Algeria Hostage Death Count Trickles in as Hunt Goes on

An accounting of deaths in the hostage crisis at a remote natural gas facility is trickling out of Algeria, where security forces have been combing through the large complex seeking al-Qaeda-linked militants and about 30 foreigners whose fate is unknown.

The U.S. took custody of the remains of an American, Frederick Buttaccio of Katy, Texas, who was found dead at the complex in Algeria’s southeastern desert, according to a U.S. official who wasn’t authorized to speak on the record. Buttaccio’s death was confirmed by State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, who said in a statement that “out of respect for the family’s privacy, we have no further comment.”

Two employees of Statoil ASA were brought to safety, accounting for 11 of the 17 Norwegian state company’s workers who were at the facility, Helge Lund, its chief executive officer, said in televised briefing from Stavanger today. A French hostage who wasn’t publicly identified was killed, according to Agence France-Presse, citing French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius. The state-run Algeria Press Service reported a “provisional” death count of 12 hostages, including Algerians and foreigners.

The Algerian government began its rescue operation at the plant operated by Statoil, London-based BP Plc and Algeria’s Sonatrach on Jan. 17 without coordinating with foreign governments, which had urged caution to safeguard the lives of the hostages, according to U.S. and other officials who weren’t authorized to be identified.

Clearer Picture

About 10 Britons are unaccounted for, according to two U.K. government officials who declined to be identified because the situation is fluid. Ten Japanese were also reported missing. The fate of two of five Malaysian working at the facility is unknown, the nation’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement today.

Norwegian Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide said there is now a clearer picture of the situation at the facility. An SAS plane has been given clearance to fly to In Amenas to help with transport, he told reporters in Oslo today.

Algerian security forces have freed 573 Algerians and about 100 foreign captives out of 132, the state-run Algerian Press Service reported, without saying where it got the information. That accounting of foreigners at the facility -- which includes a housing compound and production areas -- is three times larger than the early reports that about 40 foreigners were being held.

Nearing End

“There has been good contact, good information sharing and good cooperation in this phase of the operations with Algerian authorities and we now have hope that the operation is nearing an end,” Eide said. He said yesterday there are still hostages and hostage takers in the production part of the facility.

The situation remains “difficult and dangerous,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in Washington yesterday after speaking by phone with the Algerian prime minister.

A U.S. military C-130 transport plane flew some people, including an undisclosed number of former hostages, from Algeria to a location in Europe, according to a U.S. official not authorized to speak for attribution. A second transport plane was also available, he said.

Second Counterattack

The Islamic militants struck Jan. 16. About 30 attackers of various nationalities were involved, Algeria Press Service said, citing security sources. The group, which entered Algeria from neighboring Niger, included citizens of Algeria, Canada, Mali, Egypt, Niger and Mauritania, according to Mauritania’s private ANI news agency, citing a source in the group.

The army began a second counterattack yesterday which killed 18 militants, according to APS. Some captives were reported dead after the Jan. 17 assault. The gas complex has been shut down to avert the risk of explosion, APS said.

The attack by the Islamic militants “appears to have been a large well-coordinated and heavily armed assault, and it is probable that it had been pre-planned,” U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron told lawmakers in the House of Commons yesterday.

“The precise numbers involved remain unclear at this stage, but the hostages included British nationals, along with nationals of at least seven other countries and, of course, many Algerians,” Cameron said.

Cameron said his government wasn’t informed about the Algerian rescue attempt until it was under way Jan. 17. None of the nations whose citizens were among the hostages were consulted, said a U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss classified information.

Mali Rebels

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called the hostage crisis “extremely despicable” after cutting short an official visit to Indonesia following reports some hostages had been killed. “The lives of the hostages are our first priority,” he said in a statement on his official website.

The captors, a unit of militants calling themselves “Signatories by Blood,” have demanded that France end its military attacks in Mali, which began Jan. 11. They threatened to kill hostages if it didn’t, Mauritania’s ANI news agency said Jan. 17.

Militant leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar said yesterday he wanted to negotiate with France, which is fighting al-Qaeda-linked insurgents in Mali, and would exchange American hostages for two Islamists held in U.S. jails, ANI reported. He identified them as Omar Abdel Rahman and Aafia Siddiqui.

Life Sentence

Abdel Rahman, an Egyptian cleric known as the “blind sheik,” is serving a life sentence in the U.S. after being convicted in 1995 of participating in a failed 1993 plot to blow up the World Trade Center and other New York City landmarks. Siddiqui, a U.S.-educated Pakistani neuroscientist, was sentenced to 86 years in U.S. prison for trying to kill American soldiers and federal agents in Afghanistan in 2008.

French officials said the extent of the natural gas site, some 40 kilometers (25 miles) across, means that hostages or militants could still be hiding inside it, complicating the task for the Algerian troops.

The closing of the plant at In Amenas will compound a seven-year decline in Algerian exports driven by higher domestic energy demand, said Thierry Bros, a gas-market analyst at Societe Generale SA. The field accounts for 2 percent of Europe’s gas imports, bringing in $3.9 billion a year in revenue, he said.

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