Algeria toll rises as attack claimed for al Qaeda

Sun Jan 20, 2013 6:40pm EST
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By Lamine Chikhi

ALGIERS, Algeria (Reuters) - The death toll has risen to at least 48 hostages killed during a four-day siege at a gas plant deep in the Sahara as a veteran Islamist fighter claimed responsibility on behalf of al Qaeda for the attack.

Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal is expected to give details at a Monday news conference about one of the worst international hostage crises in decades, which left American, British, French, Japanese, Norwegian and Romanian workers dead or missing.

A security source said on Sunday Algerian troops had found the bodies of 25 hostages, raising the number of militants and their captives killed to at least 80. He said six militants were captured alive and troops were still searching for others.

One-eyed veteran Islamist fighter Mokhtar Belmokhtar claimed responsibility on Sunday for the attack on behalf of al Qaeda.

"We in al Qaeda announce this blessed operation," he said in a video, according to Sahara Media, a regional website. He said about 40 attackers participated in the raid, roughly matching the government's figures for fighters killed and captured.

The fighters swooped out of the desert and seized the base on Wednesday, capturing a plant that produces 10 percent of Algeria's natural gas exports, as well as a nearby residential barracks.

They demanded an end to French air strikes against Islamist fighters in neighboring Mali that had begun five days earlier. However, U.S. and European officials doubt such a complex raid could have been organized quickly enough to have been conceived as a direct response to the French military intervention.

The siege turned bloody on Thursday when the Algerian army opened fire saying fighters were trying to escape with their prisoners. Survivors said Algerian forces blasted several trucks in a convoy carrying both hostages and their captors.   Continued...

Smoke rises above following demining operations at the In Amenas gas plant January 20, 2013. Algeria said on Sunday it expected heavy hostage casualties after its troops ended a desert siege, but Western governments warned against criticising tactics used by their vital ally in the struggle with Islamists across the Sahara. REUTERS/Louafi Larbi