January 20, 2013

Algerian military ends standoff with dozens of hostages killed

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says the U.S. is asking what happened to any American hostages.


LONDON - Ignoring global calls for restraint, the Algerian military staged a final assault Saturday against Islamist militants at an energy complex in the Sahara, culminating a four-day siege that left some two dozen hostages dead and spawned fears of a resurgent al-Qaida in North Africa.

Eleven kidnappers and seven hostages died in Saturday's operation targeting the remaining militant stronghold at the vast facility run by London-based BP, Norway's Statoil and Algeria's state energy giant, according to Algeria's state news service and France's Agence France-Presse.

An Algerian security official quoted by the news agencies suggested that the militants killed the hostages as forces moved in on their position. Earlier reports indicated that the heavily armed militants were holding two Americans, three Belgians, a Japanese and a Briton in one section of the compound, but there was as yet no official confirmation of the identities of the victims.

Algeria's interior minister, Daho Ould Kablia, said on state television Saturday evening that the standoff was over, and that in all it had resulted in the deaths of 32 terrorists and at least 23 foreign hostages. Ould Kablia said that troops had found a huge amount of military equipment and highly sophisticated weapons in the complex.

At a news conference in London, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the U.S. government was "still trying to get accurate information about how many Americans were there and what happened to them."

Asked whether the Algerian security forces had moved too quickly to resolve the standoff or had acted too aggressively, Panetta declined to criticize them. British Defense Secretary Philip Hammond said that "it's the terrorists that bear sole responsibility."

But he acknowledged that Algeria had refused outside offers of assistance and that Britain may have handled things differently. "We find that they don't always do things the way we would do them."

"They've been clear from the outset that this is something they're going to manage themselves," Hammond said. "There can be no doubting their commitment to dealing with Islamist terrorism."

As he has since the outbreak of the Algeria crisis, Panetta reiterated the Obama administration's commitment to go after terrorists. But he gave no specifics about how it intended to respond to the hostage-taking, or more broadly against the threat of terrorism in Mali and elsewhere in North Africa.

The standoff began early Wednesday when dozens of militants stormed the compound, taking hundreds of hostages. Most of the hostages were Algerians who were allowed to go free.

BP Group Chief Executive Bob Dudley told reporters in a Saturday afternoon conference call that the militants had laced the plant with explosives in an apparent attempt to destroy it, leaving the Algerian military in the process of smaller search and rescue missions and mine sweeps to fully secure the labyrinthine facility.

Governments whose nationals were taken hostage, including the United States, had urged caution after a rescue attempt Thursday led to a number of deaths. On Saturday, however, many refrained from pointed criticism, reminding journalists of the need to keep working with the Algerians on operations against al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, the local affiliate of the global terrorist network. The siege this week was linked to an AQIM offshoot, the Masked Brigade, which is led by the one-eyed Algerian militant Mokhtar Belmokhtar.

In comments Saturday, French President Francois Hollande went as far as to endorse Algeria's tactics: "When there is a hostage-taking with so many people involved, and terrorists so coldly determined, ready to murder . . .there could be no negotiation."

The military assault recalled the horrors of Algeria's long civil war against Islamist militants in the 1990s, shattering a new image of progress embodied in the North African nation's vast energy fields, which supply 20 percent of Western Europe's natural gas.

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