Militant extremist in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) Mokhtar Belmokhtar has claimed responsibility in the name of al-Qaeda for the mass hostage-taking in Algeria and called on France to halt air strikes in Mali, Mauritanian news website Sahara Media said on Sunday, citing a video.
“We in al-Qaeda announce this blessed operation,” Belmokhtar said in the video, according to Sahara Media. “We are ready to negotiate with the West and the Algerian government provided they stop their bombing of Mali’s Muslims.”
Sahara Media did not display the video itself on its site and it was not immediately possible to verify the information.
The website has in the past received statements from al-Qaeda-linked fighters operating in the lawless Sahara. Before the Mali crisis erupted, Mauritania was one of the countries deemed most at risk from such groups and al-Qaeda’s north African wing AQIM is believed to have camps in its vast desert.
“We had around 40 jihadists, most of them from Muslim countries and some even from the West,” Belmokhtar said in the video, according to Sahara Media.
Mauritania’s ANI news agency had previously reported that members of Belmokhtar’s Mulathameen brigade, whose name means “The Masked Ones”, had told it the attack was retaliation for French air strikes against the Islamist rebels who seized control of northern Mali last year.
Algerian forces found the bodies of 25 hostages on Sunday as they combed a desert gas plant after a deadly stand-off with Islamists, and witnesses said nine Japanese captives had been executed.
Citing security sources, Anis Rahmani of private television channel Ennahar told AFP the army discovered “the bodies of 25 hostages” as they secured the sprawling In Amenas Sahara site.
Communications Minister Mohamed Said earlier told a radio station: “I fear that it (the toll) may be revised upward,” after at least 23 foreigners and Algerians, mostly hostages, were killed since Wednesday.
It was not immediately clear if the 23 were included in Sunday’s 25 toll.
“In all nine Japanese were killed,” one Algerian witness identified as Brahim said a day after special forces swooped on the gas plant run by Britain’s BP, Norway’s Statoil and Sonatrach of Algeria to end the siege.
The first three were killed as they tried to escape from a bus taking them to the airport as the militant attack unfolded, witnesses said.
“We were all afraid when we heard bursts of gunfire at 5:30 am (0430 GMT) on Wednesday, after we realized that they had just killed our Japanese colleagues who tried to flee from the bus,” said Riad, who works for Japan’s JGC Corp engineering firm.
The gunmen then took the others to the residential compound, where they had seized hundreds of hostages, he said.
“A terrorist shouted ‘open the door!’ with a strong north American accent, and opened fire. Two other Japanese died then and we found four other Japanese bodies” in the compound, he added, choking with emotion.
In Tokyo, a foreign ministry official said: “We are in a position not to comment on this kind of information at all. Please understand.”
Governments scrambled to track down their missing citizens as more details emerged of the deadly showdown after Islamists of the “Signatories in Blood” group raided the plant, demanding an end to French military intervention in Mali.