30 hostages killed? Casualty counts vary in Algerian crisis
30 hostages were killed, including at least seven foreigners, one source told a Reuters reporter. Other sources offer widely varying numbers of hostages taken, escaped, and killed.
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A U.S. official said on Thursday it would provide transport aircraft to help France with a mission whose vital importance, President Francois Hollande said, was demonstrated by the attack in Algeria. Some fear, however, that going on the offensive in the remote region could provoke more bloodshed closer to home.Skip to next paragraph
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The apparent ease with which the fighters swooped in from the dunes to take control of an important energy facility, which produces some 10 percent of the natural gas on which Algeria depends for its export income, has raised questions, over the value of security measures that are outwardly draconian.
Foreign firms were pulling non-essential staff out of the country, which has recovered stability only in recent years and whose ruling establishment, heirs to fighters who ended French rule 50 years ago, has resisted demands for reform and political freedoms of the kind that swept North Africa in the Arab Spring.
"The embarrassment for the government is great," said Azzedine Layachi, an Algerian political scientist at New York's St John's University. "The heart of Algeria's economy is in the south. where the oil and gas fields are. For this group to have attacked there, in spite of tremendous security, is remarkable."
A local man who had escaped from the facility told Reuters the militants appeared to have inside knowledge of the layout of the complex, supporting the view of security experts that their raid was long-planned, even if the Mali war provided a motive.
"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, said by telephone from his home in the nearby town of In Amenas. "'We will kill them,' they said."
Algiers, whose leaders have long had frosty relations with the former colonial power France and other Western countries, may have some explaining to do over its tactics in putting an end to a hostage crisis whose scale was comparable to few in recent decades bar those involving Chechen militants in Russia.
Government spokesman Said sounded unapologetic, however: "When the terrorist group insisted on leaving the facility, taking the foreign hostages with them to neighbouring states, the order was issued to special units to attack the position where the terrorists were entrenched," he told state news agency APS, which said some 600 local workers were freed.
The militants said earlier they had 41 foreign hostages.
"ARMY BLASTED HOSTAGES"
Stephen McFaul, an electrical engineer, told his family in Northern Ireland after the operation that he narrowly escaped death, first when bound and gagged by the gunmen who fastened explosives around the hostages' necks and then on Thursday when he was in a convoy of five vehicles driving across the complex.
"(The gunmen) were moving five jeeploads of hostages from one part of the compound," his brother Brian McFaul said. "At that stage, they were intercepted by the Algerian army.
"The army bombed four out of five of the trucks and four of them were destroyed ... He presumed everyone else in the other trucks was killed ... The truck my brother was in crashed and at that stage Stephen was able to make a break for his freedom."
McFaul said it was unclear whether the vehicles had been struck by missiles fired from helicopters or by ground forces.
The attack in Algeria did not stop France from pressing on with its campaign in Mali. It said on Thursday it now had 1,400 troops on the ground there, and combat was under way against the rebels that it first began targeting from the air last week.
"What is happening in Algeria justifies all the more the decision I made in the name of France to intervene in Mali in line with the U.N. charter," Hollande said on Thursday.
The French action last week came as a surprise but received widespread public international support. Neighbouring African countries planning to provide ground troops for a U.N. force by September have said they will move faster to deploy them.