The Middle East Channel

The Algerian hostage siege continues after military raid

The hostage siege in Algeria continues as international officials question the efficacy of a unilateral Algerian military raid on Thursday. Algerian troops stormed the living quarters of the Tigantourine gas field in In Amenas where militants have been keeping an undisclosed number of Algerians and foreigners hostage. Reuters estimates 30 hostages and 11 militants were killed in the ensuing firefight, and an estimated 650 hostages have been freed, including 573 Algerians. According to the Algerian government, the raid by the army has ended, but the British Foreign Office said the "terrorist incident remains ongoing." Prime Minister David Cameron said that Algerian forces are still looking for some hostages and their captors. There are still many American, European, and Japanese citizens missing. The Algerian government ordered the siege without consulting other governments and has said it was necessary to prevent the militants from leaving the country with those they are holding captive. Japan called the operation "regrettable" and other officials said they wished they had been consulted. A U.S. plane has landed near the facility to evacuate hostages.

Syria

According to Syrian TV, rocket fire hit the Muhafaza Sakaniya neighborhood in western Aleppo on Friday, causing several casualties. However, opposition groups blamed Syrian forces for the blast, which hit the government controlled neighborhood. Syrian State TV also blamed opposition forces for two suicide car bombings Friday near a mosque in Daraa, south of Damascus. Meanwhile, Jordanian Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour said the country would prevent the thousands of Syrian refugees expected to flee if the Assad regime falls from entering Jordan. He said, "We will stop them and keep them in their country." Ensour continued that the Jordanian government would deploy special forces troops to create "secure safe havens" within Syrian territory. There are already 285,000 Syrian refugees estimated in Jordan, exhausting resources.

Headlines

  • Muammar al-Qaddafi's son, Saif al-Islam, appeared in a Libyan court in Zintan, where he has been held captive by militiamen since the end of 2011, despite efforts by the ICC to extradite him for trial.
  • Gunmen ambushed the convoy of Lebanon's Minister of Sports and Youth Failsal Karami in the northern city of Tripoli, wounding three people, but leaving the minister unharmed. 

Arguments and Analysis

The Case of Agent 15: Did Syria Use a Nerve Agent? (Raffi Khatchadourian, The New Yorker)

"Just before Christmas, deeply troubling reports emerged from the city of Homs, in Syria, that government forces had used sarin gas, or a deadly nerve agent like it, in an attack on a rebel-held neighborhood, poisoning scores of people. "The situation is very difficult," a desperate-sounding activist told Al Jazeera, which reported the incident on December 24th. "We do not have enough face masks. We don't know what this gas is, but medics are saying it's something similar to sarin gas."

The report suggested a deep escalation in the conflict-raising the spectre of mass casualties of a kind similar to those caused by a gas attack that Saddam Hussein launched on the Kurdish population of Halabja in 1988-and perhaps a justification for armed international intervention. Rebels reported that seven people had been killed when the gas was unleashed, apparently during a battle in the al-Bayyada neighborhood, and that victims-some of whom had apparently inhaled large amounts of the chemical-were nauseated and had "relaxed muscles," blurry vision, and difficulty breathing. They also released videos of the casualties.

So what happened? Was the mystery gas in fact sarin, or a nerve agent like it? Did its use alter the dynamic of the Syrian conflict in fundamental ways?

The brief answer to all of these questions is: so far, hard to say. In November-a month before the report from Homs-Israeli military commanders reportedly shared intelligence with the Pentagon that suggested the Syrian government was preparing to engage in chemical warfare. Satellite imagery indicated that "Syrian troops appeared to be mixing chemicals at two storage sites, probably the deadly nerve gas sarin, and filling dozens of 500-pounds bombs that could be loaded on airplanes," the Times reported. Upon the discovery, a remarkable diplomatic effort-one that involved coöperation among the United States, China, Russia, and Middle Eastern countries-was launched to pressure Syria not to deploy such weapons. "

 

Saddam's footsteps (The Daily Star)

"Events in Iraq in recent weeks suggest the country is sliding toward irreparable civil conflict, unless its causes are addressed.

In the past couple of weeks of seemingly nonstop violence, the sectarian divide between Sunnis and Shiites in the country has risen to the surface. This is thanks in no small part to the decisions of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose policies have raised fears among the Sunni population of him and his leadership.

It appears to not be enough for Maliki and his people that the country has already lost thousands of lives and billions of dollars since the U.S. invasion. They are willing to risk losing more."

--By Jennifer Parker and Mary Casey

AFP/Getty Images/ Oli Scarff

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