Algeria Begins ‘Final Assault’ to End Standoff at Gas Field

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Published: January 19, 2013

BAMAKO, Mali — The hostage crisis in the Algerian desert appeared to be reaching a bloody conclusion Saturday as the official Algerian news agency reported that the army had begun a final assault on the gas field taken over by Islamist militants, killing 11 “terrorists,” but only after they had executed 7 hostages.

A senior Algerian government official said Saturday afternoon from Algiers: “In principle, it’s all over,” adding that security forces were “doing cleanup” to make sure some of the kidnappers were not hiding in the sprawling industrial complex.

The news agency report did not give the nationalities of those it said were executed, and it remained unclear if there were other hostages at the plant and whether they were alive. Earlier news reports said between 10 and dozens of hostages, including some Americans, were in the hands of the kidnappers as of Friday.

If the latest Algerian report is correct, it would mean that virtually all the kidnappers had been killed, based on numbers previously supplied by the government.

A Turkish government official, who insisted on anonymity like many officials in Algiers, said the security forces were engaged Saturday afternoon in an extensive search through the complex “to make sure there are no bad surprises.”

He said two American hostages had been found, “safe and sound.”

It was not clear Saturday whether all American hostages had been accounted for. United States officials said last week that “seven or eight” Americans had been in the gas complex when it was seized on Wednesday.

One American, Frederick Buttaccio, 58, of Katy, Tex., was confirmed dead on Friday, and the French government said one of its citizens, identified as Yann Desjeux, had also died. British officials have said at least one Briton was killed.

At a news conference Saturday in London, the British defense minister, Philip Hammond, called the loss of life appalling and unacceptable, and said that he was pressing the Algerians for more specific details.

At the same news conference, the American defense secretary, Leon E. Panetta, said details of the events in Algeria remained sketchy but that “lives had been lost.”

British authorities also reported Saturday that its ambassador to Algeria was on his way to the gas plant.

“I’m happy to say that we now have consular staff on the ground at In Amenas. They are already assisting British nationals there. Our ambassador is on the way there with further staff,” the British foreign secretary, William Hague, said in a televised report.

Saturday’s apparent bloody finale brought to an end a three-day siege involving dozens of hostages and kidnappers that drew criticism from Western governments for the tough manner in which it was handled by the Algerian security services. Attacks on the kidnappers by the surrounding forces have caused an unknown number of deaths among the hostages, in addition to those who were executed by the militants themselves.

An Algerian who managed to escape told France 24 television late Friday night, that the kidnappers said the had “come in the name of Islam, to teach the Americans what Islam is.” The haggard-looking Algerian, interviewed at the airport in Algiers, said the kidnappers then immediately executed five hostages.

The Algerian state oil company, Sonatrach, said Saturday that it was trying to remove mines from the gas-producing facility that the attackers had laid with the intention of blowing it up.

Throughout the siege, precise information about the number of killed has been difficult to obtain from the remote site, with the government putting out varying figures.

Before this final attack, Algeria’s state news agency, A.P.S., had said 12 Algerian and foreign workers had been killed since Algerian special forces began their assault Thursday. Previous unofficial estimates of the foreign casualties have ranged from 4 to 35.

The Algerian news agency also said that 18 militants had been killed before Saturday’s attack. The report also gave a new sense of how many people may have been at the facility when the militants seized it Wednesday, asserting that nearly 650 people had managed to leave the site since then, including 573 Algerians and nearly half of the 132 foreigners it said had been abducted.

The Algerians have rejected the criticism of its go-it-alone approach, the harshest of what came from the British and Japanese governments, saying they alone have had years of experience dealing with terrorist attacks. They have also said they had not initiated an attack on the facility on Thursday, saying they were merely responding to an attempted terrorist breakout, with the hostages.

The government official acknowledged Saturday morning though that this week’s assault by the terrorists was of a scale and complexity the country had never experienced.

“This was a multinational operation,” the official said of the kidnappers. “These are not Algerians. They’ve come from all over, Tunisia, Egypt, Mauritania. It’s the first time we’ve handled something on this scale. This one is different, it’s of another dimension.” Although some of the escaped hostages in recent days have said some of the militants were not from Algeria, it is not yet clear that none were.

Nonetheless, the brazenness of the assault — dozens of Islamist fighters attacking a country’s most important gas-producing facility — is likely to call into question Algeria’s much vaunted security strategy in dealing with the Islamic militants who fester in its southern deserts, around the Mali border.

The Algerians have made a virtue out of keeping a lid on these militants, pushing them toward Mali in a strategy of modified containment, and ruthlessly stamping them out when they attempt an attack in the interior of the country. So far it has worked, and the country’s extensive oil and gas fields — virtually its only source of revenue — have been protected.

That relative success over the years has allowed Algeria to take a hands-off approach to the Islamist conquest of northern Mali, even while Western governments have pleaded with it to become more directly involved in confronting it.

But now, with this week’s attack, Algeria may have to rethink its approach, analysts suggest, and engage in a more frontal strategy against the Islamists.

The senior government official appeared to acknowledge this in the interview Saturday, saying: “This has international implications. This is not just about us, it’s international.”

If the outcome represents a relative setback for Algeria, it could be viewed as a decided victory for the Islamists, who achieved several of their perennial goals: killing large numbers of westerners and disrupting states they have put on their enemies list — like Algeria.

Indeed, the militants said Friday they plan more attacks in Algeria, in a report carried on a Mauritanian news site that often carries their statements.

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