(USA TODAY) - Islamic terrorists linked to al-Qaeda attacked an Algerian gas facility Wednesday, killing one British and one French worker and taking numerous hostages, possibly including seven Americans.
A spokesman for the group, Qatiba, which translates as Those Who Sign with Their Blood, told Mauritanian news website Sahara Media Agency that jihadists seized the gas facility at In Mounas in eastern Algeria and took hostages.
The group said the attack was in retaliation for Algeria's decision to allow French aircraft to use its airspace in its military intervention in Mali that began last week.
The spokesperson, pictured in a black turban and an automatic weapon in front of a jihadist flag, said his group was holding 41 foreigners hostage including seven Americans, as well as French, British and Japanese nationals. He said that seven of the hostages were being held in the site's factory and the rest in the residential area of the oil refinery.
The spokesman added that there were 400 Algerian soldiers on site, but said his group had not targeted the soldiers in their attack. None of the information from the Mauritanian site could be independently verified.
Norwegian oil company Statoil and British company BP confirmed their facilities at In Amenas in southeastern Algerian came under attack at 5 a.m. local time Wednesday.
"Contact with the site is extremely difficult, but we understand that armed individuals are still occupying the operations site," said BP spokesman Robert Wine.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said U.S. officials were in touch with Algeria about the attack.
"The best information we have at this time is that U.S. citizens are among the hostages," Nuland said.
The French and British governments confirmed that two citizens from their countries had been killed. Japan said some of their citizens were involved as well. A Norwegian woman said her husband called her saying he had been taken hostage.
Ireland's Foreign Ministry said one of its citizens was being held hostage also and the person to be released.
Six people were wounded in the attack, including two foreigners, two police officers and two security agents, Algeria's state news agency reported.
Algerian forces surrounded the kidnappers and were negotiating for the release of the hostages, an Algerian security official based in the region told the Associated Press, adding that the militants had come from Mali. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
Hundreds of Algerians work at the plant and were taken in the attack but the state news agency reported that they have gradually been released in small groups.
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 government, which said three vehicles of heavily armed men were involved.
"After their failed attempt, the terrorist group headed to the complex's living quarters and took a number of workers with foreign nationalities hostage," said the statement.
Al-Qaeda'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.
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-Qaeda 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, and sometimes foreigners, for ransom.
The attack is the first time the country's hydrocarbon industry was targeted since the 1990s, says Geoff Porter, an analyst with North Africa Risk Consulting, a political risk firm specializing in North Africa and the Sahara.
"Even during the worst of the Islamist viol in the 1990s, Algeria's hydrocarbon infrastructure was never attacked," Porter said. "This is a real departure."
Algerian leaders adopted an eradication policy against Islamist insurgents in a war that cost more than 100,000 lives. The insurgents eventually accepted amnesty and renounced violence. Remnants of the insurgency ave been fighting for an Islamic state in northern Mali, Porter said.
All three AQIM factions in North Africa and the Sahara were "on a downward trend" until 2012, Porter said. The collapse of Libya, which allowed weapons from former Libyan leader Moamar Gadhafi's vast arsenal to be seized by extremists, "helped them gain power in northern Mali and the group has transformed from 2011 and 2012," he said.
While not all the Jihadi factions involved in violence across the region call themselves al-Qaeda or are officially affiliated with the group, their goals tend to be the same, Porter said.
"The goal is still spread radical Islam, attack the near enemy, attack the far enemy, create a Shariah state -- it's just no longer called al-Qaeda," he said.
The natural gas field where the attack occurred is more than 600 miles from the Mali border and 60 miles from Libya's deserts and is operated by a joint venture by Sonatrach, the Algerian national oil company, BP and Statoil.
Statoil spokesman Lars Christian Bacher said the company had 13 Norwegian employees and a Canadian on the site and two of them have suffered minor injuries, but he would not comment about the situation of the others.
According to the Mauritanian site Sahara Media Agency, "Those who Sign With Their Blood" was set up by Moctar Bel Moctar and a fellow jihadist several months ago when they quit al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Before that, Moctar had run the Malian town of Gao, which has been held by insurgents since last summer, alongside an al-Qaeda splinter group, Mujao, or Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa.
A worker at the gas field site told French news agency AFP that the armed group is demanding the release of 100 Islamists held in the country in exchange for the hostages. Another worker at the field taken hostage told French newspaper Le Figaro by telephone that the terrorists have declared they've "mined" the base. She added that the attackers were equipped with rocket launchers.
"We rejoice in the success of this blessed kouzwa (intervention) in response to the flagrant interference of the French crusaders' forces at Mali, whose aim is to infringe upon the Islamic regime in place in Azawad (Northern Mali), at a time when Muslims continue to martyr themselves under the heel of bloody Bashar Al Assad, as the world knows and looks on," the group said in a communication to Agence Nouakchott d'Information, a Mauritanian news agency.