* Cash ransom or prisoner release possible motives
* Incident highlights Islamic militants in North Africa
WASHINGTON Jan 17 (Reuters) - Algerian militants planned
their hostage-taking attack on a remote desert gas plant well
before a French military operation against militants in
neighboring Mali, European and U.S. national security officials
said on Thursday.
Intelligence indicates that the hostage takers, believed to
be members of a breakaway faction of al Qaeda's North African
affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), had planned
to capture the hostages and take them to a hideout where it
would be harder to mount a rescue attempt, a European security
Representatives of the hostage takers told a news service in
nearby Mauritania that the attack was a response to the French
military operation to clear out Islamic fighters who have taken
control of a large swathe of territory in northern Mali. The
French operation began on Friday, Jan. 11.
However, U.S. and Western security sources said they
believed it was more likely that the motivation behind the
hostage-taking was to obtain a ransom, most likely in cash, but
also possibly to seek a release of militant prisoners.
The standoff began when gunmen stormed the gas facility on
Wednesday. They said they were holding 41 foreigners and
demanded a halt to the French military operation in
Twenty-five foreign hostages escaped and six were killed on
Thursday when Algerian forces launched an operation to free them
at a remote desert gas plant, Algerian sources said, as one of
the biggest international hostage crises in decades unfolded.
The operation was said to be continuing, however, and there
were conflicting and confused reports from the region.
More than five Americans were believed to be among the
hostages along with around 10 Britons, as well as citizens of
other countries, Western sources said.
Several Western security sources said that although details
about the hostage-taking remain murky, available evidence
suggests the attack was too sophisticated to have been organized
in the wake of the French operation in Mali.
The sources said it was more likely the hostage-takers had
seized on news of that operation as a pretext for their attack.
Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst who has advised President
Barack Obama on counterterrorism policy, said the hostage-taking
could fuel criticism that U.S. authorities should have been
paying closer attention to the threat posed by Islamic militants
in north Africa.
Some of Obama's political opponents for months have been
raising similar questions about the U.S. security and
intelligence posture in Benghazi, Libya, where militants
launched a deadly attack on two U.S. official installations last
U.S. and European sources said the reported leader of the
Algerian militant faction that took workers from BP and Statoil
hostage, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, is a former leading member of AQIM.
He either split from, or was thrown out of, the al Qaeda
affiliate because he was regarded as too difficult to work with
and too interested in self-promotion, they said.
A 2008 State Department cable classified "secret" and made
public by WikiLeaks said an associate of Belmokhtar may have
been involved in handling two Canadian diplomats taken hostage
by AQIM in Mali in December of that year. They were later freed.
The cable also alleged that Belmokhtar allegedly once
targeted a German diplomat in Mauritania for
kidnapping-for-ransom. The cable said that as of 2008, however,
Belmokhtar had "specifically ordered his operatives to avoid
targeting Am Cits (American Citizens) for fear of retribution
from the government."