BP pulls all UK workers out of Algeria gas plants

Hostages sit with the hands up during the In Amenas siege. Picture: Getty
Hostages sit with the hands up during the In Amenas siege. Picture: Getty
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OIL and gas giant BP has removed all foreign nationals from its production facilities in Algeria, after the hostage crisis that claimed the lives of dozens of workers, including two Scots.

The firm said it had only 14 workers remaining in Algeria, based outside the compounds, and they were co-ordinating the corporate emergency response to the attack by Islamist extremists on its In Amenas plant last week.

BP said they were likely to be brought home in the near future.

The company said it was monitoring the security situation in neighbouring Libya, where it employees “a handful” of expats and plans to resume oil exploration later this year.

The evacuation came as The Scotsman learned oil and gas companies operating across North Africa are joining forces to create a co-ordinated response to the security situation in the region, in a bid to prevent copycat attacks on westerners.

At least 69 people are believed to have died as a result of the terrorist siege at the In Amenas plant. Three Britons, including the two Scots, were confirmed dead, and a further three are believed to have been killed. A number of people are still unaccounted for.

On Thursday, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) urged workers in the Libyan city of Benghazi to evacuate immediately, amid fears of an “imminent terrorist threat” against foreigners.

The warning was sparked by unrest over French military intervention in Mali, which is thought to have been linked to last week’s attack by al-Qaeda- affiliated militants in Algeria.

British nationals, as well as those from Germany, Canada, Spain and the Netherlands, were told they should leave Benghazi, after claims schools, businesses and the offices of non-governmental organisations were among the potential targets.

The FCO has been advising against all but essential travel to most of the country since last September but stepped up its warning on Thursday.

BP said it had evacuated all 43 expats who worked at both its Algerian joint-venture plants –In Amenas and sister facility In Salah. It said it did not know when or if foreign workers would be reinstated.

BP’s 14 remaining foreign staff are stationed in Hassi Messaoud, a town 300 miles north of In Amenas, and working on completing the firm’s emergency response to the crisis. They are expected to leave the country within weeks.

The future of the company’s western staff in Libyan capital Tripoli is also under consideration. BP said last year it planned to resume operations in Libya, which it had suspended due to the 2011 uprising against the Gaddafi regime, claiming the country had become “safe enough” for its employees.

“Clearly, we are reviewing all of our security right around the world, but especially focusing on North Africa,” said Robert Wine, spokesman for the oil giant, which is continuing to operate its In Salah plant using local Algerian staff.

“We had 57 expat staff in Algeria, 43 of which have been brought home. The other 14 foreign workers continue to manage the remaining emergency response from Hassi Messaoud and we do not know yet when they will be brought home.

“We do not have anyone in Benghazi, only an office in Tripoli, but we will be reviewing our security situation in Libya as things progress and are very aware of the FCO guidance and the security situation in the region as a whole.”

A source close to the industry said all major oil and gas firms were reviewing their security procedures and working closely together to help maintain supplies from North African plants and protect vulnerable workers. Dozens of companies operate in the region, where many facilities are operated as joint ventures.

“They [oil and gas companies] are all looking to their security processes in the wake of the events in Algeria – they will always learn from an incident like this,” the source said.

“They are now working together as, while each company will have its own security review, this is the sort of thing that they will naturally share with each other as well.”

The International Association of Oil and Gas Producers acknowledged that firms were likely to be reviewing their security procedures but refused to give details of individual responses to the growing terrorist threat in the Sahara region.

However, Jake Molloy, regional organiser of OILC – the offshore energy branch of union RMT – in Aberdeen, warned that firms would find it impossible to protect their workers against such attacks. “I don’t know that you can ever prevent this type of event from happening,” he said.

“It is the same in North Africa as it has been previously in Nigeria, where you have a situation where you could have entire crews of employees turning against the expat workers. You can have as many security people as you like, but if the workforce themselves are minded to rebel, what can you do to stop them? There are dirty dealings, and even armed guards, if they are getting enough cash stuck in their hands, they can easily be coerced.”

He said the union had warned its members to avoid high-risk areas. “This is why we tell our members not to go to these places,” he said. “However, the money is attractive and a lot of these guys also like it because of the climate – it’s a very different thing working in west Africa than it is being in the North Sea.”

Mr Molloy believed some hostages freed in Algeria last week could make a return to work in North Africa. “Even some of the people who have been involved in what has happened in Algeria will go back – it is in their psyche and they take it as part of the risk of the job,” he said.

In Libya, companies have an oil protection force, which is affiliated with the defence ministry and was set up following the overthrow of Gaddafi.

After last week’s siege, it said it had taken “a series of actions to enhance and reinforce” security for companies.