Algeria captures five kidnappers at gas plant
lN AMENAS: Algerian troops captured five kidnappers and found the bodies of 25 captives Sunday at a desert gas complex, reports said, as a minister warned the toll from a hostage crisis may rise.
Security forces discovered the bodies of 25 hostages as they combed the In Amenas complex deep in the Sahara, a day after the deadly stand-off with the Islamist gunmen ended, the private channel Ennahar said.
El Watan daily put the number of bodies found at around 30.
But a definitive toll remains unclear.
The mastermind of the brazen hostage-taking, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, said meanwhile in a video posted online that the attack was carried out by 40 fighters from the Muslim world and European countries.
“Five terrorists were found still alive this morning” at the gas field, where special forces launched a final rescue bid on Saturday that left 18 people dead, including seven hostages, Ennahar TV said.
But three others are at large, the station’s director, Anis Rahmani, told AFP.
Communications Minister Mohamed Said told a radio station: “I fear that it (the toll) may be revised upward,” after at least 23 foreigners and Algerians, mostly hostages, were killed since Wednesday.
“In all nine Japanese were killed,” one Algerian witness identified as Brahim said on Sunday, a day after the special forces swooped on the plant run by Britain’s BP, Norway’s Statoil and Sonatrach of Algeria to end the siege.
The first three were killed as they tried to escape from a bus taking them to the airport as the militant attack unfolded, witnesses said.
“We were all afraid when we heard bursts of gunfire at 5:30 am (0430 GMT) on Wednesday, after we realised that they had just killed our Japanese colleagues who tried to flee from the bus,” said Riad, who works for Japan’s JGC Corp engineering firm.
The gunmen then took the others to the residential compound, where they had seized hundreds of hostages, he said.
“A terrorist shouted ‘open the door!’ with a strong north American accent, and opened fire. Two other Japanese died then and we found four other Japanese bodies” in the compound, he added, choking with emotion.
In Tokyo, the government said it was aware of reports that nine Japanese had died in the hostage-taking, but had no confirmation of the fate of 10 of its nationals who remain unaccounted for.
Governments scrambled to track down their missing citizens as more details emerged of the deadly showdown after Islamists of the “Signatories in Blood” group raided the plant, demanding an end to French military intervention in Mali.
“Tragically, we now know that three British nationals have been killed, and a further three are believed to be dead. And also a further British resident is also believed to be dead,” said British Prime Minister David Cameron.
Statoil said the situation remains unresolved for five of its employees.
“We will, and we must, keep hoping for more positive news from Algeria. However, we must be prepared to deal with bad news in the next few days,” said Statoil chief executive Helge Lund.
The company said searches were underway inside the complex, in the surrounding desert, hospitals, In Amenas itself, and in other villages and towns.
Thirty-two kidnappers were also killed in the 72-hour stand-off, and the army freed 685 Algerian workers and 107 foreigners, said Algeria’s interior ministry.
Relatives of Kenneth Whiteside, 59, from Glenrothes in Scotland, were devastated after hearing an Algerian co-worker claimed to have seen him being shot but dying bravely with a smile, Britain’s Mail on Sunday reported.
And the mother of survivor Stephen McFaul, 36, from Belfast, told the Sunday Mirror her son will “have nightmares for the rest of his life after the things he saw.”
A security official told AFP it was believed seven foreigners were executed in retaliation on Saturday during the final assault that state TV said also killed 11 militants.
The gunmen, whose leader Belmokhtar is a former Al-Qaeda commander, first killed a Briton and an Algerian on a bus before taking hundreds hostage at the plant.
Most hostages were freed on Thursday in the first rescue operation which was initially widely condemned as hasty, before criticism was focussed on the jihadists.
“The blame for this tragedy rests with the terrorists who carried it out, and the United States condemns their actions in the strongest possible terms,” said US President Barack Obama after at least one American had already been confirmed dead.
French President Francois Hollande called Algiers’ response the most appropriate given it was dealing with coldly determined terrorists ready to kill their hostages.
Cameron also recognised the attack had been an extremely difficult situation to deal with.
Monitoring group IntelCenter said the hostage-taking was the largest since the 2008 Mumbai attack, and the biggest by jihadists since hundreds were killed in a Moscow theatre in 2002 and at a school in the Russian town of Beslan in 2004.
French troops advanced Sunday towards Mali’s Islamist-held north as Russia and Canada offered to help transport French and African soldiers to boost the Paris-led offensive.
On Saturday West African leaders demanded speedy UN aid to rout Islamists holding the vast desert north.