THERE are few countries in the world more hostile to westerners than Algeria, few countries with bigger natural gas reserves and few countries with a more interesting history.
Run by a shady military junta since the French pulled out in the 1960s, Algeria has been something of a basketcase for decades. In the 1990s, the country was torn apart by a civil war between the government and Islamists.
Yesterday's raid by a former al-Qa'ida commander on a gas plant in southern Algeria, which saw a score of westerners and locals taken prisoner, including one Irishman, was just another chapter in this ongoing battle between North Africa's Islamists and the more moderate but oppressive Muslim governments.
Despite being Africa's largest country since the break-up of Sudan and the 10th-largest country in the world, Algeria would probably languish in obscurity if it did not control the continent's second-largest supplies of natural gas.
Most of that gas is located deep in the desert and more than 1,000km south of the coast. This area is close to Mali where French President Francois Hollande is currently waging war to help the government there resist a coup led by Islamists.
Energy companies from almost every major country in the world have beaten a path to Algeria's deserts to look for gas.
Irish companies with operations in Algeria include Petroceltic, which has been drilling wells in southern Algeria for years without mishap, and Tullow Oil, which has had a large presence in the country over the past decade.