Confusion over military raid to end hostage crisis
Even as Algeria announced the end of its military operation to regain control of its desert gas refinery last night, there were conflicting reports as to what took place earlier in the country’s remote southern desert to end the hostage crisis.
French president François Hollande, after speaking to his counterparts in Algiers, Washington, London and other capitals yesterday, said events had taken a “dramatic turn” – a reference to an apparent assault carried out by the Algerian military in the afternoon.
Twenty-five foreign hostages escaped and six were killed, Algerian media reported, but other sources put the death toll at up to 34.
Hostages ‘still held’
Mauritania’s ANI news agency, which claimed to be in contact with the kidnappers, earlier said seven hostages were still being held after the Algerian operation: two Americans, three Belgians, one Japanese and one Briton.
Algerian soldiers had surrounded the installation since Wednesday morning, when Islamist militants seized 41 western workers and at least 150 Algerians at the site near In Amenas, about 100 km from the border with Libya.
The alert was raised just after 5am, when a bus carrying workers to a local airport was attacked about 3km from the plant. The bus’s police escort repelled the militants, who were said to be heavily armed, but at least two people – a British citizen and an Algerian – were killed in the firefight.
According to the Algerian government, the bus then travelled on to In Amenas, where the injured were treated at an on-site hospital.
Travelling in at least three vehicles, the militants then drove on to the plant, where they took hostages inside a wing of the living quarters. Several shots were heard when the militants entered the site, an unnamed hostage told France’s Le Figaro newspaper by telephone. According to this witness, the militants were armed with rocket-propelled grenades and told the hostages they had mined the area.
When the alarm was raised, Algerian troops backed by helicopters encircled the site, and the government ruled out negotiations with the kidnappers.
As news of the crisis made its way across the world, a number of states, including Ireland, Norway, Japan, the United States and the UK, said their citizens were among the hostages. A French catering firm said 150 of its Algerian staff were also caught up in the incident.
Governments set up crisis centres to co-ordinate their response, but Algeria took charge of the operation and, in a fast-evolving situation playing out in one of the most remote parts of Algeria, much of the information that filtered out was contradictory or unreliable.
Algerian interior minister Daho Ould Kablia said the kidnappers were led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a veteran Islamist guerrilla who fought Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s and had set up his own group in the Sahara after falling out with other local al-Qaeda-linked leaders.
Before the Algerian military began its attack, the hostage-takers appear to have allowed some prisoners to speak to the media. An unidentified hostage who spoke to France 24 television said prisoners were forced to wear explosive belts and captors had threatened to blow up the plant.
It was not clear if these interviewees were speaking under duress, however.
One eyewitness, a local man who was among those who escaped during the assault, said the kidnappers told Algerian staff they would not harm Muslims but would kill western hostages they called “Christians and infidels”.
The escapee, Abdelkader (53), was quoted by the news agency Reuters as saying the militants appeared to have good knowledge of the layout of the complex and the language of radical Islam.
“I am still choked, and stressed,” he said, adding that he feared many of his foreign colleagues may have died. “The terrorists seemed to know the base very well,” he said, “Moving around, showing that they knew where they were going.”
Within hours of the Algerian assault, and with the results still unclear, criticism was already emerging last night of the tactics used by the authorities.
British prime minister David Cameron’s spokesman said he was only informed of the operation once it had got under way and that Britain “would have preferred to have been consulted in advance.”
Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe called his opposite number in Algeria to request a halt to the operation.
In the first official comments from the Algerian side, a government spokesman confirmed some hostages were killed in the operation but said troops had been forced to act to free them after talks with their captors failed.