Algerian army stages "final assault" on gas plant
By Lamine Chikhi and Abdelaziz Boumzar
ALGIERS/IN AMENAS, Algeria (Reuters) - The Algerian army carried out a dramatic final assault to end a siege by Islamist militants at a desert gas plant on Saturday in which 23 hostages were killed, many of them believed to be foreigners, the interior ministry said.
Thirty-two al Qaeda-linked militants were killed in the army operation to recapture the complex, according to a provisional toll from the ministry. A statement said 107 foreign hostages and 685 Algerian hostages had survived.
Militants seized the remote compound in the Sahara desert before dawn on Wednesday, taking a large number of hostages, including foreigner workers, and booby-trapped the compound with explosives.
The crisis marked a serious escalation of unrest in northwestern Africa, where French forces have been in Mali since last week fighting an Islamist takeover of Timbuktu and other towns.
The gas plant near the town of In Amenas was home to expatriate workers from Britain's BP, Norway's Statoil, Japanese engineering firm JGC Corp and others. One American and one British citizen have been confirmed dead.
British Prime Minister David Cameron said on Saturday he feared for the lives of five British citizens still unaccounted for. Statoil said five of its workers, all Norwegian nationals, were still missing. Japanese and American workers are also unaccounted for.
"We feel a deep and growing unease ... we fear that over the next few days we will receive bad news," Statoil Chief Executive Helge Lund said on Saturday. "People we have spoken to describe unbelievable, horrible experiences."
The Islamists' attack has tested Algeria's relations with the outside world, exposed the vulnerability of multinational oil operations in the Sahara and pushed Islamist radicalism in northern Africa to centre stage. Continued...