The gas field at In Amenas, Algeria, where the Algerian
army have carried out a final assault on al Qaeda-linked
gunmen who were holed up there. REUTERS/Kjetil
Alsvik/Statoil via Scanpix
The Algerian army carried out a dramatic final assault to
end a siege by Islamic militants at a desert gas plant on
Saturday, killing 11 al Qaeda-linked gunmen after they took the
lives of seven more foreign hostages, the state news agency
The state oil and gas company, Sonatrach, said the militants
who attacked the plant on Wednesday and took a large number
of hostages had booby-trapped the complex with explosives,
which the army was removing.
"It is over now, the assault is over, and the military are
inside the plant clearing it of mines," a source familiar
with the operation told Reuters.
British Defence Secretary Philip Hammond said the hostage
situation had been "brought to an end" by the Algerian army
assault on the militants.
The exact death toll among the gunmen and the foreign and
Algerian workers at the plant near the town of In Amenas
remained unclear, although a tally of reports from various
sources indicated that several dozen people had been killed.
The Islamists' attack on the gas plant has tested Algeria's
relations with the outside world, exposed the vulnerability
of multinational oil operations in the Sahara and pushed
Islamic radicalism in northern Africa to centre stage.
Some Western governments expressed frustration at not being
informed of the Algerian authorities' plans to storm the
complex. Algeria's response to the raid will have been
conditioned by the legacy of a civil war against Islamist
insurgents in the 1990s which claimed 200,000 lives.
As the army closed in, 16 foreign hostages were freed, a
source close to the crisis said. They included two Americans
and one Portuguese. Britain said fewer than 10 of its
nationals at the plant were unaccounted for and it was
urgently seeking to establish the status of all Britions
caught up in the crisis.
The base was home to foreign workers from Britain's BP ,
Norway's Statoil, Japanese engineering firm JGC Corp and
BP's chief executive Bob Dudley said on Saturday four of its
18 workers at the site were missing. The remaining 14 were
The crisis at the gas plant marked a serious escalation of
unrest in northwestern Africa, where French forces have been
in Mali since last week fighting an Islamist takeover of
Timbuktu and other towns.
The captors said their attack on the Algerian gas plant was a
response to the French offensive in Mali. However, some U.S.
and European officials say the elaborate raid probably
required too much planning to have been organised from
scratch in the week since France launched its strikes.
Scores of Westerners and hundreds of Algerian workers were
inside the heavily fortified gas compound when it was seized
before dawn on Wednesday by Islamist fighters who said they
wanted a halt to the French intervention in neighbouring
Hundreds escaped on Thursday when the army launched a rescue
operation, but many hostages were killed.
Before the final assault, different sources had put the
number of hostages killed at between 12 and 30, with many
foreigners still unaccounted for, among them Norwegians,
Japanese, Britons and Americans.
The figure of 30 came from an Algerian security source, who
said eight Algerians and at least seven foreigners were among
the victims, including two Japanese, two Britons and a French
national. One British citizen was killed when the gunmen
seized the hostages on Wednesday.
The U.S. State Department said on Friday one American,
Frederick Buttaccio, had died but gave no further details.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said nobody was going to
attack the United States and get away with it.
"We have made a commitment that we're going to go after al
Qaeda wherever they are and wherever they try to hide," he
said during a visit to London. "We have done that obviously
in Afghanistan, Pakistan, we've done it in Somalia, in Yemen
and we will do it in North Africa as well."
Earlier on Saturday, Algerian special forces found 15
unidentified burned bodies at the plant, a source told
The field commander of the group that attacked the plant is a
fighter from Niger called Abdul Rahman al-Nigeri, according
to Mauritanian news agencies. His boss, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a
veteran of fighting in Afghanistan in the 1980s and Algeria's
civil war of the 1990s, appears not to have joined the raid.
Britain, Japan and other countries have expressed irritation
that the army assault was ordered without consultation and
officials grumbled at the lack of information.
But French President Francois Hollande said the Algerian
military's response seemed to have been the best option given
that negotiation was not possible.
"When you have people taken hostage in such large number by
terrorists with such cold determination and ready to kill
those hostages - as they did - Algeria has an approach which
to me, as I see it, is the most appropriate because there
could be no negotiation," Hollande said.
The apparent ease with which the fighters swooped in from the
dunes to take control of an important energy facility, which
produces some 10 percent of the natural gas on which Algeria
depends for its export income, has raised questions over the
value of outwardly tough Algerian security measures.
Algerian officials said the attackers may have had inside
help from among the hundreds of Algerians employed at the
Security in the half-dozen countries around the Sahara desert
has long been a preoccupation of the West. Smugglers and
militants have earned millions in ransom from kidnappings.
The most powerful Islamist groups operating in the Sahara
were severely weakened by Algeria's secularist military in
the civil war in the 1990s. But in the past two years the
regional wing of al Qaeda gained fighters and arms as a
result of the civil war in Libya, when arsenals were looted
from Muammar Gaddafi's army.
France says the hostage incident proves its decision to fight
Islamists in neighbouring Mali was necessary. Al Qaeda-linked
fighters, many with roots in Algeria and Libya, took control
of northern Mali last year.