International community in dark about exact details

Sat, Jan 19, 2013, 00:00

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.

Reports of a major firefight near the living quarters began to emerge at about midday on Thursday. Eyewitnesses said the spark was an attempt by the kidnappers to leave the compound in six SUVs with some of their hostages.

Algerians attacked

Fighter helicopters destroyed four of the vehicles, apparently killing the occupants, but two SUVs were unscathed, allowing special forces to free the hostages. Reports of heavy casualties quickly began to filter out. Alarmed, the Japanese prime minister called Algiers and urged it to stop the assault.

The British were also furious; prime minister David Cameron had earlier asked the Algerians to let him know if they were planning to storm the complex, but the first he heard of it was through the media. The French have not revealed whether they were aware of the attack in advance.

Concerns about McFaul had risen earlier on Thursday, after al-Jazeera’s Arabic station had broadcast a telephone call in which his voice featured.

Irish officials believed McFaul was forced to make the call and worried that he had been picked out by his captors. Irish diplomats asked al-Jazeera to stop broadcasting the clip; the news channel acceded to the request.

As it turned out, Stephen McFaul was “in the lucky jeep”, his relieved brother Brian said, albeit with a bomb strapped to his body. When he was safely outside the compound, he phoned his wife, Angela who, in turn, contacted Dublin with the news.

Delicate operation

Back at the plant, meanwhile, a second – more delicate – assault was under way. This time, the target was the gas production plant itself, which the hostage-takers claimed to have mined. Ground forces were sent in, and at 4.05pm, the Mauritanian news agency ANI – which had been in regular contact with the kidnappers – said it had lost all communications with the plant.

At 7pm, Algeria’s communications minister, Mohamed Said Belaid, appeared on television to say the authorities had done all they could to ensure the hostages’ survival but blamed “the diehard attitude of the terrorists” for forcing the military into its land and air attack.

More than 600 Algerians were freed during the second assault and several kidnappers were killed, the Algerians said, but a number of gunmen and foreign hostages eluded the special forces.

Yesterday’s continuing standoff centred on this group. The number of surviving kidnappers is unknown, but Algeria said more than 20 hostages were still being held.