Geopolitics

Explosive Hostage Standoff In Algeria: Reports Of Escapes, Deaths

TSA, EL WATAN (Algeria), SUD OUEST, LE MONDE, NOUVEL OBS (France)

ALGIERS – At least 25 Western hostages held at an Algerian gas facility have escaped Thursday. News reports say Americans and Japanese are among those freed. There are also unconfirmed reports that several of the hostages have been killed after Algerian security forces had surrounded the gas facilities where Islamist terrorists were holding more than 100 hostages, including an estimated 41 Westerners, in a potentially explosive standoff linked to France's intervention in neighboring Mali.

As many as 30 Algerians managed to escape earlier on Thursday morning, a day after being taken hostage during the Islamist attack of the foreign-run station in eastern Algeria that left a British and Algerian dead.

The local news service TSA reported that one of the Algerian workers who was transported from the site by helicopter called on security forces to intervene quickly. The Algerian army has reportedly launched several attempts to free the hostages from the gas extraction site jointly run by Algerian, British and Norwegian energy companies.

The Westerners, who are believed to be held by the terrorist outfit, include Americans, French, Norwegian and Japanese.

Among those who managed to escape was a 52-year-old Frenchman said that “they were treated respectfully” by their captors, reports French daily Sud Ouest. Still, other reports said that the attackers had strapped explosive belts to several of the captives.

A la une d'El Khabar : "Al-Qaida frappe dans les profondeurs du Sahara algérien" bit.ly/SOKVRN twitter.com/courrierinter/…

— Courrier inter (@courrierinter) Janvier 17, 2013

HERE ARE ADDITIONAL RECENT UPDATES:

*Algeria’s green light for French military planes to fly in the country's air space is one of the reasons this attack happened on its soil, according to Algerian daily El Watan.

*This particular Islamic group is reported to be led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, affiliated with al Qaeda, who is believed to be missing an eye and is known to French security services as "The Uncatchable."

*The French government says that it “completely trusts” the Algerian military to handle the situation.

*Ansar Dine, the Islamic group that controls large parts of northern Mali, condemned the terrorist attack in Algeria. “Ansar Dine never took hostages or anything related to this. We strongly condemn this attack,” said a spokesman for the group.

*British Foreign Minister William Hague stated that the terrorists have “no excuse” and that this situation was “unacceptable,” relays Le Monde.

*The Algerian Foreign Ministry stated: “We won’t negotiate. We heard their demand but we won’t gratify it with an answer,” reports the Nouvel Obs.

*Algerian helicopters are believed to be firing on the site, with reports that two Japanese men were wounded in this air strike.

*Le Monde’s correspondent says that the site is too large for the terrorists to control, and the Algerian military should have the capacity to infiltrate the facility.

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Paying tribute to the victims of the attack in Kongsberg

Terje Bendiksby/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA
Carl-Johan Karlsson

The bow-and-arrow murder of five people in the small Norwegian city of Kongsberg this week was particularly chilling for the primitive choice of weapon. And police are now saying the attack Wednesday night is likely to be labeled an act of terrorism.

Still, even though the suspect is a Danish-born convert to Islam, police are still determining the motive. Espen Andersen Bråthen, a 37-year-old Danish national, is previously known to the police, both for reports of radicalization, as well as erratic behavior unrelated to religion.

Indeed, it remains unclear whether religious beliefs were behind the killings. In an interview with Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, police attorney Ann Iren Svane Mathiassens said Bråthen has already confessed to the crimes, giving a detailed account of the events during a three-hour interrogation on Thursday, but motives are yet to be determined.

Investigated as terrorism 

Regardless, the murders are likely to be labeled an act of terror – mainly as the victims appear to have been randomly chosen, and were killed both in public places and inside their homes.

Mathiassens also said Bråthen will undergo a comprehensive forensic psychiatric examination, which is also a central aspect of the ongoing investigation, according to a police press conference on Friday afternoon. Bråthen will be held in custody for at least four weeks, two of which will be in isolation, and will according to a police spokesperson be moved to a psychiatric unit as soon as possible.

Witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

Police received reports last year concerning potential radicalization. In 2017, Bråthen published two videos on Youtube, one in English and one in Norwegian, announcing that he's now a Muslim and describing himself as a "messenger." The year prior, he made several visits to the city's only mosque, where he said he'd received a message from above that he wished to share with the world.

Previous criminal history 

In 2012, he was convicted of aggravated theft and drug offenses, and in May last year, a restraining order was issued after Bråthen entered his parents house with a revolver, threatening to kill his father.

The mosque's chairman Oussama Tlili remembers Bråthen's first visit well, as it's rare to meet Scandinavian converts. Still, he didn't believe there was any danger and saw no reason to notify the police. Tlili's impression was rather that the man was unwell mentally, and needed help.

According to a former neighbor, Bråthen often acted erratically. During the two years she lived in the house next to him — only 50 meters from the grocery store where the attacks began — the man several times barked at her like a dog, threw trash in the streets to then pick it up, and spouted racist comments to her friend. Several other witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

The man used a bow and arrow to carry the attack

Haykon Mosvold Larsen/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA

Police criticized

Norway, with one of the world's lowest crime rates, is still shaken from the attack — and also questioning what allowed the killer to hunt down and kill even after police were on the scene.

The first reports came around 6 p.m. on Wednesday that a man armed with bow and arrow was shooting inside a grocery store. Only minutes after, the police spotted the suspect; he fired several times against the patrol and then disappeared while reinforcements arrived.

The attack has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms

In the more than 30 minutes that followed before the arrest, four women and one man were killed by arrows and two other weapons — though police have yet to disclose the other arms, daily Aftenposten reports. The sleepy city's 27,000 inhabitants are left wondering how the man managed to evade a full 22 police patrols, and why reports of his radicalization weren't taken more seriously.

With five people killed and three more injured, Wednesday's killing spree is the worst attack in Norway since far-right extremist Anders Breivik massacred 77 people on the island of Utøya a decade ago.

Unarmed cops

As questions mount over the police response to the attack, with reports suggesting all five people died after law enforcement made first contact with the suspect, local police have said it's willing to submit the information needed to the Bureau of Investigation to start a probe into their conduct. Police confirmed they had fired warning shots in connection to the arrest which, under Norwegian law, often already provides a basis for an assessment.

Wednesday's bloodbath has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms — the small country being one of only 19 globally where law enforcement officers are typically unarmed, though may have access to guns and rifles in certain circumstances.

Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert and professor at the Swedish Defence University, noted that police in similar neighboring countries like Sweden and Denmark carry firearms. "I struggle to understand why Norwegian police are not armed all the time," Ranstorp told Norwegian daily VG. "The lesson from Utøya is that the police must react quickly and directly respond to a perpetrator during a life-threatening incident."

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