- Created on 17 January 2013
Islamic militants said they have captured 41 foreign hostages at a natural gas complex in the Algerian desert and said later that 35 of them were killed Thursday in Algerian military helicopter strafing.
There was no way to independently confirm the report. Here's a summary of the latest information on the hostages:
— ALGERIA: Hundreds of Algerians worked at the gas plant, but the Algerian media says most have been released. The Norwegian energy company Statoil says three of its Algerian employees are hostages.
— NORWAY: Nine Norwegian employees of Statoil are hostages, the company says.
— UNITED STATES: Seven Americans were hostages, the militants said, but they claimed only two survived the Algerian strafing Thursday. The U.S. has confirmed that some of its citizens are hostages but gave no numbers.
— BRITAIN: "Several" British nationals are among the hostages, the U.K. government says.
— JAPAN: At least three of the hostages are Japanese, according to the Japanese media.
— MALAYSIA: Two Malaysians being held, the government says.
— IRELAND: A 36-year-old Irish man was among the hostages but is now safe and free, according to Ireland's government.
— FRANCE: President Francois Hollande says there are French hostages but gave no exact number.
— ROMANIA: Romania's Foreign Ministry says Romanians are among hostages.
- Created on 16 January 2013
(AP) — Islamist militants attacked a natural gas field partly operated by BP in southern Algeria early Wednesday, killing a foreigner and kidnapping several others, according to the Algerian Interior Ministry, in an incident that may be linked to France's attacks on rebel groups in northern Mali.
The identities of the hostages and their location were still unclear, but Ireland announced that a 36-year-old married Irish man was among them, while Japanese officials said their citizens could possibly be involved as well. A Norwegian woman said her husband called her saying he had been taken hostage. Six others were wounded in the attack, including two foreigners, two police officers and two security agents, the ministry added in a statement.
Algerian forces have surrounded the kidnappers and negotiations for the release of the hostages are ongoing, an Algerian security official based in the region said, adding that the militants had come from Mali. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
However, Brig. Gen. Abdel-Khaleq Ibrahim, commander of Libya's border guards, said his forces fired on two vehicles coming from the Algerian gas fields carrying hostages in the early hours of the morning, forcing them to flee into Tunisia, about 250 kilometers (155 miles) to the north.
A group called the Katibat Moulathamine, or the Masked Brigade, called a Mauritanian news outlet to say they had carried out the operation on the Ain Amenas gas field, taking five hostages — three Norwegians, a Briton and an American.
The group's claim could not be independently substantiated and it was not clear why the reports over the citizenship and the numbers of those kidnapped differed.
The caller to the Nouakchott Information Agency, which often carries announcements from extremist groups, did not give any further details, except that the kidnapping was carried out by a group created to attack the interests of countries participating in the ongoing offensive against Islamist groups in Mali.
French President Francois Hollande launched the surprise operation in its former West African colony on Friday, with hopes of stopping al-Qaida-linked and other Islamist extremists he believes pose a danger to the world.
Wednesday's attack began with the ambush of a bus carrying employees from the gas plant to the nearby airport but the attackers were driven off, according to the Algerian statement, which said three vehicles of heavily armed men were involved.
"After their failed attempt, the terrorist group headed for the natural gas plant and took a number of workers with foreign nationalities hostage," said the statement, adding that authorities were following the situation very closely.
Attacks on oil-rich Algeria's hydrocarbon facilities are very rare, despite decades of fighting an Islamist insurgency, mostly in the north of the country.
In the last several years, however, al-Qaida's influence in the poorly patrolled desert wastes of southern Algeria and northern Mali and Niger has grown and it operates smuggling and kidnapping networks throughout the area. Militant groups that seized control of northern Mali already hold seven French hostages as well as four Algerian diplomats.
The natural gas field where the attack occurred, however, is more than 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) from the Mali border, though it is just 60 miles (100 kilometers) from Libya's deserts.
