Algerian forces seek end to four-day stand-off
on 19/01/2013 10:23:15
Algerian authorities gave no clear sign of how many people are still alive or captive at the In Amenas plant in south-east Algeria. The plant is jointly run by BP, Norway's Statoil and Algeria's state-owned oil company.
Casualty figures varied widely. The Algerian government says 12 hostages and 18 militants died in a military attack on a convoy of militants on Thursday. The militants claimed that 35 hostages were killed, according to a Mauritanian website, ANI, which is close to the extremists.
One American, from Texas, is among the dead, and the militants offered to trade two American hostages for two terrorists behind bars in the US, an offer firmly rejected by Washington. Britons, French and Algerians have also died in the siege.
Hundreds of Algerian and foreign workers have been freed, some describing being used as human shields and having explosives strapped around their necks after the militants burst into the plant on Wednesday.
Ruben Andrada, 49, a Filipino civil engineer who works as one of the project management staff for the Japanese company JGC Corp, described the bloody aftermath of the Algerian helicopter gunship barrage on vehicles carrying hostages and the gunmen, which he narrowly escaped.
His wife, Hedelyn Andrada, said she received a text message from her husband on Wednesday saying there was gunfire near their housing complex at the site. He later told her that he and about 35 others, including seven other Filipinos, were seized by gunmen and made to wear a "bomb necklace".
On Thursday, all the hostages, about 35, were loaded into seven SUVs in a convoy that included 15 militants from the housing complex and used as human shields. Mr Andrada said they were being moved to the gas plant itself when the convoy was chased by army helicopters which fired on the vehicles.
Mr Andrada told the Associated Press that at that moment he closed his eyes, and was waiting for a bullet to hit him.
Militants on the back of the vehicle he was in were firing their machine guns at the helicopter, while explosions reverberated all around them. He later saw the blasted remains of other vehicles, and the severed leg of one of the gunmen. Another hostage who survived, an Irish man, reported seeing a severed head from one of the vehicles.
Mr Andrada said their vehicle separated from the convoy and overturned, allowing him and the others inside to escape. He suffered cuts and bruises and was grazed by a bullet on his right elbow.
They were taken to the Alazhar hospital in Algiers. He said the others suffered more serious injuries and were in the intensive care unit. He said the Algerian defence minister came to visit him in the hospital and apologised.
Philippines Foreign Affairs Department spokesman Raul Hernandez said 34 Filipino workers have been evacuated from the gas field and flown to Spain for repatriation.
Mr Andrada's chilling account matched that of an Irish hostage also in the truck which was spared the Algerian army's fire.
The militants had filled five 4x4s with hostages and begun to move when Algerian government attack helicopters opened up on them, leaving four in smoking ruins. The fifth vehicle crashed, allowing hostages to clamber out to safety.
By yesterday, around 100 of the 135 foreign workers on the site had been freed and 18 of an estimated 30 kidnappers had been killed, according to the Algerian government, still leaving a major hostage situation centred on the plant's main refinery.
Statoil chief executive Helge Lund said today that two more Norwegian workers have escaped from the plant and are safe, leaving six more Norwegians unaccounted for. There were 17 Norwegians at the plant at the time of the attack.
The attack by the Mali-based Masked Brigade had been in the pipeline for two months, a member of the brigade told the online Mauritanian news outlet. He said militants targeted Algeria because they expected the country to support the international effort to root out extremists in neighbouring Mali.
Early on Wednesday morning, they crept across the border from Libya, 60 miles (100km) from the natural gas plant, and fell on a pair of buses taking foreign workers to the airport. The buses' military escort drove off the attackers in a blaze of gunfire which sent bullets flying over the heads of the crouching workers. A Briton and an Algerian, probably a security guard, were killed.
Frustrated, the militants turned to the vast gas complex, divided between the workers' living quarters and the refinery itself, and seized hostages, the Algerian government said. The gas flowing to the site was cut off, though the circumstances remained unclear.
Several of the former hostages, who arrived on a late-night flight into Algiers yesterday, said the gunfire began at around 5am and that the militants who stormed the living quarters almost immediately separated out the foreigners.
Mohamed, a 37-year-old nurse, said at least five people were shot dead, their bodies still in front of the infirmary when he left on Thursday night.
Chabane, who worked in the food service, said he bolted out of the window and was hiding when heard the militants speaking among themselves with Libyan, Egyptian and Tunisian accents. At one point, he said, they caught a Briton.
"They threatened him until he called out in English to his friends, telling them 'Come out, come out. They're not going to kill you. They're looking for the Americans.' A few minutes later, they blew him away," Chabane said.
Yesterday, it became clear that the Algerian forces had retaken only the living quarters. Hostages and their kidnappers remained ensconced in the refinery.
An international outcry mounted over the Algerians' handling of the crisis. Experts noted that this is how they have always dealt with terrorists.