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Algerians Find Many More Dead at Hostage Site

Published: January 21, 2013 | 9:40 am
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Anis Belghoul/Associated Press
Algerian Army vehicles on Sunday near a remote town in southeastern Algeria where hostages were taken in a four-day ordeal.

BAMAKO, Mali — The known death toll from the bloody four-day hostage siege in Algeria rose on Monday after Algerian officials said that security forces combing the scene had discovered many more corpses, some badly burned, at a gas-production complex deep in the Sahara.

With the Philippines reporting new casualties, the Algerian officials also said for the first time that some of the hostage takers were captured alive.

“There are a good 20 bodies,” a senior Algerian official said of the grim discoveries at the site on Sunday, a day after a final assault ended the siege. “These must be identified.”

Once they are, the preliminary count of 23 dead hostages seemed certain to rise, officials acknowledged.

“I’m very afraid that the numbers are going to go up,” the Algerian communications minister, Mohamed Saïd Oublaïd, told France 24 Television.

Despite persistent confusion over the precise number of dead hostages, the minister’s assessment was borne out on Monday when the Philippines Foreign Affairs Department announced casualties among its nationals for the first time, saying 6 Filipinos were among the hostages killed, 4 were still missing and 16 had been accounted for.

Additionally, citing an unidentified government source, Reuters said Algeria had informed Japan that 9 of its citizens died — if corroborated the highest death toll by nation reported so far — while previous Japanese accounts had spoken of 10 unaccounted for. Officials in Tokyo declined to confirm those figures.

The standoff between several dozen radical Islamists and Algerian security services came to a bloody conclusion on Saturday when the Algerians assaulted the kidnappers’ last redoubt at the facility, where hundreds of Algerian and scores of expatriate workers were employed.

The victims — from the United States, Britain, France, Japan and other countries — were killed after hours of harrowing captivity in which some were forced to wear explosives. An unknown number of the hostages died in the assault on Saturday; Algerian officials said they also killed most of the remaining hostage takers, who they said were followers of Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a warlord linked to Al Qaeda based in northern Mali. A regional Web site reported that he had issued a video claiming responsibility for the attack.

Specifics on exactly who was held hostage, who escaped and who was killed remained patchy and contradictory on Sunday, including the number and status of Americans caught up in the events. One senior American official said that as many as 10 American hostages who were seized at the remote gas field may have died, including one identified as dead by the State Department on Friday. But another American official said that some Americans who were at the site survived. An official with BP, one of the companies operating the complex, identified one surviving American, and the office of a Texas congressman said there was another. A senior Algerian official interviewed on Sunday declared that “seven Americans were liberated.”

In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron also revised earlier estimates of fatalities, saying Sunday that three British citizens were confirmed dead and three more were believed to have been killed, along with one resident of Britain who was not a citizen. Earlier, the government had said five Britons and one British resident had died or were unaccounted for.

The confusion over the count of victims reflected the murky circumstances at the gas field, near a remote town in southeastern Algeria called In Amenas. Senior Algerian officials, hundreds of miles away in Algiers, the capital, said they were in the dark themselves about some aspects of the events.

They may learn more from the surviving attackers — Algerian media reports cited by The Associated Press said there were five — that the Algerian authorities said had been captured. Officials said that security forces were scouring the complex on Sunday, looking for booby traps and mines the attackers might have planted, as well as anyone who might still be in hiding. Officials have said that 32 attackers were known to have been killed over the four days.

Official declarations from the Algerian authorities have been sparse. The country’s president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, has hardly spoken about the crisis, even as foreign leaders have demanded details.

While the Algerians have weathered criticism from British, Japanese and other foreign officials over their no-holds-barred handling of the crisis — typical of their approach to a decades-old terrorism problem in Algeria — other foreigners have spoken up to defend it, especially in France, the former colonial power.

The French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, said in a radio interview on Sunday that he was “shocked” that Algeria has been criticized for its response to terrorists who “pillage, rape and ransack.” He said “there can be no impunity for terrorists” and that efforts to combat them “must be relentless.” The death toll at the gas field was “very high,” he said, but the Algerian authorities faced an “intolerable situation” there, Mr. Fabius said.

Algerian officials said from the outset that any sort of negotiation with the kidnappers was out of the question. Their response with overwhelming force — including missile-firing helicopters — was in character with the brutal 10-year war Algeria waged against Islamist insurgents in the 1990s, when tens of thousands of people died. Mr. Belmokhtar, the leader of the group that apparently staged the gas-field attack, is himself a veteran of that war.

A former BP executive, who knows In Amenas and the North African oil business well, said in an interview that Mr. Belmokhtar had been on the industry’s radar as a potential threat for a decade or more. The executive said Mr. Belmokhtar, though not a member of the Tuareg ethnic group himself, often used the desert tracks that the Tuaregs use to roam among the remote desert areas of Libya, Mali, Niger and Algeria. Some of those routes pass near In Amenas.

The scale of the operation, which supplies about 5 percent of Algeria’s gas output, and its remote location near the Libyan border meant that it was standard procedure for military escorts to accompany workers on every journey to or from distant wells, the airport or the town of In Amenas, the former executive said. He described the town as a base for the regional operations of the energy companies that operate the gas field — BP, Statoil of Norway and Sonatrach, the Algerian national oil company — as well as oil-services companies like Halliburton, Schlumberger and JGC, the Japanese company that had employees among the hostages.

Mr. Belmokhtar is believed to have been involved in a series of kidnappings of European tourists for ransom in 2003, but obtaining money does not seem to have been the main purpose of the gas field raid; rather, he reportedly claimed a political motive.

“We in Al Qaeda announce this blessed operation,” Mr. Belmokhtar says in the video he issued on Sunday, according to Sahara Media, a regional Web site that sometimes receives communications from radical Islamists in North Africa. Sahara Media quoted from the video in its report, but did not immediately post the video.

The Web site said Mr. Belmokhtar offered to negotiate with “the West and the Algerian government, provided they stop their bombing of Mali’s Muslims” — a reference to the French-led military intervention in Mali. The statement was dismissed by Algerian authorities on Sunday.

Even so, it was another signal that the events at the gas field were linked in some way to those in Mali. French forces have stepped in there to assist the Malian Army and other African troops as they try to roll back the advance of radical Islamists who have carved out a ministate in the north.

That campaign is preceding largely through airstrikes against columns of Islamist pickup trucks; French television showed images on Sunday of incinerated vehicles in Diabaly, a town that was overrun and then abandoned by the jihadists after French strikes throughout the week.

French officials aid the main task for now was to stabilize central Mali and ensure that there was no further attempt by the Islamist rebels to move south toward the capital, Bamako.


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