Diplomats have been left deeply frustrated after Algerian special forces stormed the gas plant in the east of the country in an attempt to wipe out the Islamist militants behind the siege.
Neither Britain or the US were told in advance of the raid, which continued to play out last night. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, told the Commons he was “disappointed” not to have been informed.
Yesterday, Japan summoned the Algerian ambassador for a dressing down. However, all nine countries affected continued to offer the Algerian authorities assistance in the hope of saving the lives of hostages who remained in the remote facility. With around ten Britons still unaccounted for, Mr Cameron has urged Algerian premier Abdelmalek Sellal to act with caution in several phone calls in recent days, and the British Government has offered significant assistance.
Yesterday afternoon, a plane chartered by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), and carrying a special consular team, landed in the desert outpost of Hassi Messaoud, around 300 miles north-west of Amenas.
While BP is taking the lead in the evacuation of British workers, the FCO has stationed a contingency team in the region, along with intelligence analysts.
The government has not confirmed whether special forces personnel have been deployed, saying only that it is continuing to offer technical and logistical support. Mr Cameron was careful yesterday to emphasise that Britain would “stand with the Algerians in their fight against these terrorist forces”.
His spokesman stressed that “this is Algerian sovereign territory and they of course have the right to do as they see fit”.
The US, which has around seven nationals affected, also offered hostage rescue teams, according to a senior military official, but the offer was refused. Nonetheless, it is understood the US has deployed a surveillance drone over the plant, potentially offering the Algerians ISTAR capability – short for “intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance”.
US defence secretary Leon Panetta has condemned the militants responsible, warning them: “Those who would wantonly attack our country and our people will have no place to hide.” He vowed the US government was “working around the clock to ensure the safe return of our citizens”.
Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe cut short his first foreign visit since taking office to focus on the ongoing crisis. Chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga said Mr Abe was due to return home from Jakarta yesterday after holding talks and a news conference with Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
The government said Japanese company JGC, which provides services at the complex, confirmed three of its employees were safe and the status of 14 others was unclear. The statement did not address earlier media reports that three Japanese were hostages. Algeria’s ambassador to Japan was summoned and told that Japan demanded that Algeria prioritise saving the hostages’ lives.
Elsewhere in Asia, Malaysian foreign minister Datuk Seri Anifah promised his government “will do our utmost” to secure the release of two of its nationals.
According to Algeria’s state news agency, two Filipino hostages were killed in the crisis. Foreign affairs under-secretary Raul Hernandez confirmed yesterday that 34 Filipinos working at the Algerian gas field had been flown out of the country, while one Filipino escaped with injuries during the military operation.
Mr Hernandez, who estimated that there were about 3,400 Filipinos working in the African state, said Manila had plans to improve its monitoring of the situation, but did not elaborate.
In Norway, prime minister Jens Stoltenberg said his nation was sending a plane with medical equipment and personnel to the volatile region. Nine Norwegian employees of Statoil were hostages.
Romania’s foreign ministry confirmed that an undisclosed number of its nationals were among the hostages. It has set up a special emergency response unit to deal with the affair.
The only nation to caution against criticism of the Algerians was the French, which has an undisclosed number of nationals affected.
Foreign ministry spokesman Philippe Lalliot distanced himself from criticisms of the Algerian military operation, saying: “The Algerian authorities judged that they had no other choice but to launch an assault.”
Experts said it was no surprise that Algeria had decided to go it alone. “The Algerians are very, very prickly about their sovereignty,” said Nigel Inkster, a former senior British intelligence official.
The country threw off French rule in 1962 after years of war, and 20,000 people died in a 1990s conflict between the government and Islamist rebels.
Terrorists attack two buses en route to the In Amenas airfield, killing all of those in the convoy, including one Briton. Heavily armed gunmen then take hostages after storming the energy site near In Amenas. The hostages include several Britons, a 36-year-old Irishman and nationals from at least seven other countries including Algeria.
BP confirm a “security incident” and set up a helpline for relatives.
UK officials say no family hotline has been set up for the incident because the number of British nationals involved is “very small”.
After a 45-minute meeting of Whitehall’s Cobra emergency committee, Mr Cameron’s official spokesman says “several” UK nationals are involved. Reports emerge that a news agency in the Saharan state of Mauritania was contacted by the militant group Katibat Moulathamine – “The Masked Ones” – claiming the attack was carried affiliates.
Algerian interior minister Daho Ould Kabila tells reporters the militants wanted to leave the country with the hostages, but he had refused to let them go. A man claiming to be a spokesman for the militants says that al-Qaeda carried out the attack. US Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta condemns the attack.
BP says armed groups were still on site holding a number of its staff, and describes the situation as “unresolved and fragile”.
A group of foreign nationals, including a French couple, escaped from their kidnappers, according to local reports.
Mr Cameron’s spokesman says the situation is “very serious and dangerous”. A Cobra meeting is held in the afternoon. First Minister Alex Salmond tells MSPs a number of Scots are among the hostages.
Fears rise amid reports that many hostages had been killed during fierce fighting. Militants reportedly claimed the hostages were killed after Algerian helicopters began strafing the plant, while 15 kidnappers were reported dead.
Algerian authorities confirmed that an operation is under way at the gas plant deep in the desert at In Amenas where the hostages are being held.
Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs says the Irish man held hostage in Algeria – later named as Stephen McFaul – has made contact with his family and is understood to be safe and freed from captivity.
The Algerian government said it had to act “immediately” to intervene in the hostage crisis. Mr Cameron was informed when he telephoned the Algerian prime minister at 11am, a spokesman says.
Mr Cameron says the country should be “prepared for the possibility of further bad news” from the hostage situation. Downing Street announces he has postponed his speech on Europe .
The Foreign Office announces William Hague is cutting short his trip to Australia to return to the UK.
The raid to free hostages from the plant ends, according to Algerian state media.
Mr McFaul’s brother Brian McFaul says the escaped hostage had explosives around his neck as he made his getaway.
In a statement to the House of Commons, Mr Cameron says the number of British citizens at risk in the Algerian terror attack has now been “quite significantly reduced”. Mr Panetta says in London that there was “no justification for the kidnapping and murder of innocent people”, and vowed the US government is “working around the clock to ensure the safe return of our citizens”.
Mr Salmond says a number of Scottish residents who were held hostage in the Algerian terror attack are now “safe and well”.
Algerian state news says about 60 foreign hostages are unaccounted for.
Nearly 100 out of 132 foreign hostages have been freed in the Sahara siege.
Algeria’s state news agency says 12 hostages have been killed since the start of the operation.