Hostages Dead in Bloody Climax to Siege in Algeria
BAMAKO, Mali — The four-day hostage crisis in the Sahara reached a bloody conclusion on Saturday as the Algerian Army carried out a final assault on the gas field taken over by Islamist militants, killing most of the remaining kidnappers and raising the total of hostages killed to at least 23, Algerian officials said.
Although the government declared an end to the militants’ siege, the authorities believed that a handful of jihadists were most likely hiding somewhere in the sprawling complex and said that troops were hunting for them.
The details of the desert standoff and the final battle for the plant remained murky on Saturday night — as did information about which hostages died and how — with even the White House suggesting that it was unclear what had happened. In a brief statement released early Saturday night the president said his administration would “remain in close touch with the government of Algeria to gain a fuller understanding of what took place.”
The British defense minister, Philip Hammond, called the loss of life “appalling and unacceptable” after reports that up to seven hostages were killed in the final hours of the hostage crisis, and he said that the leaders of the attack would be tracked down. The Algerian government said that 32 militants had been killed since Wednesday, although it cautioned that its casualty counts were provisional.
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, who appeared with Mr. Hammond at a news conference in London, said he did not yet have reliable information about the fate of the Americans at the facility, although a senior Algerian official said two had been found “safe and sound.”
What little information trickled out was as harrowing as what had come in the days before, when some hostages who had managed to escape told of workers being forced to wear explosives. They also said that there were several summary executions and that some workers had died in the military’s initial rescue attempt.
On Saturday, Algerian officials reported that some bodies found by troops who rushed into the industrial complex were charred beyond recognition, making it difficult to distinguish between the captors and the captured. Two were assumed to be workers because they were handcuffed.
Britain’s foreign secretary, William Hague, said that five Britons and one British resident had died in the final rescue attempt or were unaccounted for. He said that police forces were fanning out across Britain visiting each of the families involved.
Most of the hundreds of workers at the plant, who come from about 25 countries, appear to have escaped sometime during the four days.
The Algerian government has been relatively silent since the start of the crisis, releasing few details. The government faced withering international criticism for rushing ahead with its first assault on the militants on Thursday even as governments whose citizens were trapped inside the plant pleaded for more time, fearing that rescue attempts might lead to workers dying. The Algerians responded by saying they had a better understanding of how to handle militants after fighting Islamist insurgents for years.
On Saturday, it was unclear who killed the last hostages. Initial reports from Algerian state news media said that seven workers had been executed during the army’s raid, but the senior government official and another high-level official, both of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity, later said the number killed and the cause were unknown. The early reports also said 11 militants were killed, but later information suggested that some may have blown themselves up.
One of the Algerian officials defended the latest military assault, saying the government feared the militants were about to set off explosions at the In Amenas complex.
The Algerian state oil company, Sonatrach, said that the attackers had evidently mined the facility with the intention of blowing it up and that the company was working to ensure the safety of the plant.
The government official, meanwhile, said that the militants had set fire to the plant’s control tower on Friday night and that it was later extinguished by soldiers and workers. The militants also tried to blow up a pipeline, he said, leading officials to worry about the stocks of gas at the plant. “The authorities were afraid they were going to blow up the reserves,” said the official, who believed the militants had planned all along to destroy the complex.
Whatever the goal, the message of the militant takeover of the gas complex, in a country that has perhaps the world’s toughest record for dealing with terrorists, seemed clear, at least to Algerian officials: the Islamist ministate in northern Mali, now under assault by French and Malian forces, has given a new boost to transnational terrorism. The brigade of some 32 Islamists that took the plant was multinational, Algerian officials said — with only three Algerians in the group.
“We have indications that they originated from northern Mali,” one of the senior officials said. “They want to establish a terrorist state.”
A Mali-based Algerian jihadist with ties to Al Qaeda, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, has claimed responsibility through spokesmen — and is blamed by the Algerians — for masterminding the raid.
The militants who attacked the plant said it was in retaliation for the French troops sweeping into Mali this month to stop an advance of Islamist rebels south toward the capital, although they later said they had been planning an attack in Algeria for some time. The group that attacked the plant, thought to be based in Gao, Mali, was previously little known and had splintered last year from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Al Qaeda’s North African branch.
The gas plant is operated by Sonatrach, Norway’s Statoil and BP of Britain.
The militant takeover of the site began with heavy gunfire early Wednesday, and continued through the fierce, helicopter-led government assault on Thursday.
United States officials had said that “seven or eight” Americans had been at the In Amenas field when it was seized by the militants.
One American, Frederick Buttaccio, 58, of Katy, Tex., was confirmed dead on Friday.
On Saturday, BP announced that another American, a Texan named Mark Cobb, who was a manager of the plant, survived. A man from Austin also survived, according to a spokesman for Representative Michael McCaul, Republican of Texas. It was unclear if either of the Texans who survived were the two declared “safe and sound” early on Saturday.
In a call with reporters, Robert Dudley, BP’s chief executive, said that 18 BP employees had been at the facility during the “unprovoked attack by heavily armed murderers” and that 14 had been evacuated safely. He said the fate of the four other employees remained unknown.
Among the workers killed at the plant were a French citizen identified as Yann Desjeux, who died before Saturday’s raid. An Algerian state news agency said some Algerians had also been killed as of Friday.
One Algerian who managed to escape told France 24 television late Friday night that the kidnappers said, “We’ve come in the name of Islam, to teach the Americans what Islam is.” The haggard-looking man, interviewed at the airport in Algiers, said the kidnappers then immediately executed five hostages.
While the government has defended its actions because of its experience with militants, one of the senior government officials acknowledged Saturday morning that the militant attack was of a scale and complexity the country had not experienced before.
“This one is different,” he said. “It’s of another dimension.”
Nonetheless, the brazenness of the assault — with scores of fighters attacking one of the country’s most important gas-producing facilities — is likely to call into question Algeria’s much vaunted security strategy in dealing with the Islamic militants who find shelter in its southern deserts, near the border with Mali.
The Algerians have made a virtue out of keeping a lid on these militants, pushing them toward Mali in a strategy of modified containment, and ruthlessly stamping them out when they attempt an attack in the Algerian interior. So far it has worked, and Algeria’s extensive oil and gas fields, which are essential sources of revenue, have been protected.
That relative success had allowed Algeria to take a hands-off approach to the Islamist conquest of northern Mali in recent months, even as Western governments pleaded with it to become more directly involved in confronting the militants, who move across the hazy border between the two countries.
But now Algeria may have to rethink its approach, analysts suggest.
If the outcome represents a relative setback for Algeria, it could be viewed as a victory for the Islamists who carried out the assault on the gas plant, achieving several of their perennial goals: killing large numbers of Westerners and disrupting states they have put on their enemies list — including Algeria.
Indeed, a spokesman for those militants — in a report on a news site that often carries their statements — said Friday that they planned more attacks in Algeria.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: January 19, 2013
Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article misstated the nationality of a government official who said security forces were searching the gas complex. The official is Algerian, not Turkish.