Oil companies operating in Algeria are on high alert after a large-scale terrorist attack on a gas field reportedly left two people dead, six injured and up to 41 held hostage.
The assault on facilities on the In Amenas field came as France steps up a military campaign against insurgents in neighbouring Mali.
In Amenas is jointly operated by UK supermajor BP, Statoil of Norway and Algerian state oil company Sonatrach.
British, American, Norwegian, Japanese, French and Irish personnel were reportedly kidnapped by assailants who launched the raid in up to 10 vehicles on the wet gas development field on Wednesday morning.
Heavily-armed assailants travelling in three vehicles had earlier opened fire on a bus carrying Statoil workers to the local airport, but this attack was repelled by a security team.
However, one person who got off the bus was reportedly killed, while six were injured, including two foreigners, two policemen and a pair of security guards.
BP, a 46% stakeholder in the project, swiftly confirmed there had been a “security incident” on the field, but did not provide many details. It later said “armed individuals” continued to occupy the facility.
Statoil described it as an “emergency” and a “serious incident”, which was directed at the In Amenas production facility.
Up to 13 Statoil personnel were said to have been taken hostage.
The UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) immediately described it as a “terrorist incident”, which as of Wednesday afternoon, was “ongoing” as Algerian troops reportedly surrounded and began talks with the kidnappers. It later confirmed that British personnel were among those being held.
“We are urgently seeking clarification from oil companies working in the area,” the FCO said.
Associated Press quoted a local security official as saying one French national had been killed and that the assailants involved came from Mali.
Five Japanese people who were taken reportedly work for JGC Corporation, while an Irish national and an unknown number of Norwegian, French and British personnel were being held.
“At this stage, the identity and motives of the kidnappers is unknown,” Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs said shortly after learning of the incident.
Islamist militants allied to al-Qaeda have claimed responsibility for the attack, which came on the same day France sent ground troops into Mali following air strikes against Islamist fighters.
Reports from Mauritania cited al-Qaeda spokesmen as claiming 41 people, including Americans, were taken hostage.
France has about 800 troops in Mali and defence sources said this was set to increase to 2500 as the administration in the capital Bamako seeks to gain control of parts of the country held by insurgents.