Paris and London try to defuse tensions over Algeria hostage crisis
France and Britain have moved to ease diplomatic difficulties over the Algerian hostage crisis, defending their north African ally against criticism of its tactics in storming the besieged gas plant in its southern desert.
The three-day stand-off, one of the worst international hostage crises of recent decades, ended on Saturday with the deaths of at least 23 hostages and 32 kidnappers, Algerian officials said.
Irish hostage Stephen McFaul from Belfast was expected to be reunited with his family yesterday.
Some western governments had expressed frustration at not being informed of the Algerian authorities’ plans to raid the complex near In Amenas, 100km from the Libyan border. But France, which is fighting Islamist rebels in nearby Mali, downplayed any suggestion that the response had been botched or heavy-handed.
‘Toll is very high’
French president François Hollande said the Algerian response “suited” the circumstances and that negotiations could not have taken place.
His foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, said the situation facing Algiers was “unbearable” given the history and intent of the Islamist kidnappers. “It’s easy to say that this or that should have been done,” he said. “The Algerian authorities took a decision and the toll is very high but I am a bit bothered . . . when the impression is given that the Algerians are open to question. They had to deal with terrorists.”
Britain, which said that three of its citizens were dead and a further three missing after the siege, had taken issue on Friday with Algeria’s decision to storm the plant without informing London in advance.
Japan had also reacted angrily to the initial raid, with its prime minister calling his Algerian counterpart to ask for the operation to be halted immediately. Japanese officials said they had no confirmation of the fate of 10 nationals who remained unaccounted for.
A day after the siege ended, however, world capitals struck a more conciliatory note. People would “ask questions” about the Algerian response, said British prime minister David Cameron. But he stressed the responsibility for the deaths lay “squarely with the terrorists who launched this vicious and cowardly attack”.
“We should recognise all that the Algerians have done to work with us and to help and coordinate with us. I’d like to thank them for that. We should also recognise that the Algerians too have seen lives lost among their soldiers,” he said.
Western eagerness not to alienate Algeria reflects the vital role it plays as the military and economic powerhouse of a region struggling to contain the growth of Islamist groups.
Algiers has allowed French jets to use its airspace for their intervention in Mali, its southern neighbour, where France acted to stop an advance by Islamist rebels who already control more than half the country.
Algeria has also promised to close its 1,000km border with Mali to prevent Islamist insurgents from evading French forces. And its co-operation is deemed essential by western and regional states to long-term efforts to restore order in the Sahel.
Algeria’s interior ministry reported on Saturday that 23 hostages and 32 militants were killed during the assaults launched by Algerian special forces to end the crisis, with 107 foreign hostages and 685 Algerian hostages freed. Five suspected kidnappers were reportedly arrested.
Algerian communications minister Mohammed Said said the militants were from six countries, “nationals of Arab and African countries, and of non-African countries”.
Mauritanian website Sahara Media reported that Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the suspected organiser of the siege, had claimed responsibility for it in a video message.
The website said the video, recorded on January 17th, showed the militant leader saying he was prepared to negotiate with western and Algerian leaders if operations against Islamists in Mali were stopped.
Belmokhtar is not believed to have taken part in the attack, which was led by a Nigerian associate, Mauritanian media reported.
In Mali, meanwhile, French troops continued their ground offensive, advancing on a central Malian town which had been abandoned by rebels after days of air strikes.