UP TO 6 BRITONS KILLED ... 9 JAPANESE SLAIN: WITNESS Hostage body count likely to rise

ALGIERS/IN AMENAS, Algeria, Jan 20, (Agencies): A veteran Islamist fighter claimed responsibility on behalf of al-Qaeda for the Algerian hostage crisis, a regional website reported on Sunday, tying the bloody desert siege to France’s intervention across the Sahara in Mali.

Algeria said it expected to raise its preliminary death tolls of 23 hostages and 32 militants killed in the four-day siege at a gas plant deep in the Sahara. It said on Sunday it had captured six militants alive.
Western governments whose citizens died or are missing have held back from criticising tactics used by their ally in the struggle with Islamists across the vast desert.

“We in al-Qaeda announce this blessed operation,” one-eyed guerrilla Mokhtar Belmokhtar said in a video, according to the Sahara Media website, which quoted from the recording but did not immediately show it.

“We are ready to negotiate with the West and the Algerian government provided they stop their bombing of Mali’s Muslims,” said Belmokhtar, a veteran of two decades of war in Afghanistan and the Sahara.

Belmokhtar’s fighters launched their attack on the In Amenas gas plant before dawn on Wednesday, just five days after French warplanes unexpectedly began strikes to halt advances by Islamists in neighbouring northern Mali.

European and US officials say the raid was almost certainly too elaborate to have been planned since the start of the French campaign, although the military action by Paris could have provided a trigger for an assault prepared in advance.

“We had around 40 jihadists, most of them from Muslim countries and some even from the West,” Sahara Media quoted Belmokhtar as saying. Algerian officials say Belmokhtar’s group was behind the attack but he was not present himself.

Some Western governments have expressed frustration at not being informed in advance of the Algerian authorities’ decision to storm the complex on Thursday.

Survivors have said many hostages were killed when Algerian government forces blasted a convoy of trucks on Thursday morning. Algerian officials said they stormed the compound because the militants were trying to escape with their captives.

Britain and France both defended the Algerian action.

“It’s easy to say that this or that should have been done. The Algerian authorities took a decision and the toll is very high but I am a bit bothered ... when the impression is given that the Algerians are open to question. They had to deal with terrorists,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said in a televised statement: “Of course people will ask questions about the Algerian response to these events, but I would just say that the responsibility for these deaths lies squarely with the terrorists who launched this vicious and cowardly attack.

“We should recognise all that the Algerians have done to work with us and to help and coordinate with us. I’d like to thank them for that. We should also recognise that the Algerians too have seen lives lost among their soldiers.”

With so much still unknown about the fates of foreigners held at the site, some countries that have faced casualties have yet to issue full counts of their dead.

Scores of foreigners lived alongside the hundreds of Algerians at the plant, which was run by Britain’s BP and Norway’s Statoil and also housed workers from a Japanese engineering firm and a French catering company.

Cameron said three British nationals were confirmed killed and another three plus a British resident were also feared dead. One American has been confirmed killed. Statoil said it was searching for five missing Norwegians. Japanese and French citizens are also among those missing or presumed dead.
Algeria’s Interior Ministry, which gave the figure on Saturday of 23 hostages killed, said 107 foreign hostages and 685 Algerians had been freed.

“I am afraid unfortunately to say that the death toll will go up,” Minister of Communication Mohamed Said was quoted as saying on Sunday by the official APS news agency. Private Algerian television station Ennahar said on Sunday 25 bodies had been discovered. Clearing the base would take 48 hours, it said.

Algerian forces found the bodies of 25 hostages on Sunday as they combed a desert gas plant after a deadly stand-off with Islamists, and witnesses said nine Japanese captives had been executed.
Citing security sources, Anis Rahmani of private television channel Ennahar told AFP the army discovered “the bodies of 25 hostages” as they secured the sprawling In Amenas Sahara site.
The first three were killed as they tried to escape from a bus taking them to the airport as the militant attack unfolded, witnesses said.

“We were all afraid when we heard bursts of gunfire at 5:30 am (0430 GMT) on Wednesday, after we realised that they had just killed our Japanese colleagues who tried to flee from the bus,” said Riad, who works for Japan’s JGC Corp engineering firm.

The gunmen then took the others to the residential compound, where they had seized hundreds of hostages, he said.

“A terrorist shouted ‘open the door!’ with a strong north American accent, and opened fire. Two other Japanese died then and we found four other Japanese bodies” in the compound, he added, choking with emotion.

In Tokyo, a foreign ministry official said: “We are in a position not to comment on this kind of information at all. Please understand.”

Twelve bodies being held at a morgue in Algeria’s In Amenas hospital, where victims of a bloody hostage crisis were taken, are Japanese, a hospital source said on Sunday.

“Twelve bodies that have been stored at the morgue are Japanese,” the source told AFP after the government in Tokyo said it had no confirmation of the fate of 10 of its nationals who remain unaccounted for.

Survivors have given harrowing accounts. Alan Wright, now safe at home in Scotland, told Sky News he had escaped with a group of Algerian and foreign workers who hid for a day and a night and then cut their way through a fence to run to freedom.

While hiding inside the compound the first night, he managed briefly to call his wife who was at home with their two daughters desperately waiting for news.

“She asked if I wanted to speak to Imogen and Esme, and I couldn’t because I thought, I don’t want my last ever words to be in a crackly satellite phone, telling a lie, saying you’re OK when you’re far from OK,” he recalled.

Algeria’s oil minister, Youcef Yousfi, visited the site and said the physical damage was minor, state news service APS reported. The plant, which produces 10 percent of Algeria’s natural gas, would start back up in two days, he said.

