A mass hostage-taking by Islamist militants at a Western-run gas installation in eastern Algeria has descended into bloodshed.

Algerian forces, who surrounded the site early on, took action barely 24 hours after the gunmen overran the plant’s living quarters, trapping dozens of foreign workers and hundreds of Algerian employees.

According to state media, 573 Algerians and “around 100” foreigners had made it safely out of the desert plant near In Amenas.

As of Friday afternoon, about 30 foreigners were still unaccounted for by the government.

Local officials told APS that two Britons and two Filipinos had been killed, in addition to a Briton and an Algerian who died when militants first attacked the plant.

Some militants were believed to still be at large on the sprawling site, possibly with remaining hostages.

Since the crisis began on Wednesday morning, information about events on the ground has been largely controlled by the Algerian authorities and the hostage-takers themselves, who spoke to media outside the country.

Foreign states with citizens among the hostages appear to have had little say in the handling of the rescue operation which, according to testimony from a surviving hostage, resulted in carnage.


‘Foreign gunmen’

What seems clear is that the hostage-takers belong to a new Islamist group formed by a veteran Algerian militant and kidnapper, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who recently broke with al-Qaeda.

The group, which calls itself the Signed-in-Blood Battalion or the Masked Men Brigade, was formed in 2012.

Despite its split with al-Qaeda, it continues to espouse violent jihad (holy war). Its spokesman at In Amenas – now believed to be dead – sought to link the hostage-taking to France’s recent intervention in Mali against Islamist militants, some of whom are thought to be linked to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

The spokesman, Abu al-Bara, told al-Jazeera TV by telephone on Thursday that the group’s demands were being co-ordinated with “the command in Mali”.

The gunmen who overran the plant appear to have been heavily armed and well equipped with explosives and rocket-propelled grenades. An Algerian security source quoted by AFP news agency put their number at 30.

Travelling in at least three vehicles, they attacked a bus leaving the plant for the local airport, before heading for the living quarters.

Azedine, a radio operator at the gas plant who witnessed their arrival, said they did not appear to be Algerian.

“They were talking in Arabic but I did not understand what they were saying,” he told Reuters news agency.

“Some were clean, others were dirty, some with beards, others without, and among them a French national with sunglasses – he looked European.”


Hostages

Azedine said one of his foreign colleagues, whom he admired greatly, was killed by the gunmen.

In addition to the Algerian workers, 132 foreigners were trapped at the plant by the gunmen’s attack, according to APS.

It was not clear why that number was far higher than the 41 hostages that the militants earlier claimed to be holding.

Some hostages tried to hide, including French caterer Alexandre Berceaux, who has described being rescued by Algerian soldiers after nearly 40 hours in his bedroom.

Reports suggest those who were captured were subjected to a terrifying ordeal by the gunmen.

Speaking by phone to his wife after escaping, Irish survivor Stephen McFaul said explosives were strapped to hostages on the second day of the siege as the gunmen made preparations for moving them.

He and others were put on 4x4s. There were five vehicles in all.

And that was when the Algerian security forces attacked, he said. Four of the vehicles were destroyed by bombs while his own jeep crashed, allowing him to escape.

It is now believed one or more helicopters opened fire.

According to a local man who escaped from the plant, the gunmen told Algerian workers there that they would not hurt Muslims.

“The terrorists told us at the very start that they would not hurt Muslims but were only interested in the Christians and infidels,” Abdelkader, 53, told Reuters by telephone. “‘We will kill them,’ they said.”

At least 18 of the gunmen were killed, according to AFP’s Algerian security source.


Graphic

  1. Bus attack: 0500 local time 16 January: Heavily armed gunmen attack two buses carrying gas field workers towards In Amenas airfield. A Briton and an Algerian die in the fighting.
  2. Hostages taken: The militants drive to the installation at Tigantourine and take Algerian and foreign workers hostage in the living area and the main gas facility at the complex.
  3. Army surround complex: Security forces and the Algerian army surround the hostage-takers. Western leaders, including the UK’s David Cameron, urge Algeria to consult them before taking action.
  4. Army attacks: 1200 (1300 GMT) 17 January: Algerian forces attack as militants try to move some of their captives from the facility. Reports say some hostages escape, but others are killed.
  5. Response: Full details of how the situation has been resolved is not clear, with the Algerians saying they are still pursuing the militants. Mr Cameron says the number of UK nationals at risk were fewer than 30.

Algeria hostage crisis: What we know – BBC News
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