Algeria Gas Plant Seizure Ends as Militants, Hostages Die
The Algerian government warned that the death toll could rise after reporting that 23 hostages and 32 terrorists died in the four-day standoff that ended Jan. 19 at a natural-gas plant.
The dead may have included as many as six Britons and five Norwegians. One American, Frederick Buttaccio of Katy, Texas, was killed. Citizens of Colombia, France, Japan and Malaysia were also either reported dead or missing. With no authoritative word on the total number of hostages or attackers killed, another 25 unidentified burned bodies were found, Ennahar television said yesterday on its website.
President Barack Obama, who took the oath of office for a second term in Washington yesterday, and U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron said the attack by militants was a reminder of the threat posed by terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said governments must be “unrelenting” in their battle.
“Whether it’s in North Africa, Yemen, there are real threats out there from terrorism and we need to stay vigilant,” said David Plouffe, Obama’s senior political adviser. “We’re obviously going to be working closely with the Algerian government to have a full understanding of what happened,” he said yesterday on CBS’s “Face the Nation” program.
Algerian forces freed 107 foreigners and 685 Algerian workers after a military operation at the gas plant, the Interior Ministry said in a statement on the state-run Algeria Press Service. The ministry said 32 terrorists were involved -- the same number it said were killed -- and that only three were Algerian, with the rest mainly from neighboring countries.
The army was continuing to search the site and the death toll may rise, Algerian Communications Minister Mohamed Said told national television yesterday, the newspaper El Watan reported. Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal will hold a press conference today, APS said.
Energy Minister Youcef Yousfi told APS that Algeria “simply compensated for the lack of production by producing other fields.”
Yousfi visited the gas site yesterday and told reporters the damage isn’t so great, according to APS. “Once the damage is assessed, we will replace the equipment hit” and determine when the plant will resume operating, he told APS. He said workers expect to re-start the equipment within the next two days.
Algerian troops had first attempted a rescue on Jan. 17, a day after militants from a group called al Mulathameen attacked the complex.
“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 an e-mailed statement. “This attack is another reminder of the threat posed by al-Qaeda and other violent extremist groups in North Africa.”
The French government defended its former colony. Fabius, the foreign minister, said yesterday on Europe1 radio that “it bothers me that people have criticized the Algerian response when it’s the terrorists they should be talking about. Against terrorism, you have to be unrelenting.”
A French security worker was killed in the attack, while three French survived, the Foreign Ministry said.
U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague said three Britons were known to be dead and three were believed to be dead, and that 22 others have returned home. Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg said his country has five citizens it can’t account for. Statoil Chief Executive Officer Helge Lund said five of the company’s employees are missing.
“We now know that there have been many casualties,” Lund said in a televised press conference from Stavanger, Norway. “Another day without answers has strengthened our concern, and we are doing everything we can to find our five colleagues.”
Ten of 17 employees of the Japanese engineering company JGC Corp. (1963) at the complex were missing and seven were confirmed safe, Japanese government spokesman Yoshihide Suga said early today, according to AFP. Suga told reporters said he couldn’t confirm media reports that nine had been killed.
The government spokesman said Japan’s Parliamentary Vice Foreign Minister Minoru Kiuchi had arrived in In Amenas to look into the fate of the 10 missing Japanese JGC employees, and a government plane would be sent to bring home the workers who were confirmed safe.
BP said in an e-mailed statement that the company is “gravely concerned” about the four of its 18 employees who remain missing, and that the company has no new information on their status. A Colombian BP worker, Carlos Estrada, may have been among those killed, that country’s president, Juan Manuel Santos, said. BP’s statement said it has moved non-essential staff out of Algeria overnight.
Malaysia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said one of two Malaysians unaccounted for is possibly dead. Five Malaysians were working at the facility, it said.
The Islamist militants struck Jan. 16. According to a statement from the Algerian Interior Ministry, the saga began when gunmen attacked a bus carrying 19 foreigners to the airport of In Amenas. Gendarmes fought off the assault with the loss of one of their men and a British passenger.
The repulsed gunmen then attacked the gas facility itself, 3 kilometers (2 miles) away, and started taking hostages.
“The priority of preserving lives, the risks linked to the nature of gas facilities, the configuration of the site, and the menace that weighed on the hostages made the intervention of the National Popular Army very complex,” the ministry said.
The attackers included citizens of Algeria, Canada, Mali, Egypt, Niger and Mauritania, according to Mauritania’s private ANI news agency, citing an unidentified source in the group. They had demanded that France end its military intervention in neighboring Mali, which began Jan. 11.
Several hostages reported hearing at least two attackers speaking fluent North American English.
Hague said none of the nations whose citizens were among the hostages was consulted about the military operation.
Cameron refused to criticize the Algerian government, saying “no one should underestimate the difficulties of responding to an attack on this scale with 30 terrorists absolutely determined to take lives.”
The stoppage of the Tiguentourine complex since Jan. 16 has cost the state-run oil company Sonatrach $44 million in losses, El Khabar reported separately, citing an energy official.
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