International community in dark about exact details
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.
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.
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.