SEVERAL Britons are feared to be among a group of foreign nationals killed after Algerian forces launched an attack to free hostages who had been seized by Islamic militants at a gas complex.
• Scottish nationals were among hostages captured in Algeria by Islamic militants
• Reports suggest that up to 35 people have died
Amid conflicting reports about the number who died, Whitehall officials were last night preparing the country for news of “multiple” British casualties, after the operation against the al-Qaeda-linked hostage-takers at the plant deep in the Algerian desert.
Last night the brother of an Irishman who escaped from the hostage crisis said he had explosives tied around his neck.
Father-of-two Stephen McFaul, 36, from west Belfast, fled after the vehicle he had been travelling in crashed after coming under attack from Algerian forces, Brian McFaul said. Stephen was able to run off and has made it to safety.
Members of the family have been in contact with the electrician supervisor.
Mr McFaul said: He had explosives tied around his neck. He was being transported in a convoy of five vehicles when they came under attack. His vehicle crashed.”
An Algerian security source said 30 hostages had been killed, including two Britons, two Japanese and one French national. At least 11 militants, including one Frenchman, were also reportedly dead.
As the UK and Scottish governments struggled to establish the facts, it was confirmed “a number of Scots” had been caught up in the crisis, with unverified reports suggesting two had survived.
Prime Minister David Cameron, who cancelled a speech in the Netherlands today to take charge of the government’s handling of the crisis, said Britain should be “prepared for the possibility of further bad news”.
The Westminster government expressed anger that it had not been informed in advance of the Algerian government’s intention to storm the site. Ministers are expected to provide an update today on British casualties at the compound, which is partly operated by BP.
Mr Cameron said: “It’s a fluid situation, it’s very uncertain. We should be prepared for the possibility of further bad news, very difficult news, in this extremely difficult situation.”
One Briton and an Algerian were killed at the start of the siege on Wednesday. Only one man – Stephen McFaul – was confirmed to have survived, but there were also reports that six hostages had been freed.
The hostages, said by the militants to total 41, included British, Japanese, US, French, Malaysian, Romanian and Norwegian nationals. The militants – known as Katibat Moulathamine, or the Masked Brigade – said the attack was in revenge for Algeria’s support of France’s military operation against al-Qaeda-linked rebels in neighbouring Mali. Algeria allowed French planes to fly into its airspace late last week.
The militants who died are thought to have included Abou El-Baraa, the leader of the kidnappers.
Algeria’s government confirmed some hostages had been killed in the military operation but said troops had been forced to act to free them after talks with their captors failed.
Earlier yesterday, in the first official comments by the Algerian government, communications minister Mohamed Said told the state news agency many militants had been killed. He also acknowledged there had been “several deaths and injuries” among the hostages.
Mr Cameron said: “We face a very bad situation at this BP gas compound in Algeria. A number of British citizens have been taken hostage. Already we know of one who has died. The Algerian armed forces have now attacked the compound.”
He said the government’s Cobra emergency committee was “working around the clock to do everything we can to keep in contact with the families, to build the fullest possible picture of the information and the intelligence we have”.
Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt said UK officials had been pressing the Algerian authorities for access to UK nationals caught up in the violence “in order to help with repatriation and evacuation”.
He said: “I’m afraid we should be under no illusion that there will be some bad and distressing news to follow from this terrorist attack.
“Our consular staff in Algiers has already been increased and we are pressing the Algerian authorities in order to have access to UK nationals involved who are at the site, in order to help with repatriation and evacuation.”
The White House said it was seeking clarity about the events at the gas complex, while French president François Hollande said the situation seemed “to be playing out in dramatic conditions”.
Algerian soldiers had been surrounding the plant near In Amenas since Wednesday. The deaths were thought to be the result of an Algerian government helicopter attack on a convoy carrying kidnappers and hostages. There were unconfirmed reports of explosions from the plant following that intervention.
A spokesman for the militants – said to be speaking by telephone from the complex – contacted a news agency in Mauritania to claim that 35 hostages and 15 rebels had been killed when Algerian helicopters swooped on the site. He said the hostages were being moved in oil company vehicles to another part of the complex when the attack happened.
The militants, reportedly led by the veteran jihadist Moktar Belmoktar, had previously threatened to “eliminate” the hostages if they were attacked.
The facility, 800 miles from the capital, Algiers, is operated by BP, Norwegian company Statoil, which had 12 employees caught up in the attack, and the Algerian state oil company, Sonatrach.
At Holyrood yesterday morning, First Minister Alex Salmond told MSPs: “Citizens of a number of nationalities are involved, including UK citizens, and I can confirm that a number of Scots are among the hostages.
“I know the chamber will understand that in the interests of the safety and security of the hostages, the information that can be given out is necessarily limited. The priority is their safety and, of course, to keep the families informed.”
BP said it would not release details of its staff caught up in the crisis, including their nationalities, but was withdrawing a group of “non-essential” workers from the region.
“Supporting these families is our priority and we are doing all we can to help during this sad and uncertain time,” BP group chief executive Bob Dudley said.
Statoil boss Helge Lund said nine Norwegians were “involved” or “affected”.
Mr McFaul was the first hostage confirmed to be freed. His sister, Donna McBride, said: “We are absolutely delighted that he is free and is unharmed. I feel so sorry for the rest of the families who have lost loved ones and others who are missing.”