The British Foreign could not confirm if any British nationals were involved in the incident, while the U.S. embassy in Algiers said in a statement it wasn't "aware of any U.S. citizen casualties."
BP, together with Norwegian company Statoil and the Algerian state oil company, Sonatrach, operate the gas field. A Japanese company, JGC Corp, provides services for the facility as well.
Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the kidnapped foreigners possibly include Japanese employees of JGC.
"We are certain that JGC is the one affected," Suga said, adding that the government is now negotiating with local officials through diplomatic channels, asking for safety first to protect the lives of the Japanese nationals.
Statoil said that it has 20 employees in the facility. The Norwegian Foreign Ministry said it could not confirm that any Norwegian citizens had been abducted. The Norwegian Newspaper Bergens Tidende, however, said a 55-year-old Norwegian working on the site called his wife to say he had been abducted.
Algeria had long warned against military intervention against the rebels in northern Mali, fearing the violence could spill over its own long and porous border. Though its position softened slightly after Hollande visited Algiers in December, Algerian authorities remain skeptical about the operation and worried about its consequences on the region.
Algeria is Africa's biggest country, and has been an ally of the U.S. and France in fighting terrorism for years. But its relationship with France has been fraught with lingering resentment over colonialism and the bloody war for independence that left Algeria a free country 50 years ago.
Algeria's strong security forces have struggled for years against Islamist extremists, and have in recent years managed to nearly snuff out violence by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb around its home base in northern Algeria. In the meantime, AQIM moved its focus southward.
AQIM has made tens of millions of dollars off kidnapping in the region, abducting Algerian businessmen or political figures for ransom and sometimes foreigners.
Schemm reported from Rabat, Morocco. Associated Press writers Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo, Japan, Jill Lawless in London and Jan Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark, Esam Mohamed in Tripoli, Libya and Shawn Pogatchnik in Dublin, Ireland contributed to this report.
- Created on 14 January 2013
(AP) — In a gruesome display that included a taunt of France's president, Somali militants on Monday posted photos of what appeared to be a dead French soldier surrounded by weapons and gear.
Three photos posted by an al-Shabab-run Twitter account show a white man wearing military pants and a blood-soaked shirt surrounded by three guns, ammunition clips and protective gear. A helmet lies between his legs.
In each of the photos a silver cross pendant hanging from the soldier's neck is visible. Al-Shabab said in its posting: "A return of the crusades, but the cross could not save him from the sword." Al-Shabab is the al-Qaida-affiliated militant group that controls much of southern Somalia.
One posting also taunted France's president, saying: "Francois Hollande, was it worth it?"
The soldier was killed during a botched military raid early Saturday to rescue a French intelligence officer held by al-Shabab since July 2009.
French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Monday that it was likely the two commandos were killed during the raid. France believes the hostage, whose code-name was Denis Allex, was also killed, though al-Shabab says he is still alive.
Le Drian appeared to predict the release of the pictures, saying several hours before the posting that France believed al-Shabab was preparing a "macabre and disgraceful" display of the dead soldiers' bodies. Photos of only one body had been displayed as of 6 p.m. Monday Somalia time (2 p.m. GMT, 9 a.m. EST).
In addition to the Twitter postings, al-Shabab released a longer statement that appeared to mix exaggerated boasts with fact. The group said that the operation resulted in the deaths of "several" French forces and injured "many more." The militants said the commander leading the operation was among those wounded, and that al-Shabab "paramedic teams" transferred him to a hospital where he died.
The group also said a decision had been reached concerning the fate of Allex. It said that decision would be announced in coming hours.
Transported by helicopters, the French commandos attacked the al-Shabab position early Saturday in an attempt to free Allex. Le Drian said the government decided to stage the rescue a month ago, when Allex's location seemed to have settled down "in a spot accessible by the sea." U.S. military aircraft briefly entered Somali airspace to support the rescue operation, President Barack Obama said Sunday, but did not employ their weapons.
Fierce fighting broke out after the French troops landed. French officials said they counted 17 dead among the Islamists.
