Algerian special forces launched a rescue operation yesterday at a natural gas plant in the Sahara Desert and freed foreign hostages held by al Qaeda linked militants, but estimates for the number of dead varied wildly from four to dozens.
Earlier in the day father-of-two Stephen McFaul, 36, from Belfast, managed to escape.
Militants claiming revenge for France’s intervention against rebels in Mali seized the Ain Amenas natural gas complex on Wednesday, taking dozens of foreign workers hostage.
Algerian state television said yesterday that four captives, two Britons and two Filipinos, had died. But the militants said at least 35 hostages had died in the state’s rescue attempt. There was no way to independently verify the toll in the remote location, 1,300km from Algiers.
The reports of high casualties have deeply disturbed foreign governments, prompting a number to criticise Algeria’s operation. Britain’s Foreign Office said: “We should be under no illusion that there will be some bad and distressing news to follow from this terrorist attack.”
Oil prices rose $1.08 on the news to $95.32 on the New York Mercantile Exchange and prompted energy companies like BP and Spain’s Compania Espanola de Petroleos to try to relocate energy workers at other Algerian plants.
The Algerian government said it was forced to intervene due to the militants’ determination to escape with the hostages.
“An important number of hostages were freed and an important number of terrorists were eliminated, and we regret the few dead and wounded,” Algerian communications minister Mohand Said Oubelaid told national media, adding that the “terrorists are multinational,” coming from several different countries with the goal of “destabilising Algeria, embroiling it in the Mali conflict and damaging its natural gas infrastructure”.
Islamists from the Masked Brigade, a Mali-based al-Qaeda offshoot, who have been speaking through a Mauritanian news outlet, said Algerian helicopters opened fire as the militants tried to leave the vast energy complex with their hostages. They claimed that 35 hostages and 15 militants died in the attack and only seven hostages survived.
Algeria’s official news service, meanwhile, earlier claimed that 600 local workers were freed in the raid and half of the foreigners being held were rescued. Many of those locals were reportedly released on Wednesday, however, by the militants themselves.
The mother of Irish hostage, supervising electrician Stephen McFaul, Marie said: “He phoned me at 9 o’clock to say al Qaeda were holding him, kidnapped, and to contact the Irish government, for they wanted publicity. Nightmare, so it was. Never want to do it again. He’ll not be back. He’ll take a job here in Belfast like the rest of us.”
Dylan, McFaul’s 13-year-old son, started crying as he talked to Ulster Television. “I feel over the moon, just really excited. I just can’t wait for him to get home,” he said.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said the Obama administration was “concerned about reports of loss of life and are seeking clarity from the government of Algeria”.
Algerian forces who had ringed the Ain Amenas complex in a tense standoff had vowed not to negotiate with the kidnappers, who reportedly were seeking safe passage.
Security experts said the end of the two-day standoff was in keeping with the North African country’s tough approach to terrorism.
The kidnapping is one of the largest ever attempted by a militant group in North Africa. Phone contacts with the militants were severed as government forces closed in, according to the Mauritanian agency, which often carries reports from al Qaeda linked extremist groups in North Africa. It is the largest haul of hostages since 2003, when the radical group that later evolved into al Qaeda in North Africa snatched 32 Western tourists and the first time Americans have been involved.
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