Algeria Vows to Boost Security After 85 Killed in Sahara

Algeria will increase security at oil and gas installations after a terrorist attack and military response left as many as 85 people dead and exposed a growing threat from al-Qaeda in North Africa.

Authorities said at least 23 hostages died along with 32 militants after the final Jan. 19 Algerian special forces assault at the Saharan In Amenas facility, operated by BP Plc, Norway’s Statoil ASA and Algeria’s state-run Sonotrach. Security forces found about 30 more corpses yesterday, reported to be Algerian and foreign hostages, though they could not immediately be identified, according to al-Watan newspaper.

Algeria’s energy minister, Youcef Yousfi, said the nation has “the necessary means to secure its energy facilities,” the state-run Algeria Press Service reported. “We are going to strengthen security and we rely first on our means and resources.” Foreign forces would not be used, he said.

President Barack Obama and Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron said the attack underlined the threats posed by al-Qaeda-linked groups in North Africa following the so-called Arab Spring uprisings. It came just four months after the U.S. ambassador to Libya was killed by Islamist gunmen at the American consulate in Benghazi. The gas plant raid was claimed by militants of the al-Qaeda-linked al Mulathameen group, who said their action was inspired by the arrival last week of French forces seeking to block a jihadist takeover of neighboring Mali.

Casualty Details

While Algerian authorities have yet to provide a full account of what took place and who died, some countries have confirmed casualty details. The dead hostages included six Filipinos, three Britons, two Romanians, an American and a Frenchman. Five Norwegians, three U.K. citizens and a U.K. resident were missing, along with citizens of Japan, Colombia and Malaysia.

Cameron yesterday compared the threat in terrorist North Africa to that in Afghanistan and said it would require “years, even decades” to counter. Britain would use its chairmanship of the Group of Eight industrialized countries to seek a joint response, he said.

Survivors gave accounts to newspapers of chaotic and terrifying scenes from inside the plant. An Algerian engineer called Tahar told Le Soir d’Algerie newspaper of masked gunmen dressed in military uniform and of hostages forced to wear explosives around their necks.

‘Unrelenting’ Battle

Algerian Mohamed Amine Lahmar, a 31-year-old guard, was executed by gunmen when he refused to open a door in the gas plant, al Watan reported, while French catering worker, Alexandre Berceaux, was protected and fed by Algerian colleagues while he hid under a bed for 40 hours before being rescued by the army.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said governments must be “unrelenting” in their battle and acknowledged that the West should have been more concerned about the flow of arms across the region following the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s role in the downfall of Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi.

The ministry said 32 terrorists were involved -- the same number it said were killed -- and that only three were Algerian. The attackers wore Libyan military uniforms, Algeria’s privately run Ennahar television said on its website, citing unidentified officials. It said the leader of the group had a dark green uniform used by Libyan oil facility security, while 31 others were wearing yellowish military uniforms.

Europe’s Gas

Algerian forces freed 107 foreigners and 685 Algerian workers after the military operation at the gas plant, the Interior Ministry said in a statement on APS.

The plant supplies about 2 percent of Europe’s gas imports. Yousfi told APS that Algeria “simply compensated for the lack of production by producing other fields.”

Algeria’s energy minister, Yousef al Yousefi, visited the gas site yesterday and told reporters the damage was limited, according to APS. “Once the damage is assessed, we will replace the equipment hit” and determine when the plant will resume operating, he told the news agency. He said workers expect to re-start equipment within the next two days.

Algerian troops had first attempted a rescue on Jan. 17, a day after the al Mulathameen terrorists attacked the complex. The group is headed by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a one-eyed Algerian militant.

U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague said 22 Britons were freed and 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. Three French national survived, the foreign ministry said.

‘Gravely Concerned’

Seven of 17 employees of the Japanese engineering company JGC Corp. at the complex were safe and the government will send a plane to pick them up, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said at an early morning press conference. Media reports that nine had been killed couldn’t be confirmed he said.

BP said in an e-mailed statement that the company is “gravely concerned” about the four of its 18 employees who remain missing. Malaysia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said one of two Malaysians unaccounted for is possibly dead.

The Islamist militants struck on Jan. 16. According to a statement from the Algerian Interior Ministry, the attack 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 gunmen then attacked the gas facility itself, 3 kilometers (2 miles) away, and started taking hostages.

Attacks Threat

“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 group that claimed responsibility for the Algerian hostage assault warned yesterday of more attacks against any country backing French military action in Mali, the group said in a statement published on Mauritania’s private ANI news agency yesterday.

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 terror 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.

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