Algerian militant Belmokhtar believed to be behind taking of gas field hostages
An Islamist group led by an Algerian militant with a history of kidnapping and smuggling in the Sahara is believed to be responsible for the hostage-taking at a gas field in eastern Algeria.
Mauritania’s ANI news agency, which has regular contact with Islamists in the region, said fighters under the command of Mokhtar Belmokhtar were holding dozens of local and foreign hostages at the site near In Amenas, about 100km from the Algeria-Libya border.
Belmokhtar for years commanded al-Qaeda-affiliated militants in the Sahara before reportedly setting up his own armed Islamist group late last year after an apparent fallout with other rebel leaders.
Linked to a series of kidnappings of foreigners in North Africa over the past decade, Belmokhtar has earned a reputation as one of the most elusive Islamist leaders operating in the vast desert region that encompasses parts of Mali, Mauritania, Algeria and Niger.
Born in Ghardaia, Algeria, in 1972, Belmokhtar – according to his own account, posted on jihadi forums in 2007 – travelled at the age of 19 to Afghanistan, where he claimed he gained training and combat experience before returning to Algeria in 1992.
From there, he began a two-decade career of Islamist militancy, first as a member of Algeria’s Islamic Armed Group (GIA) in the country’s civil war, then as a joint founder of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), which started extending its attacks against security forces into countries of the arid Sahel desert belt, notably Mali.
The GSPC later took up the franchise of al-Qaeda’s North Africa wing, under the name Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Belmokhtar headed one of two AQIM factions, and is believed to have become heavily involved in the thriving desert smuggling trade.
“He’s a wheeler-dealer,” a European diplomat based in the region told The Irish Times in 2010. “He’s definitely an arms dealer, probably takes cuts on everything else that goes on, and probably was the first to realise that kidnapping for ransom was a lucrative side business.”
Belmokhtar has been linked to the 2003 kidnapping of 32 European tourists, the 2008 negotiations for the release of two Austrian captives, and 2009 negotiations for the release of two Canadian hostages.
He was sentenced by an Algerian court to life imprisonment in absentia in connection with the killing of 10 Algerian customs agents in 2007.
As details of the hostage-taking incident in Algeria were emerging yesterday, Belmokhtar’s group said the raid had been carried out because of Algeria’s decision to allow France to use its air space for attacks against Islamists in Mali.
France launched a military intervention in northern Mali last week after Islamist rebel columns began to move south towards Bamako, Mali’s capital.
The conflict escalated further yesterday when, after six days of air strikes against rebel targets across the vast desert, France launched its first ground assault in a bid to dislodge rebel fighters from the town of Diabaly.
The central Malian town, which is within 400km of Bamako, was captured by rebel fighters on Monday, three days after France intervened.
French president François Hollande said French forces would remain in Mali until stability returned, but also that France hoped to hand over to African forces in its former colony “in the coming days or weeks”.
West African military chiefs met for a second day in Bamako to hammer out details of their UN-mandated deployment, which had been expected to start only in September but was suddenly kick-started by French intervention. They said their aim was to send in the first detachments of a 2,000-strong emergency force today.