Numerous NATO members and other nations have become entangled in the fighting in Mali, as militants today (Jan. 16) seized a natural gas field, killed a Briton and an Algerian, and took 41 foreigners hostage. Among the captives taken are Americans, Japanese, French, Austrian, Irish and British citizens. According to a report, they are tied up in a building at the field, which is situated in the Sahara Desert in Algeria, just north of Mali. Algerian troops are said to have surrounded the site.
Militants told reporters in Mauritania that they acted in support of rebels who are under French attack in Mali. Some 800 French soldiers have been fighting in Mali since Jan. 11, attempting to push back al Qaeda-linked militants who have seized the north of the country and brutalized civilians. According to reports, the militants have chopped off hands and imposed whippings for offenses, and raped women. France is worried that the militants will turn Mali into a new staging ground for al Qaeda attacks on the West.
After a French request, Great Britain, Canada, Germany and Italy committed to sending military assistance. The US has vacillated. On Jan. 15, Defense secretary Leon Panetta suggested that Washington was dispatching logistics and intelligence support, and reports were that this included drones and C-130 cargo planes.
But today, Panetta said that lawyers had delayed the US assistance over whether American help is legal. “I find that every time I turn around I face a group of lawyers,” Panetta told reporters, because they want “to be sure that they feel comfortable that we have the legal basis to do what we are being requested to do.”
Prior to the news of the kidnapping, a senior US official told the Wall Street Journal (paywall) that the White House was not yet convinced that the trouble in Mali warrants US military attention. “We’re looking at this from a perspective of a finite number of resources and the allocation of those resources, but also from the fundamental standpoint of whether it’s in the U.S. interest to intervene in Mali in any event,” the official said. After the kidnapping Panetta said that he couldn’t yet confirm a link between the fighting in Mali and the attack in Algeria, and that the administration was still waiting for its lawyers’ advice on what it could do in Mali.
But with its citizens held hostage, the US is now increasingly likely to get involved. Mali is at the center of a group of resource-rich countries. Algeria exports light sweet crude, oil has been discovered in Cote d’Ivoire, and a mining rush is under way in Guinea. Algeria is also a major oil exporter to Europe and Asia, where its high quality light sweet crude fits perfectly with local refineries. The United States is traditionally a major importer of Algerian crude, although over the last few years much of those imports have been replaced by new oil production in American shale oil fields in North Dakota and Texas.