ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) — Islamist militants from Mali attacked a natural gas field partly operated by BP in southern Algeria early Wednesday, killing a security guard, according to local media, and kidnapping at least eight foreigners, an Algerian official said.
Seven others were wounded in the attack, including two foreigners, added the state news agency. Ireland has announced that one of the hostages is Irish.
Algerian forces caught up with and surrounded the kidnappers and negotiations for the release of the hostages are ongoing, the Algerian official said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
A group called the Katibat Moulathamine, or the Masked Brigade, called a Mauritanian news outlet to say they had carried out the operation on the Ain Amenas gas field, taking six hostages — three Norwegians, a Briton and an American. The Algerian official said earlier the kidnapped included people of English, Japanese and Norwegian nationality.
The group's claim could not be independently substantiated and it was not clear why the reports over the citizenship and the numbers of those kidnapped differed.
The caller to the Nouakchott Information Agency, which often carries announcements from extremist groups, did not give any further details, except that the kidnapping was carried out by a group created to attack the interests of countries participating in the ongoing offensive against Islamist groups in northern Mali. 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.
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.
In the last several years, however, al-Qaida'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.
The natural gas field where the attack occurred, however, is more than 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) from the Mali border, though it is just 60 miles (100 kilometers) from Libya's deserts.
The British Foreign Office confirmed "a terrorist incident is ongoing" near the facility, 1,300 kilometers (800 miles) from the capital in Algeria's vast desert south. It could not confirm if any British nationals were involved in the incident.
BP, together with Norwegian company Statoil and the Algerian state oil company, Sonatrach, operate the gas field. A Japanese company, JGC Corp, provides services for the facility as well.
Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga says kidnapped foreigners include Japanese employees of JGC.
"We have withheld information earlier but we are certain that JGC is the one affected," Suga said, adding that the government is now negotiating with local officials through diplomatic channels, asking for safety first to protect the lives of the Japanese nationals.
Statoil said that it has 20 employees in the facility. The Norwegian Foreign Ministry said it could not confirm that any Norwegian citizens had been abducted.
Algeria had long warned against military intervention against the rebels in northern Mali, fearing the violence could spill over its own long and porous border.
Associated Press writers Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo, Japan, Jill Lawless in London and Jan Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark contributed to this report.