Algeria hostage crisis: Hunt goes on for missing oil workers

Algeria security forces escort a bus carrying freed hostages. Picture: Getty
Algeria security forces escort a bus carrying freed hostages. Picture: Getty
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A FOUR-DAY siege in the Sahara desert ended in bloodshed yesterday when Algerian special forces stormed a compound where a number of foreign hostages were being held by Islamist militants.

At least seven hostages died and 11 of their captors were gunned down by Algerian troops during the final assault on the remote BP gas plant at In Amenas. Last night, Foreign Secretary William Hague confirmed that five British nationals and one UK resident are unaccounted for.

Defence Secretary Philip Hammond said he had been informed by the Algerian government yesterday that the military operation was at an end. “We are pressing the Algerians for details on the exact situation … the loss of life is appalling and unacceptable. We must be clear that the terrorists bear responsibility for it. Their actions can never be justified.”

At least 19 hostages and 29 kidnappers are now thought to have died in a tense stand-off that began on Wednesday. More than 100 foreign nationals were freed on Friday, but about 30 foreigners remain unaccounted for, including about ten from the UK. Eight Scots caught up in the incident were “safe and secure”, First Minister Alex Salmond said yesterday.

The hostages that died yesterday were killed as troops mounted a fresh offensive to free them at the sprawling compound 800 miles south-east of Algiers.

Earlier, the kidnappers – who call themselves the Masked Brigade or “The Signers in Blood” – told a Mauritanian news agency that they were holding seven foreigners: one British, three Belgians, two Americans and one Japanese. They said they staged the attack in retaliation for France’s military intervention against Islamist rebels in neighbouring Mali.

Prime Minister David Cameron, who was at Chequers, held talks last night with the Algerian prime minister, Abdelmalek Sellal, who confirmed that troops were conducting an exhaustive search of the facility for missing foreign nationals. The plant has a 700-strong workforce and is jointly run by BP, Norway’s Statoil and Algeria’s state-owned oil company.

BP chief executive Bob Dudley said it was “unable to confirm the location or situation” of four employees and had “grave fears” that it was likely to have suffered fatalities.

Two BP staff sustained injuries – not life-threatening – and have been flown out of Algeria. “Our focus remains on our colleagues who we have not yet been able to locate, and on supporting their families through a time of agonising uncertainty,” he said.

“The information I’ve had from the Algerian energy ministry is that the active operation has been completed, that the terrorists had an intention of potentially destroying the entire facility and there are explosives and mines involved and it is being systematically being walked through by the Algerian military.”

Last night, Statoil chief executive Helge Lund said five of its workers were missing, with one rescued. “We fear that, over the next few days, we will receive bad news. People we have spoken to describe unbelievable, horrible experiences.”

Salmond said the details of the Scots involved would not be released until the situation was fully resolved. “We will provide full details as soon as we are satisfied that the information is full and final and, most importantly, that families have been informed,” he said.

The crisis began on Wednesday when militants attacked two buses carrying foreign workers before storming the compound. A Briton and an Algerian reportedly died in the incident.

The militants then took Algerians and expatriates hostage at the complex. The leader of the kidnappers is believed to be a veteran fighter from Niger, named as Abdul Rahman al-Nigeri by the Mauritanian news agency ANI.

Algerian special forces staged a rescue operation on Thursday after militants attempted to move some of the captives from the facility. Until yesterday a group of militants armed with rocket-launchers and machine guns was reportedly still holed up at the site. The militants had also reportedly tried to sabotage the gas installation on Friday night by starting a fire, but that it was quickly extinguished, before yesterday’s decisive assault.

An Algerian government source quoted yesterday by the national news agency defended the military operation, saying it prevented a “true disaster”, which would have caused “immeasurable” human and material damage. Swift action was the “only way to minimise or neutralise the deadly intent of the multinational terrorists – but not without the inevitable risks in all such situations”.

Algerian national oil and gas company Sonatrach said the army was now clearing mines planted by the militants.