Five kidnappers found alive at Algeria plant

An image grab taken from footage provided by Algeria's Ennahar TV shows Algerian army tanks stationed near a gas complex in In Amenas in an isolated part of the Sahara desert. (Photo: AFP / Ennahar TV)

Published Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Algerian army found five kidnappers still alive on Sunday at a desert gas plant where the Islamist gunmen were overpowered in a bloody assault, with three others still at large, Algerian TV reported.

"Five terrorists were found still alive this morning" at the In Amenas plant, where special forces launched a final rescue bid on Saturday that left 18 people dead, including seven hostages, private television channel Ennahar reported.

But "three others are at large," the station's director Anis Rahmani told AFP.

Algeria said on Sunday it expected heavy hostage casualties after its troops ended a desert siege, as Western governments warned against criticizing tactics used by their vital ally in the struggle with Islamists across the Sahara.

An Algerian minister acknowledged the death toll would rise as Ennahar reported that 25 bodies had been found at the gas plant near the town of In Amenas after forces staged a final assault against the Islamist hostage-takers ending the 72-hour standoff on Saturday.

Some Western governments had expressed frustration at not being informed of the Algerian authorities' plans to storm the complex.

But France, which launched an ongoing assault on Islamist rebels across the desert in Mali earlier this month, joined Britain in playing down any suggestion the response from Algeria had been over-hasty or heavy-handed.

"What everyone needs to know is that these terrorists who attacked this gas plant are killers who pillage, rape, plunder and kill. The situation was unbearable," French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said.

Algeria's Interior Ministry had reported on Saturday that 23 hostages and 32 militants were killed during the assaults launched by Algerian special forces to end the crisis, with 107 foreign hostages and 685 Algerian hostages freed.

However, Minister of Communication Mohammed Said warned this would rise when final numbers were issued in the next few hours. "I am afraid unfortunately to say that the death toll will go up," Said was quoted as saying by the official APS news agency.

Details are only slowly emerging on what happened during the siege, which marked a serious escalation of unrest in northwestern Africa.

Ennahar said on Sunday that 25 bodies had been discovered at the Tiguentourine plant, adding that the operation to clear the base would last 48 hours.

The bodies were believed to belong to hostages executed by the militants, said Ennahar TV, which is known to have good sources within Algerian security.

Governments scrambled to track down their missing citizens as more details emerged of the deadly showdown after Islamists of the "Signatories in Blood" group raided the plant, demanding an end to French military assault in Mali.

Two Romanians were killed in the assault. Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta on Saturday said one Romanian was killed and one was freed in the hostage crisis.

But the second Romanian national later died of his injuries in an Algerian hospital, the foreign ministry said Sunday.

Nine Japanese were also killed during assault, an Algerian witness identified as Brahim said a day after special forces swooped on the gas plant run by Britain's BP, Norway's Statoil and Sonatrach of Algeria to end the siege.

The first three were killed as they tried to escape from a bus taking them to the airport as the militant attack unfolded, witnesses said.

"We were all afraid when we heard bursts of gunfire at 5:30am on Wednesday, after we realized that they had just killed our Japanese colleagues who tried to flee from the bus," said Riad, who works for Japan's JGC Corp engineering firm.

The gunmen then took the others to the residential compound, where they had seized hundreds of hostages, he said.

"A terrorist shouted 'open the door!' with a strong north American accent, and opened fire. Two other Japanese died then, and we found four other Japanese bodies" in the compound, he added, choking with emotion.

In Tokyo, a foreign ministry official said: "We are in a position not to comment on this kind of information at all. Please understand."

In London, British Prime Minister David Cameron said three British nationals had been confirmed killed, while a further three Britons plus a British resident were also believed to be dead.

One Briton had already was confirmed killed when the gunmen seized the hostages at the plant near the Libyan border, run by Norway's Statoil along with Britain's BP and Algeria's state oil company.

One American has also been confirmed dead. Statoil said five of its workers, all Norwegian nationals, were still missing.

"We will, and we must, keep hoping for more positive news from Algeria. However, we must be prepared to deal with bad news in the next few days," said Statoil chief executive Helge Lund.

A company statement said searches were underway inside the In Amenas complex, in the surrounding desert area, hospitals, In Amenas itself "and other villages and towns where it is possible that people could have been transported."

Thirty-two kidnappers were also killed in the ordeal, and the army freed 685 Algerian workers and 107 foreigners, said Algeria's interior ministry.

A security official told AFP it was believed seven foreigners were executed "in retaliation" on Saturday during the final assault that state television said also killed 11 militants.

The gunmen, whose leader is Algerian Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a former al-Qaeda commander, first killed a Briton and an Algerian on a bus before taking hundreds hostage at the plant.

Said reported that the militants had six different nationalities and the operation to clear the plant of mines laid by the hostage-takers was still under way.

Hundreds of hostages escaped on Thursday when the army launched a rescue operation, but many hostages were killed.

(Reuters, AFP)

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