Al-Shabab once controlled all of south-central Somali, including the capital, Mogadishu. African Union troops pushed al-Shabab out of the capital in 2011, but the militants still control wide swaths of rural southern Somalia.
- Created on 15 January 2013
(AP) — Deep inside caves, in remote desert bases, in the escarpments and cliff faces of northern Mali, Islamic extremist fighters have been burrowing into the earth, erecting a formidable set of defenses to protect what has essentially become al-Qaida's new country.
They have used the bulldozers, earth movers and Caterpillar machines left behind by fleeing construction crews to dig what residents and local officials describe as an elaborate network of tunnels, trenches, shafts and ramparts. In just one case, inside a cave large enough to drive trucks into, they have stored up to 100 drums of gasoline, guaranteeing their fuel supply in the face of a foreign intervention, according to experts.
Now that intervention is here. On Friday, France deployed 550 troops and launched air strikes against the Islamists in northern Mali, starting battle in what is currently the biggest territory in the world held by al-Qaida and its allies. But the fighting has been harder than expected, and the extremists boast it will be worse than the decade-old struggle in Afghanistan.
"Al-Qaida never owned Afghanistan," said former United Nations diplomat Robert Fowler, a Canadian kidnapped and held for 130 days by al-Qaida's local chapter, whose fighters now control the main cities in the north. "They do own northern Mali."
Al-Qaida's affiliate in Africa — al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM— has been a shadowy presence for years in the forests and deserts of Mali, a country hobbled by poverty and a relentless cycle of hunger. Last year the terror syndicate and its allies took advantage of political instability in Mali to push out of their hiding place and into the towns, taking over an enormous territory larger than France or Texas — and almost exactly the size of Afghanistan.
The catalyst for the Islamic fighters was a military coup nine months ago by disgruntled soldiers, which transformed Mali from a once-stable nation to the failed state it is today. The fall of the nation's democratically elected government at the hands of junior officers destroyed the military's command-and-control structure, creating the vacuum which allowed a mix of rebel groups to move in.
After the international community debated for months over what to do, the United Nations Security Council called for a military intervention on condition that an exhaustive list of pre-emptive measures be taken, starting with training the Malian military. All that changed in a matter of hours last week, when French intelligence services spotted two rebel convoys heading south toward the towns of Segou and Mopti. Had either town fallen, many feared the Islamists would advance toward the capital, Bamako.
Over the weekend, Britain authorized sending several transport planes to bring in French troops. Other African nations have authorized sending troops, and the U.S. has pledged communications and logistical support.
The area under the rule of the Islamist fighters is mostly desert and sparsely populated, but analysts say that due to its size and the hostile nature of the terrain, rooting out the extremists here could prove even more difficult than it did in Afghanistan. Mali's former president has acknowledged, diplomatic cables show, that the country cannot patrol a frontier twice the length of the border between the United States and Mexico.
AQIM operates not just in Mali, but in a corridor along much of the northern Sahel. This 7,000-kilometer (4,300-mile) long ribbon of land runs across the widest part of Africa, and includes sections of Mauritania, Niger, Algeria, Libya, Burkina Faso and Chad.
"One could come up with a conceivable containment strategy for the Swat Valley," said Africa expert Peter Pham, an adviser to the U.S. military's African command center, referring to the region of Pakistan where Taliban fighters once dominated. "There's no containment strategy for the Sahel, which runs from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea."
The Islamists in northern Mali had been preparing for battle long before the French announcement, according to elected officials and residents in Kidal, Timbuktu and Gao, including a day laborer hired by al-Qaida's local chapter to clear rocks and debris for one of their defenses. They spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear for their safety at the hands of the Islamists, who have previously accused those who speak to reporters of espionage.
The al-Qaida affiliate, which became part of the terror network in 2006, is one of three Islamist groups in northern Mali. The others are the Movement for the Unity and Jihad in West Africa, or MUJAO, based in Gao, and Ansar Dine, based in Kidal. Analysts agree that there is considerable overlap among the groups, and that all three can be considered sympathizers, even extensions, of al-Qaida.
