MORE than 100 hostages seized by Islamist militants at an Algerian gas plant were freed last night, but some 30 foreign nationals, including at least ten Britons, were still unaccounted for at the remote desert compound.
Workers who escaped during a rescue operation staged by Algerian special forces, including a number of Scots, spoke of their relief but said their thoughts were with colleagues who remained caught up in the siege that is thought to have claimed at least 30 lives.
Twelve hostages, including Algerian and foreign workers, have been killed since the start of the rescue operation, Algeria’s state news agency said last night.
It was reported that two UK workers were among the casualties, which would bring the British death toll to three after one was killed in Wednesday’s initial raid by the militants. Eighteen of the hostage takers are dead, the news agency said.
One Scot, named as Iain Strachan from Renfrewshire, who managed to escape the sprawling compound 800 miles south-east of Algiers, described the efforts of the Algerian army as “fantastic”.
He told Algerian television: “I’m very, very relieved to be out, obviously.
“We still don’t know really what’s happening back on site, so, as much as we’re glad to be out, our thoughts are with colleagues who are still there at the moment. But I’m very relieved.”
Asked about the role played by Algerian forces in securing their release, he said: “Fantastic. I’ve never been so relieved as when they came and got us off site, so we thank them very much for that.”
Another Briton, who gave his name as Darren Matthews, said: “I feel safe at the moment, but I won’t feel 100 per cent happy until I’m back in the UK, until I see my family.
“My heart goes out to the guys that are still there and hopefully everyone comes home safe because, at the end of the day, it’s only work, you know. No-one should have to go through all this for a job.”
Two other Scots, Mark Grant, a 29-year-old from Grangemouth, Stirlingshire, who worked as a contracts administrator with BP, and Alan Wright, an oil worker from Portsoy in Aberdeenshire, are also understood to have been freed.
Nearly 72 hours after terrorists attacked two buses en route to the In Amenas airfield near the Libyan border, the fate of many foreigners from nine countries remained unclear.
Amid conflicting reports over how many hostages had been taken, security sources told Algerian state news agency APS that about 100 overseas workers had been “released,” and put the total originally seized by the Islamist militants at 132. Initial reports suggested 41 foreigners had been captured.
The Foreign Office refused to confirm the APS figures.
At least ten UK citizens were understood to remain “at risk”, as local efforts continued to end the terrorist attack, which militants said came in retaliation for France’s recent military intervention against Islamist rebels in neighbouring Mali.
Prime Minister David Cameron insisted Britain would do “everything we can to hunt down” those behind the “brutal and savage” episode.
But he echoed the anger of government around the world by publicly expressing frustration that he had not been forewarned of the Algerian special forces’ assault on Thursday, in which some foreign workers died.
Earlier, First Minister Alex Salmond said a number of Scottish residents who had been held hostage in the terror attack were now “safe and well”. He added: “We are not confirming numbers or other details at this stage as the situation continues to be fluid and is not yet resolved.”
The Algerian government said a significant number of foreigners had been freed in an operation led by its own special forces but that an unspecified number had been killed.
It remained unclear last night how many of those still in the complex were alive.
Despite the fatalities among the hostages, an Algerian government source quoted by APS strongly defended the military operation, saying it had prevented a “true disaster” that would have caused “immeasurable” human and material damage.
The rescue mission had been carried out in “extremely complex circumstances” against terrorists armed with a huge arsenal of missiles, rocket launchers, grenades, and assault rifles, the source said.
APS said the unconfirmed figures put at 573 the number of Algerians “freed” by special forces, adding that efforts to expel the militants were ongoing.
It quoted a security source as saying they were working to find a “peaceful end”.
The Foreign Office yesterday sent a plane carrying consular crisis staff to within 280 miles of the facility, amid continued efforts by BP, the joint operator of the gas plant, and the government to evacuate UK workers.
Nine consular staff and a six-strong Red Cross support team arrived in Algeria mid-afternoon, joining five consular staff already on the ground.
The Prime Minister met United States defence secretary Leon Panetta, who was already on a scheduled visit to London, for talks in Downing Street about the crisis. After the meeting, he took the chair for the day’s second meeting of the government’s emergency committee, Cobra.
Mr Cameron, who cancelled a trip to the Netherlands for his long-awaited speech on the EU so he could oversee the crisis, also gave an update to MPs in the House of Commons.
The number of British citizens believed killed, injured or missing had been “quite significantly reduced” since reports that they numbered around 30, he said.
Other reports put the number at ten, and it is believed that is much closer to the true picture. However, details were being held back yesterday for fear of aiding the terrorists.
Mr Cameron was told of the military raid only after it was under way, when he telephoned Algerian prime minister Abdelmalek Sellal on Thursday morning.
He told MPs he was “disappointed not to be informed in advance” about the Algerian special forces’ action.
“They were facing the situation where there was imminent threat to life and we should bear that in mind,” he told the Commons, describing the contacts between the two governments as “good”.
“I won’t hide, of course, we were disappointed not to be informed of the assault in advance and we do want to help in any way we can with technical help and assistance.”
The Prime Minister went on: “I think we should show understanding the Algerian government faces a huge threat from Islamist terrorists and they were facing the situation where there was imminent threat to life, and we should bear that in mind.”
There were reports from a Mauritanian news site that the militants were demanding the release of two terror figures being held in US jails – 1993 World Trade Centre bombing mastermind Omar Abdel Rahman and a Pakistani scientist convicted of shooting at two American soldiers in Afghanistan – in return for the release of two US captives.
The offer, according to the site that frequently broadcasts dispatches from groups linked to al-Qaeda, came from Moktar Belmoktar, an extremist commander based in Mali who apparently masterminded the hostage operation.
Asked about the offer, US state department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said: “The United States does not negotiate with terrorists.”
People from 10 nations caught up in crisis
The militants held hostages from ten countries:
ALGERIA Hundreds of Algerians worked at the gas plant, but most were released.
NORWAY Nine Norwegian employees of Statoil were hostages.
UNITED STATES Of seven American hostages, the militants said only two had survived Thursday’s strafing by the Algerians.
BRITAIN “Several” British nationals were among the hostages. Algeria says two Britons were killed in Thursday’s assault.
JAPAN JGC, a company that provides services at the complex, said three of its staff were safe. The status of 14 others was unclear.
PHILIPPINES Two Filipino hostages are said to have been killed, while one escaped.
MALAYSIA Two Malaysians were held, the government said.
IRELAND One Irishman held but he is now safe and free.
FRANCE President Francois Hollande said there were French hostages but gave no number.
ROMANIA Country’s foreign ministry said Romanians were among the hostages.