Thirty-seven foreigners killed in Algerian gas plant siege
ALGIERS: Thirty-seven foreigners of eight nationalities, as well as an Algerian, were killed by hostage-takers in a well-planned attack on a remote gas plant, some of them brutally executed.
Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal said five other foreigners were still missing and that some of the hostages had been executed with a bullet to the head as the four-day crisis ended in a bloodbath on Saturday.
Most of the 32 militants who took hundreds of people hostage at the In Amenas gas complex in the Sahara on Wednesday had entered the country from neighbouring Mali, Sellal told a news conference here.
The premier gave the final grim figures after Algeria had warned other nations to prepare for a higher body count, amid fears as many as 50 captives may have died in the world’s deadliest hostage crisis in almost a decade.
“Thirty-seven foreigners of eight nationalities,” were killed during the siege, Sellal told reporters, with the death of an Algerian bringing the overall toll to 38.
He did not specify the nationalities of the foreigners, but other official sources have already confirmed that one Frenchman, one American, two Romanians, three Britons, six Filipinos and seven Japanese died in the siege.
Survivors’ photos seen by AFP showed bodies riddled with bullets, some with their heads half blown away by the impact of the gunfire.
Five Norwegian nationals remain unaccounted for, while Malaysian authorities say they have had no news about two of their nationals.
Foreign leaders initially accused Algeria of keeping them in the dark when it rushed ahead with the assault and urged caution for the sake of the hostages but then focused criticism on the Islamist militants behind the attack.
“The terrorist attack was planned over the past two months,” Sellal said, adding the group’s leader was Mohamed el-Amine Bencheneb, an Algerian militant known to the country’s security services, who was killed in the siege.
A total of 29 militants were killed and three captured in the siege which ended in a final showdown between special forces and the remaining militants holed up in the sprawling In Amenas gas complex.
Eleven of the hostage-takers, who were demanding an end to French military intervention in Mali, were Tunisian and another three Algerian, with the rest Canadian, Egyptian, Malian, Nigerian and Mauritanian.
‘We’re looking for Christians’
Governments have been scrambling to track down missing citizens as more as more harrowing details emerged of the siege.
One Japanese survivor was quoted in the Daily Yomiuri newspaper as telling colleagues how the gunmen had dragged him from his barricaded room, handcuffed him and executed two hostages standing nearby.
“They were brutally executed,” said an Algerian who identified himself as Brahim, after escaping the ordeal, referring to some of the Japanese victims gunned down by the hostage-takers.
A Filipino survivor described how the militants used foreign hostages as human shields to stop Algerian troops aboard helicopters from strafing them with gunfire.
Joseph Balmaceda told reporters in Manila he was the only survivor out of nine hostages in a van that blew up on Thursday, apparently from C-4 explosives the militants had rigged to the vehicle.
“I was the only one who survived because I was sandwiched between two spare tyres. That is why I am still here and can talk to you,” said the visibly distressed father of four.
The alleged mastermind of the hostage-taking, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, said in a video posted online that it was carried out by 40 fighters from the Muslim world and European countries.
His Al-Qaeda-linked group “Signatories in Blood” threatened to stage attacks on nations involved in the French-led operation to evict Islamists from Algeria’s neighbour Mali, and said it had been open to negotiations.
“But the Algerian army did not respond… preferring to stage an attack which led to the elimination of the hostages,” it said in a message published by the Mauritanian news agency ANI.
Most hostages were freed on Thursday in the first Algerian rescue operation, which was initially viewed by foreign governments as hasty, before the focus of public condemnation turned on the jihadists.
The In Amenas plant is run by Britain’s BP, Norway’s Statoil and Sonatrach of Algeria.
An Algerian employee of BP who identified himself as Abdelkader said he was at a security post with colleagues on Wednesday morning when he saw a jeep with seven people inside smash through the barrier and screech to a halt.
One of the militants got out of the vehicle, demanded their mobile phones and ordered them not to move, before disabling the security cameras.
“He said: ‘You are Algerians and Muslims, you have nothing to fear. We’re looking for Christians, who kill our brothers in Mali and Afghanistan and plunder our resources’.”