International community in dark about exact details
Considerable fog still hangs over what occurred in the Algerian desert
It was one of the most complex international hostage crises in decades, and remains one of the murkiest.
The scale of events unfolding in Algeria’s remote southern desert emerged early on Wednesday, but amid all the frantic diplomatic manoeuvring and rolling media coverage, only a few hundred people gathered on either side of the perimeter fence of the gas plant at In Amenas had a clear picture of the scene.
Hundreds of hostages
Inside the vast complex, heavily-armed militants were holding hundreds of hostages, including dozens of foreigners, and threatening to kill them unless their demands were met. Encircling the compound were Algerian special forces, backed up by helicopters and personnel carriers, waiting for orders from their commanders – and, further along the line, from the country’s leadership in Algiers, 1,200km to the north.
An uneasy calm hung over the area for the first 24 hours, according to reports emerging yesterday. The kidnappers split the hostages into two groups – Algerians and foreigners – and allowed them use their mobile phones to communicate with the outside world. This was how Stephen McFaul, the 36-year-old Irish electrician, alerted his family at home in Belfast before they in turn notified the Department of Foreign Affairs.
Escapees who recounted their ordeal said their captors appeared to have good knowledge of the site and of the language of radical Islam. Abdelkader (53), a resident of the town of In Amenas, said by telephone that the kidnappers told Algerian staff they would not harm Muslims but would kill western hostages they called “Christians and infidels”.
Across the world, governments set up crisis centres to coordinate their responses and try to establish the facts. Within hours of the first reports, Ireland, Norway, the US and Japan said they believed their citizens were among the hostages.
The French, believing the kidnappers were not in control of the entire compound, refused to reveal publicly that their nationals were in the plant. French national Alexandre Berceaux, who worked for CIS Catering, told French media yesterday he had hidden under the bed in his room for 40 hours before rescue.
In Dublin, the Government immediately opened lines of communication with other European capitals. Officials also contacted Irish citizens working for major oil firms and subcontractors in the region; they were “extremely helpful” in building a clearer picture through local contacts, said a diplomatic source. Minister for Foreign Affairs Eamon Gilmore spoke directly to his Algerian counterpart.