Algeria hostage crisis: Al Qaeda gunmen demand Aafia Siddiqui’s release

ALGIERS:  Gunmen linked to the al Qaeda were holding a number of foreigners hostage at a gas plant deep in the Algerian desert on Saturday, demanding an end to the military campaign in Mali and the exchange of US hostages for Pakistani scientist Aafia Siddiqui and Egyptian blind sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman.

Nearly 48 hours have passed after a failed rescue attempt killed at least 12 of the hostages, a security source said.

The gunmen said after Thursday’s rescue raid they still held seven foreigners – three Belgians, two Americans, one Japanese and a Briton – inside the sprawling Sahara complex in northeast Algeria near the border with Libya.

An Algerian security official put the number of foreign hostages at 10, but more workers also remain unaccounted for, including at least 10 Japanese and eight Norwegians.

The gunmen from a group known as “Signatories in Blood” want to negotiate an end to French intervention in Mali and exchange American hostages for prisoners held in the United States, Mauritanian news agency ANI quoted sources close to their leader, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, as saying on Friday.

Mauritania’s ANI news agency said Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a veteran Algerian extremist with Al Qaeda ties who has claimed responsibility for the attack, proposed exchanging the remaining two US hostages for the Egyptian blind sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman and Pakistani Aafia Siddiqui, jailed in the United States on charges of terrorist links.

“There’s no change since yesterday, the situation remains the same,” the security official told AFP on Saturday.

Algerian media slammed the authorities’ silence on the incident, saying that most of the information about the attack had come from international news outlets via the Mauritanian news agency ANI, which had received messages from the group.

A spokesman for the “Signatories in Blood,” headed by Belmokhtar, said 34 hostages were killed when Algerian special forces raided the plant on Thursday a day after they seized it.

According to Algeria’s national news agency APS, the military operation on Thursday killed 12 hostages and 18 of their captors, but also freed 100 of the 132 foreigners held.

“This is an extremely difficult and dangerous situation,” US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said at a joint Washington news conference with Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida as one American hostage was confirmed dead.

“The United States extends our condolences to all the families who have lost loved ones in this brutal assault and we remain deeply concerned about those who remain in danger. Utmost care must be taken to preserve innocent life.”

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland identified the dead American as Frederick Buttaccio amid reports that a total of five Americans were initially taken hostage on Wednesday.

The UN Security Council “condemned in the strongest terms the terrorist attack in In Amenas, Algeria,” in a statement agreed by the 15-member panel.

It expressed “deep sympathy and sincere condolences to the victims of these heinous acts,” and “underlined the need to bring perpetrators, organisers, financiers and sponsors of these reprehensible acts of terrorism to justice.”

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