'We were used as human shields,' Filipino survivor says
Six Filipinos were killed during the siege on a gas plant in Algeria last week, the Philippine government said on Monday, as a returning Filipino survivor recounted how Islamic militants used hostages as human shields.
Foreign affairs spokesman Raul Hernandez told reporters that at least four Philippine nationals were still “still unaccounted for” in the wake of the firefight between Algerian troops and the militants. Sixteen Filipinos also caught up in the crisis were confirmed to be alive.
“The deaths of the six Filipinos were a direct result of the hostage-taking incident in the area and mostly by gunshot wounds and the effects of the explosions,” Hernandez said.
The Philippine government had previously said it did not know if any Filipinos had been killed during the 72-hour siege at the In Amenas gas plant, deep inside the Sahara Desert, that ended on Saturday.
Algeria’s Ennahar television reported that the bodies of 25 hostages were found by security forces combing through the plant on Sunday, and that five hostage-takers had been captured alive.
Joseph Balmaceda, a father of four, said he saw one Japanese hostage draped with explosives, while he and others had their hands bound with cable ties, during the ordeal at the gas plant.
“Whenever government troops tried to use a helicopter to shoot at the enemy, we were used as human shields,” Balmaceda told reporters shortly after arriving in Manila. “We were told to raise our hands. The government forces could not shoot at them as long as we were held hostage.”
Balmaceda, 42, is nursing scrapes to his face and a loss of hearing. He said he was the only survivor out of nine hostages who were aboard a van that exploded, apparently from C-4 explosives rigged by the militants.
He said two militants were transferring the nine hostages to the central facility of the gas plant, but the bomb went off during a clash with Algerian security forces.
“The only thing left of the car was the back portion of the Land Cruiser,” Balmaceda said. “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.”
Balmaceda said the two militants driving the vehicle were also killed.
“But [other] hostage-takers were firing at me. It meant there were other terrorists,” he said. “So I crawled about 300 metres to where the government forces were. And when I reached them I fainted. When I woke up I was in the hospital.”
The al-Qaeda-linked “Signatories in Blood” group said it attacked the gas plant in retaliation for a French military operation to evict Islamists from neighbouring Mali.
Algeria has warned nations to prepare for a higher body count, as Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmakek Sellal prepared to hold a news conference later on Monday. Dozens of hostages appear to have died.
Survivors’ photos seen by the Agence France-Presse showed bodies riddled with bullets, some with their heads half blown away by the impact of the gunfire.
Thirty-two kidnappers were also killed in the stand-off, and the army freed 685 Algerian workers and 107 foreigners, Algeria’s interior ministry said.