The Islamists’ assault has tested Algeria’s relations with the outside world and exposed the vulnerability of multinational oil operations in the Sahara.

Algeria, scarred by the civil war with Islamist insurgents in the 1990s which claimed 200,000 lives, has insisted there would be no negotiation in the face of terrorism.

France especially needs close cooperation from Algeria to have a chance of crushing Islamist rebels in northern Mali. Algiers has promised to shut its porous 1,000-km border with Mali to prevent al-Qaeda-linked insurgents simply melting away into its empty desert expanses and rugged mountains.

Algeria’s permission for France to use its airspace, confirmed by Fabius last week, also makes it much easier to establish direct supply lines for its troops which are trying to stop the Islamist rebels from taking the whole of Mali.

French troops in Mali advanced slowly on Sunday towards the town of Diably, a militant stronghold the fighters abandoned on Saturday after punishing French attacks.

According to Communications Minister Said, the militants were of six different nationalities. Believed to be among the dead was their leader, Abdul Rahman al-Nigeri, a fighter from Niger who is seen as close to Belmokhtar.

The apparent ease with which guerrillas swooped in from the desert to take control of an important energy facility has raised questions over the country’s outwardly tough security measures. Yousfi said Algeria would not allow foreign security firms to guard its oil facilities.

Algerian officials said the attackers may have had inside help from among the hundreds of Algerians employed at the site.

Security in the half-dozen countries around the Sahara desert has long been a preoccupation of the West. Smugglers and militants have earned millions in ransom from kidnappings.

The most powerful Islamist groups operating in the Sahara were severely weakened by Algeria’s secularist military in the civil war in the 1990s. But in the past two years the regional wing of al-Qaeda has gained fighters and arms as a result of the civil war in Libya, when arsenals were looted from Muammar Gaddafi’s army.

Dozens of Filipinos arrived home Sunday after being sent home by their employer in Algeria due to security fears following an Islamic militant attack at a remote gas plant.
Many of the 39 returnees said they worked for a British energy facility hundreds of kilometres from the In Amenas gas plant that was attacked by the militants last week.
“We were far from the gas plant that was attacked,” said Cerilo Tundag, 52, as the group arrived in Manila airport aboard a commercial flight from Dubai.
“But we were sent home for security reasons.”

Tundag said 34 of his colleagues were aboard the commercial plane that returned to Manila on Sunday.
One of the others, Alex Aguja, said their employer had told them they would be called back as soon as the situation normalised.

“We were aware of what happened, but we were around 800 kilometres (497 miles) away,” he said. “We were worried, but none of us were directly affected.”
Philippine foreign affairs spokesman Raul Hernandez said in a statement early Sunday that 52 Filipinos caught up in the crisis had been accounted for, and that all 39 returning home on Sunday were “survivors” of the siege.

After the 39 Filipinos arrived in Manila and reported they were working far from the hostage site, Hernandez said he had made his initial comments based on reports from Philippine embassies involved in the repatriations.

“We will ask for more clarification on this. Will keep you posted,” Hernandez told AFP in a text message.
Hernandez had earlier said four other Filipinos caught up in the siege were staying at the Mercure Hotel in Algiers, while four others were recuperating at a clinic in the Algerian capital.

Below is a country-by-country compilation of available provisional information:

  • Algeria: One Algerian died Wednesday during the attack by the Islamists just before the hostage-taking. The assault by the Algerian army freed 685 Algerian employees, according to Algiers.
  • Belgium: A spokesman of the hostage-takers said Thursday that three Belgians were at the site following the Algerian raid.
  • Britain: Three Britons are dead, and another three British expats and one British resident are believed to be dead, Prime Minister David Cameron said on Sunday. Another 22 Britons who survived are being repatriated.
  • Columbia: One Colombian BP employee is believed to be among the hostages killed, President Juan Manuel Santos said.
  • France: The foreign ministry announced Friday that a Frenchman, Yann Desjeux — a restaurateur from southeastern France and a former special forces soldier — were among the dead. Three other French nationals have been rescued.

The defence ministry said Saturday that no more French hostages remained in Algeria.

  • Japan: Seventeen Japanese nationals were at the plant at the time of the attack. A hospital source said on Sunday 12 of the bodies being held at a morgue were Japanese.

An Algerian hostage said on Sunday that nine Japanese were executed by their captors from Wednesday. Tokyo had said it had no confirmation of the fate of 10 of its nationals who remain unaccounted for.

  • Malaysia: Authorities in Kuala Lumpur said Saturday they had no news about two of their nationals. Three others are safe.
  • Norway: Five Norwegian nationals remain unaccounted for, according to the oil group Statoil which runs the In Amenas site along with BP and Algerian group Sonatrach. Statoil had 17 employees at the site when the hostage-taking occurred. Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg said it was “possible” Norwegians may have died.
  • Philippines: Fifty-two Filipinos caught up in the crisis are accounted for, and 39 Filipino survivors of the siege returned home on Sunday, foreign affairs spokesman Raul Hernandez said. Manila has refused to confirm reports of two dead.
  • Romania: One Romanian was killed and a second who was wounded during the hostage-taking died of his injuries in hospital, Bucharest said Sunday. It said earlier three Romanians had been freed.
  • United States: The State Department on Friday confirmed one American, Frederick Buttaccio, died in the hostage crisis. NBC News reported earlier that one American had been killed, two others had escaped unharmed and that the fates of another two Americans were unknown.

Citing sources close to the Islamists, Mauritania’s ANI news agency said Thursday that two Americans were being held by their abductors.

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