Algeria Gas Plant Seizure Ends as Militants, Hostages Die

The Algerian government said 23 hostages and 32 terrorists died in the four-day standoff that ended yesterday at a natural-gas plant, even as it warned that the death toll could rise.

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 and Malaysia were also either confirmed dead or missing.

President Barack Obama, who was sworn in for a second term in Washington today, 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 today 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 APS news 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.

Algerian troops had first attempted a rescue on Jan. 17, a day after militants from a group called al Mulathameen attacked the complex. The plant, which supplies about 2 percent of Europe’s gas imports, is operated by London-based BP Plc, Statoil SAS of Norway and Algeria’s Sonatrach.

Army Searches

The army was continuing to search the site and the death toll may rise, Algerian Communications Minister Mohamed Said told national television today, newspaper El Watan reported. Another 25 unidentified burned bodies were found today, Ennahar television reported today on its website.

“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,” President Barack 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 today 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.”

U.K. Deaths

A French security worker was killed in the attack, while three French survived, the Foreign Ministry said.

U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague said today that three Britons are known to be dead and three are 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.

BP Chief Executive Officer Bob Dudley said yesterday that four of 18 employees remained missing and some may have died. A Colombian BP worker, Carlos Estrada, may have been among those killed, that country’s president, Juan Manuel Santos, said.

The plant had a large workforce, employing citizens from more than 25 countries, Dudley said on a conference call.

Malaysia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said today that one of two Malaysians unaccounted for is possibly dead. Five Malaysians were working at the facility, it said.

Gun Attack

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.

Fluent English

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.

Speaking today, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron refused to criticize the Algerian government. He said that “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.

Algerian gas exports weren’t reduced following the attack, Energy Minister Youcef Yousfi told APS. “We simply compensated for the lack of production by producing other fields,” he said.