Algeria defends hardline response to hostage crisis (+video)

Algeria's prime minister says quick intervention was 'the only way possible' to end the standoff, but some foreign governments said they should have been more closely consulted about rescue plans.

By , Staff writer

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    A gas field is seen near Zarzaitine in In Amenas, 994 miles southeast of Algiers Tuesday.
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The Algerian government for the first time yesterday shared its account of the four-day hostage crisis and bloody rescue attempt that took place at an energy complex there last week, defending its tough response despite international criticism.

“The whole world has understood that the reaction was courageous,” Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal said, calling the abductions an attack “on the stability of Algeria.”

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“When the security of the country is at stake," he added, "there is no possible discussion.”

The crisis came to an end over the weekend when the Algerian Army took control of the energy site in a “final assault.” The government said 38 hostages – all but one of whom were foreigners – and 29 militants died, and five hostages remain missing, according to the Algerian government. The Associated Press notes, however, that this tally of the missing conflicts with estimates from foreign governments that continue to search for citizens who are unaccounted for. There have been conflicting reports of dead, captured, and escaped throughout the crisis.

“You may have heard the last words of the terrorist chief,” Prime Minister Sellal told reporters yesterday. “He gave the order for all the foreigners to be killed, so there was a mass execution, many hostages were killed by a bullet to the head,” Sellal said in explaining his government’s choice to intervene, defending it as “the only way possible to end the standoff,” according to the AP

Sellal said three militants were captured over the weekend, but did not give their nationalities. Those involved in carrying out the attack included people from Egypt, Mali, Mauritania, Tunisia, at least two Canadians, and a man from Niger who previously worked as a driver at the energy site.

"A Canadian was among the militants. He was coordinating the attack," Sellal said on Monday. The Canadian government is working to confirm these reports,  the BBC reported.

According to a separate AP report, the attack on the Ain Amenas energy plant, which is jointly run by Algeria's state-owned oil company, British Petroleum, and Norway’s Statoil, started early Wednesday morning when militants tried to hijack two buses of workers at the energy site. In all, 790 workers, most of whom were Algerian, were on the site when the initial attack took place. Sellal described the timeline of events in three distinct phases, ending with Saturday’s second and final government-backed attack on the hostage-takers, writes The New York Times

First, the militants attacked a guarded bus carrying foreign plant workers to the airport at In Amenas, and two people aboard were killed. “They wanted to take control of this bus and take the foreign workers directly to northern Mali so they could have hostages, to negotiate with foreign countries,” he said. “But when they opened fire on the bus, there was a strong response from the gendarmes guarding it.”

After they failed to capture the bus, the prime minister said, the militants split into two groups: one to seize the complex’s living quarters, the other to capture the gas plant itself, a maze of pipes and machinery. They invaded both sections, taking dozens of hostages, attaching bombs to some and booby-trapping the plant.

At this point, he said, the facility was ringed by security forces.

Perhaps late Wednesday or early Thursday morning — Mr. Sellal described it as a nighttime episode — the kidnappers attempted a breakout. “They put explosives on the hostages. They wanted to put the hostages in four-wheel-drive vehicles and take them to Mali.”

Mr. Sellal then suggested that government helicopters immobilized the kidnappers. Witnesses have described an intense army assault, resulting in both militant and hostage deaths.

Those involved in the attack and kidnappings, including the Mali-based Masked Brigade, led by former Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb member Mokhtar Belmoktar, said the attack was in response to France’s intervention in Islamist-held northern Mali. However, a third AP report notes the attack in Algeria took at least two months of planning.

Some foreign governments were distressed that they were not informed of the Algerian intervention plan ahead of time. Algerian helicopters shot at a convoy of both hostage-takers and hostages on Thursday, resulting in hostage deaths, according to witness accounts. The Algerian government has said repeatedly it will not negotiate with terrorists, and some governments have emphasized deaths should be blamed on the terrorists, not a botched rescue attempt.

"As [President Obama] said, the blame for this tragedy rests with the terrorists who carried it out, and the United States condemns their actions in the strongest possible term," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement. The US has not publicly criticized Algeria for its response to the hostage taking episode, reports The New York Times. Seven Americans escaped the ordeal and three have been confirmed dead.

An editorial in the Globe and Mail, however, argues that although any deaths are the responsibility of the extremists, Algeria may be on the line if its attempt to free hostages is found to have been poorly planned and executed.

Any deaths among international workers at a desert gas plant in Algeria are the responsibility of the terrorists who kidnapped them, and not their would-be rescuers. The tough, no-negotiation, no-blackmail, stance of Algerian authorities is laudable. Terrorists thrive on vacillation by governments.

But if a hastily planned and poorly executed government decision to attack the terrorists is found to have contributed to a large-scale loss of life, then Algeria will have some explaining to do, especially to the families of the victims.…

[I]t remains troubling that the military action to free the hostages, many of whom are non-Algerians, was launched without consultation with the 10 or more countries whose nationals were being held.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said he had “expressed concern” that London was not given advance notice of Algeria’s military offensive. Britain’s Foreign Office warned of “bad and distressing news”. Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe protested the military raid as an act that “threatened the lives of the hostages,” and asked Algeria to halt it.

Ultimately, hostages should not be wantonly sacrificed to rigid principles. The correct decision not to negotiate with terrorists does not mean hostage lives can be thrown away.

The Times notes that although the US has not criticized Algeria’s decision to intervene, some say they would have conducted the operation differently.

“It would have been a precision approach as opposed to a sledgehammer approach,” Lt. Gen. Frank Kearney, a retired deputy commander of the United States military’s Special Operations Command, told the Times. This may have included engaging the hostage-takers in more discussions in order to pinpoint the leaders and buy officials more time. The US may also have utilized security and surveillance operations such as drones or electronic eavesdropping to better identify the locations of captors and hostages.

But others say Algeria had no choice but to respond in the way it did, according to the Times.

From the start of the siege, the Algerians were bound to respond with force, said Mansouria Mokhefi, a professor who heads the Middle East and Maghreb program at the French Institute for International Relations in Paris. The question, she said, was how bloody the outcome would be.

“Everyone knows the Algerians do not negotiate,” Dr. Mokhefi said, and surely the attackers knew this as well.…

Criticizing the Algerians for their harsh tactics, as the British and Japanese have done, simply shows “a deep lack of knowledge about this regime, of its functioning,” she said.

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