The Islamic fighters have stolen equipment from construction companies, including more than $11 million worth from a French company called SOGEA-SATOM, according to Elie Arama, who works with the European Development Fund. The company had been contracted to build a European Union-financed highway in the north between Timbuktu and the village of Goma Coura. An employee of SOGEA-SATOM in Bamako declined to comment.
The official from Kidal said his constituents have reported seeing Islamic fighters with construction equipment riding in convoys behind 4-by-4 trucks draped with their signature black flag. His contacts among the fighters, including friends from secondary school, have told him they have created two bases, around 200 to 300 kilometers (120 and 180 miles) north of Kidal, in the austere, rocky desert.
The first base is occupied by al-Qaida's local fighters in the hills of Teghergharte, a region the official compared to Afghanistan's Tora Bora.
"The Islamists have dug tunnels, made roads, they've brought in generators, and solar panels in order to have electricity," he said. "They live inside the rocks."
Still further north, near Boghassa, is the second base, created by fighters from Ansar Dine. They, too, have used seized explosives, bulldozers and sledgehammers to make passages in the hills, he said.
In addition to creating defenses, the fighters are amassing supplies, experts said. A local who was taken by Islamists into a cave in the region of Kidal described an enormous room, where several cars were parked. Along the walls, he counted up to 100 barrels of gasoline, according to the man's testimony to New York-based Human Rights Watch.
In the regional capital of Gao, a young man told The Associated Press that he and several others were offered 10,000 francs a day by al-Qaida's local commanders (around $20), a rate several times the normal wage, to clear rocks and debris, and dig trenches. The youth said he saw Caterpillars and earth movers inside an Islamist camp at a former Malian military base 7 kilometers (4 miles) from Gao.
The fighters are piling mountains of sand from the ground along the dirt roads to force cars onto the pavement, where they have checkpoints everywhere, he said. In addition, they are modifying their all-terrain vehicles to mount them with arms.
"On the backs of their cars, it looks like they are mounting pipes," he said, describing a shape he thinks might be a rocket or missile launcher. "They are preparing themselves. Everyone is scared."
A university student from Gao confirmed seeing the modified cars. He said he also saw deep holes dug on the sides of the highway, possibly to give protection to fighters shooting at cars, along with cement barriers with small holes for guns.
In Gao, residents routinely see Moktar Belmoktar, the one-eyed emir of the al-Qaida-linked cell that grabbed Fowler in 2008. Belmoktar, a native Algerian, traveled to Afghanistan in the 1980s and trained in Osama bin Laden's camp in Jalalabad, according to research by the Jamestown Foundation. His lieutenant Oumar Ould Hamaha, whom Fowler identified as one of his captors, brushed off questions about the tunnels and caves but said the fighters are prepared.
"We consider this land our land. It's an Islamic territory," he said, reached by telephone in an undisclosed location.
He added that the Islamists have recruited new fighters, including from Western countries.
In December, two U.S. citizens from Alabama were arrested on terrorism charges, accused of planning to fly to Morocco and travel by land to Mali to wage jihad, or holy war. Two French nationals have also been detained on suspicion of trying to travel to northern Mali to join the Islamists. Hamaha himself said he spent a month in France preaching his fundamentalist version of Islam in Parisian mosques after receiving a visa for all European Union countries in 2001.
Hamaha indicated the Islamists have inherited stores of Russian-made arms from former Malian army bases, as well as from the arsenal of toppled Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, a claim that military experts have confirmed.
Those weapons include the SA-7 and SA-2 surface-to-air missiles, according to Hamaha, which can shoot down aircrafts. His claim could not be verified, but Rudolph Atallah, the former counterterrorism director for Africa in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, said it makes sense.
"Gadhafi bought everything under the sun," said Atallah, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel, who has traveled extensively to Mali on defense missions. "His weapons depots were packed with all kinds of stuff, so it's plausible that AQIM now has surface-to-air missiles."
