Algerian Troops Attack Site to End Hostage Standoff
ADAM NOSSITER and RICK GLADSTONE
BAMAKO, Mali — Without warning other governments, Algeria mounted an assault on Thursday on the heavily armed fighters holding American and other hostages at a remote Sahara gas field facility, freeing captives and killing kidnappers but leaving some hostages dead and foreign leaders scrambling to find out the fates of their citizens.
Hours after the raid, there was no official word on the number of hostages who had been freed, killed or still held captive. Estimates of the foreign casualties ranged from 4 to 35, though one Algerian official said the high figure was “exaggerated.”
Despite requests for communication and pleas to consider the safety of their abducted citizens, the United States, Britain and Japan said they had not been told in advance about the military assault, stirring frustration that the Algerians might have been overly aggressive and caused needless casualties.
But the Algerian government, which has a history of violent suppression of Islamist militancy, stood by its decision to deal forcefully with the kidnappers, who were holding Algerians and citizens of nine other countries.
“Those who think we will negotiate with terrorists are delusional,” the communications minister, Mohand Saïd Oublaïd, said in an announcement about the assault on the facility near In Amenas, in eastern Algeria, close to the Libya border. “Those who think we will surrender to their blackmail are delusional.”
The midday assault came more than 24 hours after a militant group, which the Algerians said had ties to jihadis in the region, ambushed a bus carrying gas-field workers to a nearby airport and then commandeered the compound. It was one of the boldest abductions of foreign workers in years.
The abductions were meant to avenge France’s armed intervention in neighboring Mali, Mr. Oublaïd said, a conflict that has escalated since French warplanes began striking Islamist fighters who have carved out a vast haven there.
On Thursday, the United States became more deeply involved in the war, working with the French to determine how to best deploy American C-5 cargo planes to ferry French troops and equipment into Mali, according to an American military official.
The United States has long been wary about stepping more directly into the Mali conflict, worried that it could provoke precisely the kind of anti-Western attack that took place in Algeria, with deadly consequences. After the raid to free the hostages, the Algerians acknowledged a price had been paid.
“The operation resulted in the neutralization of a large number of terrorists and the liberation of a considerable number of hostages,” said Mr. Oublaïd, the communications minister. “Unfortunately, we deplore also the death of some, as well as some who were wounded.”
Algerian national radio described a scene of pandemonium and high alert at the public hospital in the town of In Amenas, where wounded and escaped hostages were sent. The director of the hospital, Dr. Shahir Moneir, said in the report that wounded foreign hostages were transferred to the capital, Algiers.
In a telephone interview from the hospital, one of the Algerians who had been held captive, who identified himself as Mohamed Elias, said some of the hostages had exploited the chaos created by the Algerian assault to flee. “We used the opportunity,” he said, “and we just escaped.”
Senior American military officials said that aides traveling in London with Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta were struggling to get basic information about the raid, and that an unarmed American Predator drone was monitoring the gas-field site.
One senior official said that possibly seven to eight Americans were among the hostages — the first official indication of the number of Americans involved — and that he did not know if any had been killed in the raid.
Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain said his office had not been told ahead of time, an implicit criticism of the Algerian government. A spokesman said that Mr. Cameron had learned of the raid through Britain’s own intelligence sources and that “the Algerians are aware that we would have preferred to have been consulted in advance.”
Mr. Cameron told reporters the situation was “very dangerous” as he and other British officials appeared to prepare for bad news. The gravity of the crisis prompted him to cancel plans to deliver a major speech in Amsterdam.
Japan also expressed strong concern, saying Algeria had failed not only to advise of the operation ahead of time, but to heed its request to halt the operation because it was endangering the hostages.
“We asked Algeria to put human lives first and asked Algeria to strictly refrain,” the chief cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, quoted Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as telling his Algerian counterpart, Abdelmalek Sellal, by telephone late Thursday.
The situation is “very confused,” President François Hollande of France said at a news conference in Paris and was “evolving hour by hour.” Mr. Hollande gave the first official confirmation that French citizens were among the captives.
A European diplomat who was involved in the effort to coordinate a Western response to the hostage seizure said that the information available to the United States, France and Britain had been “confusing at best, and sometimes contradictory.”
Several Western officials complained that the Algerians appeared to have taken none of the usual care exercised to minimize casualties when trying to free hostages.
“They care deeply about their sovereign rights,” said the European diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the matter’s delicacy.
Even before reports of the Algerian military’s raid began to emerge, many hostages — Algerian and foreign — were reported to have escaped as the kidnappers failed to persuade the Algerian authorities to give them safe passage with their captives.
The Algerian news site T.S.A. quoted a local official, Sidi Knaoui, as saying that 10 foreigners and 40 Algerians had managed to flee after the kidnappers made several attempts to leave with the hostages.
Ireland confirmed that an Irish citizen, Stephen McFaul, had escaped. The man had contacted his family and was “understood to be safe and well and no longer a hostage,” Irish officials said.
Earlier, a French TV station, France 24, quoted an unidentified hostage as saying the attackers “threatened to blow up the gas field.”
Algeria’s interior minister, Daho Ould Kablia, said the seizure of the gas field had been overseen by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, an Algerian who fought in Afghanistan in the 1980s and had reportedly established his own group in the Sahara after falling out with other Qaeda leaders.
The description of the leader was one of the most specific pieces of information given by the Algerians on a day of vague and contradictory accounts of the abduction and raid. Well into the night, officials warned that hostages were still being held inside the compound and that the crisis remained unresolved.
“It’s a painful situation. It’s not over,” said a senior Algerian official. “I can’t tell you how many are left in there. No numbers. None at all. Nothing is certain.”