January 20, 2013

Algerian military ends standoff with dozens of hostages killed

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says the U.S. is asking what happened to any American hostages.


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Following the deadly attack by Islamist militants on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi last September and their advances in Mali that led to French military intervention last week, the siege in Algeria suggested a jihadist movement reinvigorated and increasingly bold.

Although the militants were demanding a withdrawal of French troops now battling Islamist forces in Mali, observers said the attack's level of sophistication suggested planning had been in the works for weeks.

"This was an attack designed to embarrass, to show the Algerian government it hadn't beaten the terrorist threat it had been confronting since the 1990s," said George Joffe, an expert on northern Africa and terrorism at the University of Cambridge.

However, he said that for the militants, the outcome could also not be viewed as mission accomplished. "It was a major defeat," Joffe said. "It looks like they've just been eliminated as a group. I don't think they intended the operation to go that way. I think their primary purpose was to get hostages and then get into the desert."

Nearly 670 hostages have been freed or escaped since armed Islamist militants seized the facility Wednesday. But given Algeria's lockdown on information and the remoteness of the site, details have been slow to emerge, and sketchy.

Domestically, the assault could have mixed effects. It has hit the Algerians where it hurts most -- their oil and gas deposits that fund the regime of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Those resources made it possible for the government to offer higher wages to state workers during the onset of the Arab Spring, nipping a pro-democracy movement in the bud.

"Algeria is fiscally dependent on hydrocarbons. What the militants were doing was not just striking at Western countries, but striking at the economic viability of the entire Algerian state," said Shashank Joshi, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London. "The likelihood is that the Algerians will be absolutely traumatized by this. It's a near unprecedented occurrence for Algeria. It really shows how vulnerable they are."

But state-run Algerian media took pains to emphasize the heroism of the military in the hours after the furious counterattack and interviewed tired-looking former hostages who effusively praised their liberators, in some cases prodding injured workers lying on hospital beds to give their accounts. Although there were some critical reports in the Algerian press, even some opposition papers hailed the military's bravery.


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