UPDATED Jan. 19 AM: “It is over now, the assault is over, and the military are inside the plant”
UPDATED JAN 19 AM:
By Lamine Chikhi and Abdelaziz Boumzar
ALGIERS/IN AMENAS, Algeria | Sat Jan 19, 2013 10:23am EST
ALGIERS/IN AMENAS, Algeria (Reuters) – The Algerian army on Saturday carried out a final assault on al Qaeda-linked gunmen holed up in a desert gas plant, killing 11 of the Islamists after they took the lives of seven more foreign hostages, a local source and the state news agency said.
“It is over now, the assault is over, and the military are inside the plant clearing it of mines,” a local source familiar with the operation told Reuters.
The state oil and gas company, Sonatrach, said the militants who attacked the plant on Wednesday and took a large number of hostages had booby-trapped the complex with explosives.
The exact death toll among the gunmen and the foreign and Algerian workers at the plant near the town of In Amenas close to the Libyan border remained unclear.
Earlier on Saturday, Algerian special forces found 15 burned bodies at the plant. Efforts were under way to identify the bodies, the source told Reuters, and it was not clear how they had died.
Sixteen foreign hostages were freed on Saturday, a source close to the crisis said. They included two Americans, two Germans and one Portuguese. Britain said fewer than 10 of its nationals at the plant were unaccounted for.
The attack on the plant swiftly turned into one of the biggest international hostage crises in decades, pushing Saharan militancy to the top of the global agenda.
It marked a serious escalation of unrest in northwestern Africa, where French forces have been in Mali since last week fighting an Islamist takeover of Timbuktu and other towns.
The captors said their attack was a response to the French offensive. However, some U.S. and European officials say the elaborate raid probably required too much planning to have been organized from scratch in the week since France launched its strikes.
Scores of Westerners and hundreds of Algerian workers were inside the heavily fortified gas compound when it was seized before dawn on Wednesday by Islamist fighters who said they wanted a halt to the French intervention in neighboring Mali.
Hundreds escaped on Thursday when the army launched a rescue operation, but many hostages were killed.
Before the final assault, different sources had put the number of hostages killed at between 12 and 30, with many foreigners still unaccounted for, among them Norwegians, Japanese, Britons and Americans.
The figure of 30 came from an Algerian security source, who said eight Algerians and at least seven foreigners were among the victims, including two Japanese, two Britons and a French national. One British citizen was killed when the gunmen seized the hostages on Wednesday.
The U.S. State Department said on Friday one American, Frederick Buttaccio, had died but gave no further details.
Leaders of Britain, Japan and other countries have expressed frustration that the assault was ordered without consultation and officials have grumbled at the lack of information.
France’s defense minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, declined to criticize the Algerian response to the crisis, however.
“The Algerian authorities are on their own soil and responding in the fashion they can. The overriding mission is to tackle the terrorists,” he told France 3 television.
The base was home to foreign workers from Britain’s BP, Norway’s Statoil, Japanese engineering firm JGC Corp and others.
The apparent ease with which the fighters swooped in from the dunes to take control of an important energy facility, which produces some 10 percent of the natural gas on which Algeria depends for its export income, has raised questions over the value of outwardly tough Algerian security measures.
Algerian officials said the attackers may have had inside help from among the hundreds of Algerians employed at the site.
France says the incident proves its decision to fight Islamists in neighboring Mali was necessary.
The field commander of the Islamist group that attacked the plant is a veteran fighter from Niger called Abdul Rahman al-Nigeri, Mauritanian news agencies reported.
Security in the half-dozen countries around the Sahara desert has long been a preoccupation of the West. Smugglers and militants have earned millions in ransom from kidnappings.
The most powerful Islamist groups operating in the Sahara were severely weakened by Algeria’s secularist military in a civil war in the 1990s. But in the past two years the regional wing of al Qaeda gained fighters and arms as a result of the civil war in Libya, when arsenals were looted from Muammar Gaddafi’s army.
Al Qaeda-linked fighters, many with roots in Algeria and Libya, took control of northern Mali last year.
(Additional reporting by Balazs Koranyi in Oslo, Estelle Shirbon in London, Brian Love in Paris;)
The North Afrfican Al Qaeda group which seized hostages from 10 nations at the remote Algerian gas field in In Aminas Wednesday, Jan. 16, has addressed its first demand to the United States: The release of two American hostages for two high-profile Islamist terrorists jailed in the US: Egyptian Omar Abdel-Rahman, the Blind Sheikh convicted of masterminding the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and Pakistani-American neuroscientist Aafia Siddiqui, convicted for trying to kill US troops and FBI agents in Afghanistan in 2009.
The offer from Moktar Belmoktar, head of al Qaeda’s Signed-in-Blood Battalions, was relayed by a Mauritanian news site Friday afternoon Jan 18. Until now, their most pressing demand was for France to end its military operation in Mali. The Obama administration has not released information about the Americans held hostage at the gas field. They are believed to number seven.
Friday afternoon, as Algerian special forces were still unable to overpower the terrorists holed up with hostages at a gas facility, US military transports began lifting foreign nationals out of Algeria. Most are oil and gas facility personnel and their families. Their evacuation, which will badly affect the operation of Algeria’s energy industry, indicates fears that more terrorist attacks on oil and gas sites are still to come, with devastating impact on world energy markets.
Military sources in London reported that a British MI6 secret service plane has landed near the Algerian hostage site carrying a command and control team specializing in terrorist situations. British Prime Minister David Cameron called the Cobra emergency cabinet into session Friday night, its third since the hostage crisis erupted. Addressing Parliament earlier, Cameron promised the UK would hunt down the terrorists responsible for the brutal and savage attack in Algeria.
According to the first tentative hostage figures released by Algeria Friday afternoon, the second day of its rescue operation, a total of 650 hostages were taken, of whom 573 were freed – most of them Algerian – indicating that 77 were killed or missing. A total of 132 foreign nationals from 10 nations were taken of whom 66 were freed, which leaves 66 dead or unaccounted for. None of these figures will be final before the gas field is finally cleansed and secure.