Islamist gunmen have stormed a natural gas complex in Algeria killing two people, one of them British, and holding others hostage while surrounded by Algerian forces.
A militant group claimed responsibility for the attack saying it was in revenge for Algeria's support of France's operation against al Qaida-linked Malian rebels groups far to the south-east. It said it was holding dozens of foreigners hostage.
BP, which jointly operates the desert site, confirmed it was "attacked and occupied by a group of unidentified armed people," and some of its personnel are believed to be "held by the occupiers."
The number and identities of the hostages was still unclear, but Ireland said that a 36-year-old married Irish man was among them, while Japan and Britain said citizens were involved as well.
In addition to the two foreigners killed six others were wounded in the attack, including two foreigners, two police officers and two security agents, Algeria's state news agency said. Algerian forces have surrounded the kidnappers and negotiations for the release of the hostages are continuing.
A group called the Katibat Moulathamine, or the Masked Brigade, called a Mauritanian news outlet to say one of its subsidiaries had carried out the operation on the Ain Amenas gas field, taking 41 hostages from nine or 10 different nationalities including seven Americans. The group's claim could not be verified. Typically there would be fewer than 20 foreign staff on site, along with hundreds of Algerian employees.
The caller to the Nouakchott Information Agency, which often carries announcements from extremist groups, did not give any further details, except to say that the kidnapping was carried out by "Those Who Signed in Blood," a group created to attack the countries participating in the ongoing offensive against Islamist groups in Mali. He said the operation was to punish Algeria for allowing French jets attacking rebel groups in Mali to use its airspace.
French president Francois Hollande launched the surprise operation in its former West African colony on Friday, with hopes of stopping al Qaida-linked and other Islamist extremists he believes pose a danger to the world.
The attack began with the ambush of a bus carrying employees from the gas plant to the nearby airport but the attackers were driven off. "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 an Algerian government spokesman, adding that authorities were following the situation very closely.
Attacks on oil-rich Algeria's hydrocarbon facilities are very rare, despite decades of fighting an Islamist insurgency, mostly in the north of the country.