January 17, 2013

Algeria: Army rescues hostages, but death toll unclear

Algerian television said Thursday four captives, two Britons and two Filipinos, had died. The militants said at least 35 were killed. The fate and number of American hostages was unclear.

The Associated Press

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This undated image released Wednesday by BP petroleum company shows the Amenas natural gas field in the eastern central region of Algeria, where Islamist militants raided and took hostages on Wednesday.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

The militants, via a Mauritanian news website, claimed that 35 hostages and 15 militants died in the helicopter strafing. A spokesman for the Masked Brigade told the Nouakchott Information Agency in Mauritania that only seven hostages survived.

By nightfall, Algeria's government said the raid was over. But the whereabouts of the rest of the plant workers was unclear.

President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron spoke on the phone to share their confusion. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said the Obama administration was "seeking clarity from the government of Algeria."

An unarmed American surveillance drone soared overhead as the Algerian forces closed in, U.S. officials said. The U.S. offered military assistance Wednesday to help rescue the hostages but the Algerian government refused, a U.S. official said in Washington. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the offer.

Militants earlier said they were holding seven Americans, but the administration confirmed only that Americans were among those taken. The U.S. government was in contact with American businesses across North Africa and the Middle East to help them guard against the possibility of copycat attacks.

BP, the Norwegian company Statoil and the Algerian state oil company Sonatrach, operate the gas field and a Japanese company, JGC Corp, provides services for the facility.

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe protested the military raid as an act that "threatened the lives of the hostages," according to a spokesman.

Jean-Christophe Gray, a spokesman for Cameron, said Britain was not informed in advance of the raid.

One Irish hostage managed to escape: electrician Stephen McFaul, who'd worked in North Africa's oil and natural gas fields off and on for 15 years. His family said the militants let hostages call their families to press the kidnappers' demands.

"He phoned me at 9 o'clock to say al-Qaida were holding him, kidnapped, and to contact the Irish government, for they wanted publicity. Nightmare, so it was. Never want to do it again. He'll not be back! He'll take a job here in Belfast like the rest of us," said his mother, Marie.

Dylan, McFaul's 13-year-old son, started crying as he talked to Ulster Television. "I feel over the moon, just really excited. I just can't wait for him to get home," he said.

At least one Filipino managed to escape and was slightly injured, the Philippine Foreign Affairs Department said. Spokesman Raul Hernandez said he had no information about any fatalities.

Algerian forces who had ringed the Ain Amenas complex had vowed not to negotiate with the militants, who reportedly were seeking safe passage. Security experts said the end of the two-day standoff was in keeping with the North African country's tough approach to terrorism.

"Algerians clearly were not willing to compromise with the terrorists and not willing to accept the idea of coping with the situation for days and days," said Riccardo Fabiani of Eurasia Group. "Algerians never had problems causing a blood bath to respond to terrorist attacks."

Phone contacts with the militants were severed as government forces closed in, according to the Mauritanian agency, which often carries reports from al-Qaida-linked extremist groups in North Africa.

A 58-year-old Norwegian engineer who made it to the safety of a nearby Algerian military camp told his wife how militants attacked a bus Wednesday before being fended off by a military escort.

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