Depending on the model, these missiles can range far enough to bring down planes used by ill-equipped African air forces, he said. However, they will be far less effective against the forces of the West, with their better equipment.
Another factor in the success of military intervention will be the reaction of the people, who, unlike in Afghanistan, have little history of extremism. Malians have long practiced a moderate form of Islam, where women do not wear burqas and few practice the strict form of the religion. The Islamists are imposing a far more severe form of Islam on the towns of the north, carrying out amputations in public squares, flogging women for not covering up and destroying world heritage sites.
The Islamists' recent advances draw on al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb's near decade of experience in Mali's northern desert, where Fowler and his fellow U.N. colleague were held captive for four months in 2008, an experience he recounts in his recent book, "A Season in Hell."
Originally from Algeria, the fighters fled across the border into Mali in 2003, after kidnapping 32 European tourists. Over the next decade, they used the country's vast northern desert to hold French, Spanish, Swiss, German, British, Austrian, Italian and Canadian hostages, raising an estimated $89 million in ransom payments, according to Stratfor, a global intelligence company.
During this time, they also established relationships with local clans, nurturing the ties that now protect them. Several commanders have taken local wives, and Hamaha, whose family is from Kidal, confirmed that Belmoktar is married to his niece.
Fowler described being driven for days by jihadists who knew Mali's featureless terrain by heart, navigating valleys of identical dunes with nothing more than the direction of the sun as their map. He saw them drive up to a thorn tree in the middle of nowhere to find barrels of diesel fuel. Elsewhere, he saw them dig a pit in the sand and bury a bag of boots, marking the spot on a GPS for future use.
In his four-month-long captivity, Fowler never saw his captors refill at a gas station, or shop in a market. Yet they never ran out of gas. And although their diet was meager, they never ran out of food, a testament to the extensive supply network which they set up and are now refining and expanding.
Among the many challenges an invading army will face is the inhospitable terrain, Fowler said, which is so hot that at times "it was difficult to draw breath." A cable published by WikiLeaks from the U.S. Embassy in Bamako described how even the Malian troops deployed in the north before the coup could only work from 4 a.m. to 10 a.m., and spent the sunlight hours in the shade of their vehicles.
Yet Fowler said he saw al-Qaida fighters chant Quranic verses under the Sahara sun for hours, just one sign of their deep, ideological commitment.
"I have never seen a more focused group of young men," said Fowler, who now lives in Ottawa, Canada. "No one is sneaking off for R&R. They have left their wives and children behind. They believe they are on their way to paradise."
- Created on 11 January 2013
(AP) — Do you remember your first kiss? If you have a few years under your belt, maybe you stole it in the back of the movie theater, the projector whirring in the darkness. Or rather, back of the "bioscope," a word for the cinema in South Africa in the old days.
The fantasy world of "Pretville," a Grease-style film musical in the Afrikaans language, celebrates 1950s Americana, the thrill of first love and foot-tapping classics that evoke innocence and discovery.
It is also an affirmation of an Afrikaner identity that spent years in the doghouse after 1994 elections and the end of apartheid, the system of white minority rule imposed by Afrikaner nationalists in 1948. And while most of the actors are white, two who are not play authority figures, lampooning the now-discarded racial order.
The musical, its creators stress, is joyful escapism, not a whitewashing of South Africa's tortured history of race relations. As co-producer Paul Kruger noted, "pret" means "fun" in Afrikaans. The movie indulges in rock 'n' roll, vintage cars, greasers in sneakers, pin curl hairstyles and swing dresses, lots of pastel pink and blue, and double thick strawberry milkshakes with extra cream.
"I think we've been excluded in that whole journey during the '50s in South Africa," Kruger said. He added with understatement: "We were busy with too many other things, too many other politics kept us busy."
