January 19, 2013

Algerian assault ends crisis, 19 hostages dead

The Associated Press

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The Algerian government said the militants crept across the border from Libya, 60 miles away, while the militants later said they came from Niger, hundreds of miles to the south.

On Thursday, Algerian helicopters kicked off the military's first assault on the complex by opening fire on a convoy carrying both kidnappers and their hostages, resulting in many deaths, according to witnesses.

The accounts of hostages who escaped the standoff showed they faced dangers from both the kidnappers and the military.

Ruben Andrada, 49, a Filipino civil engineer who works as one of the project management staff for the Japanese company JGC Corp., described how he and his colleagues were used as human shields by the kidnappers, which did little to deter the Algerian military.

On Thursday, about 35 hostages guarded by 15 militants were loaded into seven SUVs in a convoy to move them from the housing complex to the refinery, Andrada said. The militants placed "an explosive cord" around their necks and were told it would detonate if they tried to run away, he said.

"When we left the compound, there was shooting all around," Andrada said, as Algerian helicopters attacked with guns and missiles. "I closed my eyes. We were going around in the desert. To me, I left it all to fate."

Andrada's vehicle overturned allowing him and a few others to escape. He sustained cuts and bruises and was grazed by a bullet on his right elbow. He later saw the blasted remains of other vehicles, and the severed leg of one of the gunmen.

The site of the gas plant spreads out over several acres and includes a housing complex and the processing site, about a mile apart, making it especially complicated for the Algerians to secure the site and likely contributed to the lengthy standoff.

"It's a big and complex site. It's a huge place with a lot of people there and a lot of hiding places for hostages and terrorists," said Col. Richard Kemp, a retired commander of British forces who had dealt with hostage rescues in Iraq and Afghanistan. "These are experienced terrorists holding the hostages."

Casualty figures varied widely. While the Algerian government has only admitted to 19 hostages dead so far, the militants claimed through the Mauritanian news website ANI that the helicopter attack alone killed 35 hostages.

One American, from Texas, is among the dead and least one Briton, a Frenchman and Algerians have also died in the standoff. Escaped Algerian workers describe seeing people of many nationalities, including Japanese, shot down.

French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Saturday that the Frenchman killed, Yann Desjeux, was a former member of the French special forces and part of the security team. The remaining three French nationals who were at the plant are now free, the Foreign Ministry said.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague confirmed that as of Saturday, there were "fewer than 10" British nationals still at risk or unaccounted for and "the majority of" Britons at the plant were now safe, he said.

Statoil CEO Helge Lund said Saturday that there were only six Norwegians unaccounted for, from the 17 at the plant at the time of the attack. BP said four of its 18 employees were still unaccounted for.

Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta said Saturday one Romanian hostage was killed in the course of the siege, while four escaped unharmed.

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