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Oilmen see security problems in Africa

March 14, 2013 at 6:17 PM   |   Comments

ALGIERS, Algeria, March 14 (UPI) -- International oil company chiefs gathered at a recent energy conference in Algiers hailed the protection Algeria's security forces provide the country's vital energy facilities, despite the January attack at a natural gas complex.

But that bloody episode, in which 40 foreigners were killed when Algerian forces stormed the In Amenas desert installation, has heightened fears in the industry that it faces growing trouble across Africa and the Middle East.

The Financial Times reported that the British-sponsored Algiers conference last week was packed with international executives in buoyant mood, lunching on grilled salmon and apple crumble.

"Nowhere on the agenda was there a mention of the terrifying breach at In Amenas," it observed.

"For the energy industry, it is almost as if the hostage crisis at In Amenas never happened, say insiders."

At the time, the policy of no negotiations, no prisoners that the Algerians used in storming the facility in which the captives and most of the 40 attackers were killed, was widely criticized.

But now, the Financial Times observed, "industry officials and diplomats say Algeria's heavy-handed response ... has actually bolstered confidence in the security forces as a deterrent against future attacks."

That's a little difficult to comprehend since jihadist militants have repeatedly demonstrated the kind of religious zeal that produced suicide attacks and a willingness to die for their Islamic beliefs.

But the Financial Times noted that the "lure of billions in energy wealth and infrastructure contracts has trumped worries of further terrorist attacks."

A $1.5 billion electricity generation contract that General Electric signed with Algeria's state power company Sonelgaz this month would seem to illustrate that.

"They're still eager to engage," a Western diplomat in Algiers commented.

"I think In Amenas clearly had a short-term impact on confidence but this is a wealthy country and there aren't that many wealthy countries around anymore. There are big opportunities here."

In comparison to most countries in Africa, where the western region is now a major oil producer and the east is on the cusp on a major gas boom, Algeria has a formidable security establishment.

These forces have been battling Islamist militants since 1992, crushed them during a decade-long civil war and had until recently largely contained diehard remnants now allied with al-Qaida.

The attack on In Amenas was the first militant strike against a major energy facility in Algeria.

Since that bloodbath, security at gas and oil installations, with troops deployed inside the facilities, supplanting security regimes run by the companies.

But the International Energy Agency, the oil industry watchdog, reported post-In Amenas: "A new wave of political unrest in Africa is clouding the outlook in a growing number of producers.

"Following the recent attack an Algerian gas facility, companies have begun to reassess their security arrangements in the region."

The security crisis, coming amid the political upheaval of pro-democracy uprisings across the Arab world, show no sign of easing as turmoil in Egypt, Yemen and elsewhere drags on, affording opportunities for the militants to exploit.

Algeria, a major gas supplier to Europe, may find itself facing growing security problems as jihadist groups affiliated with al-Qaida expand operations.

Jihadists seized control of northern Mali in early 2012, establishing a stronghold in a remote area the size of France that European and regional powers saw as a launch pad for transnational terrorism.

French forces intervened in Mali Jan. 11 and drove the jihadists into the mountains, where they launched a guerrilla war.

The attack on In Amenas by a group headed by the veteran Mokhtar Belmokhtar, was retaliation for the French intervention.

He has warned of further attacks against Western-owned installations that will help drive off already-spooked foreign investors at a time when they've been expanding operations across Africa.

Libya, still ravaged by the aftermath of its 2011 civil war, is a security nightmare of rival militias. Energy facilities have been attacked and others closed because of lack of security.

Oil-rich Nigeria in West Africa is fighting an insurgency by homegrown jihadists widely believed to be linked to al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, the main Islamist group in North Africa.

The Nigerian group known as Boko Haram, and an even more violent offshoot known as Ansaru, are abducting foreign workers. Some have been killed.

© 2013 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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