nationals have been released but the fate of about 25 others is unclear.
Algerian Minister of Communications Mohamed Said said troops had been forced to act after talks with the kidnappers failed. The government added that the fighters had threatened to blow up the gas plant.
Earlier, a spokesman for the insurgents the hostages said 34 of the captives and 15 kidnappers were kiled when a government helicopter attacked a convoy transporting hostages and their captors.
Algeria's official APS news agency said at one point that nearly 600 Algerian workers and four foreign hostages --- two Britons, a Frenchman and a Kenyan - had been freed during the operation. The Irish foreign ministry confirmed that a man from Belfast was freed.