Algeria says 37 foreign hostages dead

Mon, Jan 21, 2013, 00:00

A total of 37 foreign workers died in a hostage crisis at an Algerian desert gas plant and seven are still missing, Algerian prime minister Abdelmalek Sellal said today.

Mr Sellal also told a news conference that a Canadian had coordinated the attack by Islamists on the site near the Libyan border.

Mr Sellal also said that 29 Islamists had been killed in the siege, which Algerian forces ended by storming the plant, and three had been captured alive.

"A Canadian was among the militants. He was coordinating the attack," Mr Sellal told a news conference, adding that the raiders had threatened to blow up the gas installation.

American, British, French, Japanese, Norwegian, Filipino and Romanian workers are dead or missing after the attack, for which veteran Islamist fighter Mokhtar Belmokhtar has claimed responsibility on behalf of al Qaeda.

The jihadists had planned the attack two months ago in neighbouring Mali, where French forces began fighting Islamists this month, Sellal added.

In Tokyo, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told a news conference he had received information that seven Japanese had been killed and the fate of three more was still unknown.Six Filipinos died and four were wounded, a government spokesman in Manila said.

Norwegian International Development Minister Heikki Holmaas said his stepfather, Tore Bech, was among the missing and presumed dead.

Mr Sellal said that initially the raiders in Algeria had tried to hijack a bus carrying foreign workers to a nearby airport and take them hostage. "They started firing at the bus and received a severe response from the soldiers guarding the bus," he said. "They failed to achieve their objective, which was to kidnap foreign workers from the bus."

He said special forces and army units were deployed against the militants, who had planted explosives in the gas plant with a view to blowing up the facility.

One group of militants had tried to escape in some vehicles, each of which also was carrying three or four foreign workers, some of whom had explosives attached to their bodies.

After what he called a "fierce response from the armed forces", the raiders' vehicles crashed or exploded and one of their leaders was among those killed.

Mr Sellal said the jihadists who staged the attack last Wednesday had crossed into the country from neighbouring Libya.

Bringing home the bodies of the victims of the Algerian terror siege is Britain’s top priority but it might take some time, UK prime minister David Cameron said today.

Mr Cameron confirmed to MPs that three British nationals were known to have been killed in the attack on the In Amenas gas field and a further three were believed to be dead, along with a Colombian who lived in the UK.

Mr Cameron said his deepest condolences were with the families of the victims and said work to clear the site of potential traps was continuing.

Family members of the British people involved in the Algerian hostage crisis have criticised British authorities for a lack of official information.

One of those killed was Kenneth Whiteside, a 59-year-old from Glenrothes, Fife, who lived in Johannesburg with his wife and two daughters. His brother, Bob Whiteside, told BBC Radio 4’s The World At One programme the family learnt of Mr Whiteside’s death on Facebook.

It was not until after his daughter found a message on the social network site that police confirmed Mr Whiteside had been killed. “We were not given any official information and it was through Facebook, of all things, that we found out of Kenny’s demise.

“It was my daughter who found it on Facebook, a message from an Algerian co-worker. “The police came last night and informed us that what was on Facebook was true, that Kenny had been ... he was executed.”

The raid has exposed the vulnerability of multinational-run oil and gas installations in an important producing region and pushed the growing threat from Islamist militant groups in the Sahara to a prominent position in the West's security agenda.

Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika has ordered an investigation into how security forces failed to prevent the attack, the daily El Khabar said. The militants had used nine cars in Sonatrach colours and all with Libyan registration plates, it quoted unnamed security sources as saying.

Algerian Tahar Ben Cheneb - leader of a group called the Movement of Islamic Youth in the South who was killed on the first day of the assault - had been based in Libya where he married a local woman two months ago, it said.

Belmokhtar - a one-eyed jihadist who fought in Afghanistan and Algeria's civil war of the 1990s when the secular government fought Islamists - tied the desert attack to France's intervention across the Sahara against Islamist rebels in Mali. "We in al-Qaeda announce this blessed operation," he said in a video, according to Sahara Media, a regional website. About 40 attackers participated in the raid, he said, roughly matching the government's figures for fighters killed and captured.

Belmokhtar demanded an end to French air strikes against Islamist fighters in neighbouring Mali. These began five days before the fighters swooped before dawn and seized a plant that produces 10 per cent of Algeria's natural gas exports.

US and European officials doubt such a complex raid could have been organised quickly enough to have been conceived as a direct response to the French military intervention. However, the French action could have triggered an operation that had already been planned.

The group behind the raid, the Mulathameen Brigade, also threatened to carry out more such attacks if Western powers did not end what it called an assault on Muslims in Mali, according to the Site service, which monitors militant statements.

In a statement published by the Mauritania-based Nouakchott News Agency, the hostage takers said they had offered talks about freeing the captives, but the Algerian authorities had been determined to use military force. "We opened the door for negotiations with the Westerners and the Algerians, and granted them safety from the beginning of the operation, but one of the senior (Algerian) intelligence officials confirmed to us in a phone call that they will destroy the place with everyone in it," Site quoted the statement as saying.

The siege turned bloody on Thursday when the Algerian army opened fire, saying fighters were trying to escape with their prisoners. Survivors said Algerian forces blasted several trucks in a convoy carrying both hostages and their captors.

Nearly 700 Algerian workers and more than 100 foreigners escaped, mainly on Thursday when the fighters were driven from the residential barracks. Some captors remained holed up in the industrial complex until Saturday when they were overrun.

The bloodshed has strained Algeria's relations with its Western allies, some of which have complained about being left in the dark while the decision to storm the compound was being taken. Nevertheless, Britain and France both defended the military action by Algeria, the strongest military power in the Sahara and an ally the West needs in combating the militants.

Among other foreigners confirmed dead by their home countries were three Britons, one American and two Romanians. The missing include five Norwegians, three Britons and a British resident. An Algerian security source said at least one Frenchman was also among the dead.

Irish hostage Stephen McFaul  was reunited with his family in Belfast yesterday.


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