The plot is about a farm boy and a town slicker who vie for a beauty's affection, with assorted side-sagas and a generous sprinkling of flamboyant characters: an aging crooner called Eddie Elektriek who courts an old flame, a candy storeowner with an eye for the guys, a hairdresser-cum-mayor with a goatee and a pompadour, a stutterer in horn-rimmed glasses and a pregnancy that fuels fevered gossip.
The feel-good film borrows from Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis and West Side Story. But it's a whole lotta shakin' with an Afrikaner stamp. For example, the song "Is Jy Myne" (Are You Mine) is loosely based on "My Boy Lollipop," and "Skud, Skop en Hop" (Shake, Rattle and Roll) echoes "Great Balls of Fire."
"It's taking something old, putting something new," composer Machiel Roets said of pairing Afrikaans with vintage vibes. "Voila! A new recipe."
Afrikaans, the Dutch-based language of the descendants of European settlers, is spoken as a first language by 13.5 percent of South Africa's 51 million people, according to the 2011 census. Pretville has a strong fan base and English subtitles but it isn't a cross-over hit. The movie's promoters say it's part of a larger revival in the last few years of music and movies in Afrikaans, a language once tarred by its association with apartheid.
The film set, which resembles small-town Main Street, is a popular tourist attraction for Afrikaans-speaking crowds that ogle the Hammerstein radio, Nash Metropolitan car, Handy Hannah hair dryer and other props, many bought on eBay and shipped from the United States.
Annelie Engelbrecht, who was celebrating her 49th birthday there, and her husband, Pierre, traveled 700 kilometers (435 miles) from their home near South Africa's Kruger game reserve to soak up the movie's aura. The set lies near a mountain range west of the capital, Pretoria. A sign at the entrance announces the production house: "Hartiwood Studios," a play on the nearby town of Hartbeespoort, and Hollywood.
"We used to go to the films and kiss at the back of the movies. It was really like that in the olden days," Engelbrecht said. She thought the racial mixing in the movie was "tongue in cheek" because it was unthinkable under apartheid in the 1950s.
"Blacks and whites wouldn't have danced together, I can promise you that," Engelbrecht said. "That is just the new South Africa."
Actor Terence Bridgett, the campy mayor who sashays around a hair salon, is of mixed heritage. His two assistants, Dyna and Dot, are "The Supremes" of Pretville. Entertainer Emo Adams, who has a Malay background and released an album titled "Tall, Dark & Afrikaans," plays the police chief, breaking up a fight between the love-struck suitors and tossing them in jail.
In a classic send-up, Adams delivers "Elvis the Pelvis" dance moves in the olive-green uniform of the 1950s South African police. Security forces at that time harshly enforced a growing body of law that enshrined a system of white domination and racial segregation. Blacks lacked political rights, the right to move freely, the right to live where they wanted. They couldn't, of course, visit "bioscopes" for whites.
In 1976, the South African government tried to force the teaching of Afrikaans on schools in black townships, triggering massive protests and a bloody crackdown that ultimately invigorated opposition to white rule.
After apartheid, Afrikaans became one of 11 official languages in the multi-ethnic country. R.W. Johnson, author of "South Africa's Brave New World," wrote that many Afrikaners felt so guilty about the past that they were reluctant to assert their culture, "in much the same way that after 1945 many Germans became uncomfortable with any assertion of German national identity."
Lizelle de Klerk, a Pretville actor, remembers shunning her cultural background and helping craft plays in university about "how we hate being Afrikaans," but now she believes Afrikaners can proudly tell their own stories, whether they are about race or not.
De Klerk dreams of performing on London's West End, but also wants to contribute to South African expression in the years ahead. She is reading a book about the 1990s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which opened a nation's story-telling floodgates by hearing testimony about apartheid-era cruelty.
"South Africa finally had a new narrative that they could draw from to make stories, because finally you had black peoples' stories, colored peoples' stories. You heard offenders' stories. You heard 'people that were victims' stories," de Klerk said. "So it's a whole new dynamic. But I think we're moving, slowly moving, forward. And it's great."