U.S. prosecutors charge al Qaeda commander over Algeria attack
NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. prosecutors on Friday charged a commander of al Qaeda's North African operations with participating in an attack on an Algerian gas plant in January that killed dozens of workers, including three Americans.
Mokhtar Belmokhtar was charged in an eight-count complaint with conspiracy to provide material support to al Qaeda, hostage-taking conspiracy, kidnapping of internationally protected persons and conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction, among other charges.
"Belmokhtar brought terror and blood to these innocent people and now we intend to bring Belmokhtar to justice," Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said in a statement.
Belmokhtar, an Algerian, remains at large, according to the statement. He faces a maximum penalty of death, according to the complaint.
Some 40 Islamist fighters, armed with AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, raided the Tiguentourine plant near the Libyan border, demanding that France halt its offensive against Islamist rebels in neighboring Mali.
Algeria responded days later with a military operation to end the ensuing crisis, a harrowing affair in which the attackers attached explosives to hostages, according to the complaint and news reports.
More than 60 people were killed, most of them foreign hostages. Workers from the United States, Britain, France, Japan, Romania, Norway and the Philippines were among the dead.
Belmokhtar is associated with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, the Al-Mulathamin Brigade and "The Signers in Blood," a battalion he helped create in late 2012 to fight Western influence in Algeria and elsewhere, according to the complaint.
The U.S. Department of Treasury designated Belmokhtar as a foreign terrorist in 2003.
He is also accused of kidnapping two Western diplomats working on a United Nations mission in Niger in late 2008, according to the complaint. He and his co-conspirators held them for four months in the desert and released them in Mali in April 2009.
Belmokhtar, who prosecutors said also goes by Khalid Abu al Abbas and Khalid al Daas, claimed responsibility for the Algeria attack in an online video, referring to it as "this sacrificial blessed operation," according to the complaint.
The gas plant, operated by BP in partnership with Norway's Statoil and Algeria's Sonatrach, resumed some production in February. Algerian officials in March said the plant is expected to reach full output by the end of the year.
(Reporting by Bernard Vaughan; Editing by Eric Beech and Mohammad Zargham)
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