Number killed revised down as operation continues in Algeria
Published 17/01/2013 | 11:27
ALGERIA said several hostages were killed today when its forces stormed a remote desert gas plant occupied by Islamist militants in retaliation for French intervention in Mali, and local sources said six foreigners were among the dead.
Amid reports of many more casualties in one of the biggest international hostage crises in decades, Western leaders expressed anger they had not been consulted before the operation and scrambled for word of their citizens. Some eight hours after the army assault began, Algerian state media said it was over.
Americans, Britons, Norwegians, French, Romanians and an Irishman, were among those taken, their countries said.
Algeria said its troops had been forced to act to free them due to the "diehard" attitude of their captors.
"When the terrorist group insisted on leaving the facility, taking the foreign hostages with them to neighbouring states, the order was issued to special units to attack the position where the terrorists were entrenched," the government spokesman, Communication Minister, Mohamed Said told the state news agency.
The standoff began when gunmen calling themselves the Battalion of Blood stormed the natural gas facility early on Wednesday morning. They said they were holding 41 foreigners and demanded a halt to a French military operation against fellow al Qaeda-linked Islamist militants in neighbouring Mali.
Said said the military operation, which Western officials were told had begun around noon (1100 GMT) on Thursday, resulted in "the liberation of a large number of hostages and the destruction of a large number of terrorists".
The raid increased fears jihadist militants could launch further attacks in Algeria, a vast desert country with large oil and gas reserves that is only just recovering from a protracted conflict with Islamist rebels during the 1990s which cost an estimated 200,000 lives.
A local source told Reuters six foreign hostages were killed along with eight captors when the Algerian military fired on a vehicle being used by the gunmen.
He said 40 Algerians and three foreigners were freed by the army as it continued its operation into Thursday evening. An Algerian security source said earlier that 25 foreign hostages had escaped.
Algeria's official APS news agency said about half the foreign hostages had been freed and about 600 Algerian workers at the site, under less tight guard, had managed to escape.
MILITANTS KNEW THEIR WAY AROUND
In a rare eyewitness account of Wednesday's raid, a local man who had escaped from the facility told Reuters the militants appeared to have good inside knowledge of the layout of the complex and used the language of radical Islam.
"The terrorists told us at the very start that they would not hurt Muslims but were only interested in the Christians and infidels," Abdelkader, 53, said by telephone from his home in the nearby town of In Amenas. "We will kill them, they said."
Mauritanian agency ANI and Qatar-based Al Jazeera said that 34 of the captives and 15 of their captors had been killed when government forces fired from helicopters at a vehicle.
Those death tolls, far higher than confirmed by the local source, would contradict the reports that large numbers of foreigners escaped alive. On Thursday evening, ANI said it had lost its previously regular contact with the kidnappers.
Britain and Norway, whose oil firms BP and Statoil run the plant jointly with the Algerian state oil company, said they had been informed by the Algerian authorities that a military operation was under way.
British Prime Minister David Cameron said people should prepare for bad news about the hostages. He earlier called his Algerian counterpart to express his concern at what he called a "very grave and serious" situation, Cameron's spokesman said.
"The Algerians are aware that we would have preferred to have been consulted in advance," the spokesman added.
Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg said he had been told by his Algerian counterpart the action had started at around noon. He said they had tried to find a solution through the night, but that it had not worked.