Algeria ends desert siege with 23 hostages dead
By Lamine Chikhi and Abdelaziz Boumzar | ReutersALGIERS/IN AMENAS, Algeria (Reuters) - Algerian troops ended a siege by Islamist militants at a gas plant in the Sahara desert where 23 hostages died, with a final assault which killed all the remaining hostage-takers.
January 20, 2013, 3:52 pm TWN
Believed to be among the 32 dead militants was their leader, Abdul Rahman al-Nigeri, a Nigerien close to al Qaeda-linked commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar, presumed mastermind of the raid.
An Algerian interior ministry statement on the death toll gave no breakdown of the number of foreigners among hostages killed since the plant was seized before dawn on Wednesday.
Details are only slowly emerging on what happened during the siege, which marked a serious escalation of unrest in northwestern Africa, where French forces are ratcheting up a war against Islamist militants in neighboring Mali.
Algeria's interior ministry said on Saturday that 107 foreign hostages and 685 Algerian hostages had survived, but did not give a detailed breakdown of those who died.
"We feel a deep and growing unease ... we fear that over the next few days we will receive bad news," said Helge Lund, Chief Executive of Norway's Statoil, which ran the plant along with Britain's BP and Algeria's state oil company.
"People we have spoken to describe unbelievable, horrible experiences," he said.
British Prime Minister David Cameron said he feared for the lives of five British citizens unaccounted for at the gas plant near the town of In Amenas, which was also home to expatriate workers from Japanese engineering firm JGC Corp and others.
One American and one British citizen have been confirmed dead. Statoil said five of its workers, all Norwegian nationals, were still missing. Japanese and American workers are also unaccounted for.
The Islamists' attack has tested Algeria's relations with the outside world, exposed the vulnerability of multinational oil operations in the Sahara and pushed Islamist radicalism in northern Africa to center stage.
Some Western governments expressed frustration at not being informed of the Algerian authorities' plans to storm the complex. Algeria, scarred by a civil war with Islamist insurgents in the 1990s which claimed 200,000 lives, had insisted there would be no negotiation in the face of terrorism.
President Barack Obama said on Saturday the United States was seeking from Algerian authorities a fuller understanding of what took place, but said "the blame for this tragedy rests with the terrorists who carried it out."
Official sources had no immediate confirmation of newspaper reports suggesting some of the hostages may have been executed by their captors as the Algerian army closed in for the final assault on Saturday.
One source close to the crisis said 16 foreign hostages were freed, including two Americans and one Portuguese.
BP's chief executive Bob Dudley said on Saturday four of its 18 workers at the site were missing. The remaining 14 were safe.