Algerian Militants Demand French Military Withdraws From Mali

In southern Algeria, Islamist militants are holding scores of Western hostages who were kidnapped from an oil refinery. The militants say the kidnappings are in retaliation for French intervention in the Mali crisis.

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It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

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And I'm Renee Montagne. We're following reports this morning that Algeria has launched a military operation against Islamist militants holding dozens of Western hostages, including Americans. The militants seized the hostages yesterday, at an oil and gas facility in Algeria. They were apparently responding to the deployment of French troops, sent to fight an insurgency in neighboring Mali. The Algerian militants threatened to blow up the oil and gas complex unless the French withdrew from Mali.

NPR's Eleanor Beardsley is following this fast-changing story from Paris and joins us now, on the line. And Eleanor, what do we know - so far - today?

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Well, Renee, a lot is being reported, but it's still unconfirmed. The British Foreign Office has said that an operation is under way against this oil and gas facility, by the Algerian government. And we're hearing separate reports - from wires and from Islamist news sites - that a terrible battle has been engaged, and up to maybe 34 Western hostages have been killed. Of course, this is a very, very remote place in the southern desert of Algeria, so there's not a lot of witnesses there.

Some wires are quoting locals, but it's not like visitors - journalists can just go there because you have to have a visa to get into Algeria. So there are not journalists at the site, so we're unable to confirm much of it. But apparently, it's not a surprise because the Algerian government fought a 10-year battle in the 1990s with these Islamists. And up to 2,000 - 200,000 people, excuse me, mostly Algerian civilians were killed in this decade-long, very brutal war. And they had one principle, one doctrine, which was: We don't negotiate with terrorists. So it wouldn't be surprising at all that - if they have launched an attack against these Islamist militants.

MONTAGNE: Right. And so Eleanor, what do we know about these hostage-takers, these - what they would be calling terrorists?

BEARDSLEY: Right. Well, it's apparently a new group, called the Signatories of Blood. And we don't know much about them, but we know a lot about their leader. He's very well-known by the Algerian police, and also in France. His name is Mokhtar Belmokhtar. He's a notorious one-eyed, desert jihadist. He lost his eye training in Afghanistan, in the '90s. He's been operating in this area for the last 10 years, taking hostages and killing them.

About two years ago, in France, there was a young French aid worker who was going to marry a Mali - a girl from Mali; and his best friend came down for the wedding. And right before the wedding, they were kidnapped and killed; and all of France was in mourning. So he's done horrible things. He's, we could say, a bad guy. He's known as Mr. Quran in the day, and Mr. Marlboro at night - because of his illicit cigarette running.

You've got to understand, Renee, this is a huge swath of desert area that encompasses several countries with weak states - Libya, Chad, Niger, Mali; you know, porous borders. So you have these bands of Islamists who are, you know, smuggling, kidnapping, trafficking. They operate with impunity. They're terrorizing populations. And Algeria said it closed its border with Mali. Well, the border with Mali is 1,200 miles long, and it's desert. So you can't really close that. You know, these guys ride around in pickup trucks, and do what they want. So these are the kind of people that have apparently taken these hostages.

MONTAGNE: And Eleanor, we have just about 30 seconds here, but can you tell us briefly why they attacked this facility in Algeria?

BEARDSLEY: Well, the main reason is - they cited in a communique - the betrayal of the blood of Algerian martyrs slain by French colonists. I interviewed Gilles Kepel. He's a top scholar of the Arab world. Listen to what he says.

MONTAGNE: So Eleanor, it looks like we do not have that tape, but we will be...

BEARDSLEY: OK.

MONTAGNE: ...keeping track of this story as the morning goes on. Thanks very much. Eleanor Beardsley, speaking to us from Paris.

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