Eyewitnesses to Algerian Siege Recall Suicide Belts, Chaos

Even after sprinting 200 meters to safety through a broken fence at the natural-gas facility seized by terrorists, an Algerian engineer who gave his name to “Le Soir d’Algerie” newspaper as A. Tahar underwent several searches and identity checks before security forces allowed him to join a group of 400 who had already escaped or been rescued.

The precautions of the Algerian forces underscored the confusion at the 40-hectare In Amenas plant for four days after it was attacked by terrorists. While 23 hostages died and others lived through terrifying moments, others were able to hide or were left free to wander through the sprawling facility.

“Abductors were wearing a military uniform and masks,” one of the Algerian hostages who was freed said in a video interview broadcast on Al Arabiya. “Foreign hostages were being forced to wear suicide belts.”

The standoff in Algeria’s southeastern desert came to an end yesterday when Algerian special forces stormed the final 11 militants who had holed up with seven hostages in a corner of the plant. All were killed.

In total, 685 Algerian workers and 107 foreigners were rescued or escaped, Algeria’s Ministry of Interior said yesterday in a statement carried on the state-run APS news service. All 32 terrorists were killed, it said.

Under the Bed

One foreign hostage, Alexandre Berceaux, a catering worker from France, stayed hidden in his room for 40 hours, fed and protected by Algerian co-workers. “I was under the bed and put planks all over the place just in case,” he told Europe1 radio. Berceaux was eventually rescued by the Algerian army.

Another Frenchman wasn’t so lucky. Yann Desjeux, a restaurant owner from the Basque country, was killed in undetermined circumstances, the French Foreign Ministry said. President Francois Hollande said yesterday that he called his family to offer his condolences.

Desjeux’s sister Marie-Claude told Journal du Dimanche that he was a former commando who also worked for a British security company, and that he’d managed to call home to say he’d been taken hostage.

The U.S. took custody of the remains of an American, Frederick Buttaccio of Katy, Texas, who was found dead at the complex, according to a U.S. official who wasn’t authorized to speak on the record. Buttaccio’s death was confirmed Jan. 18 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.”

Guard Killed

Three British workers died and three others are presumed dead, while 22 have returned home to the U.K., British Foreign Minister William Hague said. Five of the dead were probably Norwegian employees of Statoil ASA, Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg said yesterday at a briefing in Oslo.

Algerian newspaper El Watan said one of the first victims was buried yesterday in his hometown of Mahdia, 300 kilometers south-east of Algiers. Mohamed Amine Lahmar, a 31-year-old guard, was executed by the gunmen when he refused to open a door to the site, the newspaper said.

An Algerian, who had been told by the army not to give his name, told the Daily Mail that the attackers knew the layout of the facility, and even names of some employees. They separated Algerians from the foreigners, and attached explosives to the latter. They forced an engineer to shut down the communications system but an emergency system kicked in, allowing some to use their mobile phones.

Rescue Operation

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.

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. Algerian 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, three kilometers 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’s special forces very complex,” according to the statement.

Algerian Bombing

According to press reports, the rescue operations began when the attackers shoved hostages into five 4X4’s and tried to leave the complex. Stephen McFaul, a 36-year-old electrical engineer from West Belfast, Northern Ireland had explosives tied around his neck and was in the fifth jeep, his family told the U.K.’s Daily Mail in a report published yesterday.

The gunmen “were moving five jeep-loads of hostages from one part of the compound,” his brother Brian McFaul told the Daily Mail. “At that stage, they were intercepted by the Algerian army. The army bombed four out of five of the trucks and four of them were destroyed. He presumed everyone else in the other trucks was killed. The truck my brother was in crashed and at that stage Stephen was able to make a break for his freedom.”

The Algerian Interior Ministry said the assault began when the special forces “were faced with the manifest intention of the terrorists leaving the national territory with the hostages.” The statement didn’t include more details.

U.S. Evacuation

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.

The unnamed Algeria quoted by the Daily Mail said he heard the kidnappers speak with Egyptian, Libyan, and Syrian accents, and that two spoke fluent English.

The Algerian Ministry of Interior said in its statement that only three of the terrorists were Algerian. It said the militants had entered Algeria from “neighboring countries,” presumably Libya, whose frontier is just 40 kilometers away.

The breach in the security fence Tahar, the engineer, escaped through had been cut by a group of about 50 Algerian workers as soon as fighting began, an Algerian engineer working for BP told France24 television. Three foreign workers had hidden among his group and escaped with them, he said.

The attack was led by an al-Qaeda splinter group “Al Mulathameen,” led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, an Algerian militant who split from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb a few months ago as part of an obscure personality clash, French officials 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,” Prime Minister Cameron told lawmakers in the House of Commons Jan. 18.

The captors demanded that France end its military attacks in Mali, which began Jan. 11. French officials said the attack appears to have been planned well before France began its military operation in Mali.