Algeria desert siege death toll may rise as missing sought
Governments scrambled on Sunday to track down missing nationals after the bloody end to a gas plant siege in the Sahara that saw Islamists kill at least 23 foreigners and Algerians, mostly hostages, as Algiers feared the toll may rise.
“I fear that it may be revised upward,” Communications Minister Mohamed Said told public Channel 3 radio of the number of dead a day after special forces stormed the remote desert facility to end a crisis that saw seven foreigners killed by their captors in the final moments.
Later on Sunday, the bodies of 25 hostages seized by Islamists were found inside the gas plant, media said.
Citing security sources, Anis Rahmani, director of the private television channel Ennahar, said the army discovered “the bodies of 25 hostages” as they sought to secure the sprawling site.
Japanese engineering firm JGC said 10 of its Japanese and seven of its foreign workers remained unaccounted for.
JGC confirmed the safety of 61 of its 78 workers at the In Amenas facility that was stormed at dawn on Wednesday by militants from “Signatories in Blood”, a group demanding an end to French military intervention in Mali.
“But the safety of the remaining 10 Japanese and seven foreign workers is yet to be confirmed,” a JGC spokesman said in Tokyo.
British Prime Minister David Cameron said on Sunday that three British nationals were confirmed dead and a further three, plus a British resident, are believed to be dead.
“I spoke to the Algerian prime minister yesterday and it is now clear that this appalling terrorist incident in Algeria is now over,” he said in a statement.
“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.
“I know the whole country will want to join me in sending our sympathies and condolences to the families who have undergone an absolutely dreadful ordeal, and now face life without these very precious loved ones.”
Kuala Lumpur said JGC had told it one of two Malaysians still unaccounted for is dead whilst the fate of the other was unknown.
Norway’s Statoil, which operates the gas plant alongside Britain’s BP and Sonatrach of Algeria, said the situation remains “unresolved” for five Statoil 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,” Statoil chief executive Helge Lund said.
Manila said 52 Filipinos caught up in the crisis had been accounted for, but it was still not known whether any others were dead.
Thirty-two kidnappers were also killed in the 72-hour stand-off, and the army freed “685 Algerian workers and 107 foreigners”, Algeria’s interior ministry said on Saturday.
Among the dead were an unknown number of foreigners – including from Britain, France, Romania and the United States.
A Colombian employee of BP oil is believed to be among the hostages killed at the gas plant, President Juan Manuel Santos said.
Relatives of Kenneth Whiteside, 59, from Glenrothes in Scotland, were “devastated” after hearing that an Algerian co-worker claimed to have seen him being shot but dying bravely with a smile, Britain’s Mail on Sunday reported.
The mother of survivor Stephen McFaul, 36, from Belfast, told the Sunday Mirror her son will be scarred for life.
Forced to wear explosives, he fled when the kidnappers’ convoy he was in came under fire on Thursday.
“He’ll have nightmares for the rest of his life after the things he saw,” she said.
In Saturday’s final assault, “the Algerian army took out 11 terrorists, and the terrorist group killed seven foreign hostages”, state television said, without giving a breakdown of nationalities.
A security official gave the same death tolls, adding that it was believed the foreigners were executed “in retaliation”.
The militants, whose leader is Algerian Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a former al-Qaeda commander, first killed a Briton and an Algerian on a bus on Wednesday before taking hundreds of workers hostage when they overran the gas plant.
As experts began to clear the complex of bombs planted by the Islamists, residents of In Amenas breathed a collective sigh of relief.
“The plant could have exploded and taken out the town,” said one resident.
Most of the hostages had been freed on Thursday when Algerian forces launched a first rescue operation which was widely condemned as hasty.
But US President Barack Obama and his French counterpart Francois Hollande said responsibility for the deaths lay with the “terrorists”.
“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,” Obama said in a statement.
“In the coming days, we will remain in close touch with the government of Algeria to gain a fuller understanding of what took place so that we can work together to prevent tragedies like this,” Obama added.
At least one American had already been confirmed dead before Saturday’s final assault.
Hollande called Algiers’ response “the most appropriate” given it was dealing with “coldly determined terrorists ready to kill their hostages”.
British Defence Secretary Philip Hammond said the deaths were “appalling and unacceptable and we must be clear that it is the terrorists who bear sole responsibility for it”.
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.
Algerian driver Iba El Haza said the hostage-takers spoke in different Arabic dialects.
“From their accents I understood one was Egyptian, one Tunisian, another Algerian and one was speaking English or [another] foreign language,” he said after escaping on Thursday.
“The terrorists said: ‘You have nothing to do with this, you are Algerians and Muslims. We won’t keep you, we only want the foreigners’.”
Hollande said French troops would stay in neighbouring Mali as long as was needed “to defeat terrorism” in the West African country and its neighbours.
Malian and French troops patrolled the outskirts of the contested northern town of Diabaly on Sunday in a show of muscle a day after West African leaders demanded speedy UN aid to rout Islamists holding the vast desert north.