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Sahara siege death toll rises to at least 81

A video grab of a group of people, believed to be hostages, at an unknown location in Algeria.

ALGIERS: The death toll from the terrorist siege at a natural gas plant in the Sahara climbed to at least 81 Sunday as Algerian forces searching the refinery for explosives found dozens more bodies, many so badly disfigured it was unclear whether they were hostages or militants, a security official said. Troops also took six kidnappers alive, reports said.

Algerian special forces clearing the Ain Amenas natural gas plant after a deadly hostage siege captured a sixth militant alive Sunday, a security source said.

Earlier, in the day Ennahar television reported that “five terrorists were found still alive this morning” at the plant. But “three others are at large,” station director Anis Rahmani told AFP.

The special forces stormed the plant Saturday to end the four-day siege, moving in to thwart what government officials said was a plot by the Islamist militants to blow up the complex and kill all their hostages with mines sown throughout the site.

The government said after the assault that at least 32 extremists and 23 hostages had been killed. Then, Sunday, Algerian bomb squads sent in to blow up or defuse the explosives found 25 bodies, said the security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.

“These bodies are difficult to identify. They could be the bodies of foreign hostages or Algerians or terrorists,” the official said.

An AFP correspondent at the Ain Amenas hospital was told 12 of the bodies stored at its morgue were Japanese. Tokyo said it had received no confirmation on the fate of 10 of its nationals who went missing in the 72-hour ordeal.

But one Algerian witness, identified as Brahim, said Sunday: “In all, nine Japanese were killed.”

In addition, a wounded Romanian who had been evacuated died, raising the overall death toll to at least 81.

Three of those killed were Britons, while another three are feared dead.

“Now, of course, people will ask questions about the Algerian response to these events, but ... the responsibility for these deaths lies squarely with the terrorists who launched a vicious and cowardly attack,” British Prime Minister David Cameron said.

The dead were also known to include American, Filipino and French workers. Algerian authorities said 685 of their citizens, the backbone of the workforce, escaped, but did not say how many may have died. More than two dozen foreigners were unaccounted for. It was unclear whether anyone was rescued in the final assault on the complex, which is run by the Algerian state oil company, BP and Norway’s Statoil.

Authorities said the bloody takeover was carried out Wednesday by 32 men from six countries under the command from afar of the Algerian bandit Moktar Belmokhtar, founder of the Masked Brigade which is based in neighboring Mali. The attacking force called itself the “Signatories of Blood.”

The veteran Islamist fighter claimed responsibility on behalf of Al-Qaeda, a regional website reported Sunday. “We in Al-Qaeda announce this blessed operation,” 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.

An audio recording of Algerian security forces speaking with the head of the kidnappers, Abdel Rahman al-Nigiri, on the second day of the drama indicated the hostage-takers were trying to organize a prisoner swap.

“You see our demands are so easy, so easy if you want to negotiate with us,” Nigiri said in the recording, broadcast by Algerian television. “We want the prisoners you have, the comrades who were arrested and imprisoned 15 years ago. We want 100 of them.”

In another phone call, Nigiri said that half the militants had been killed by the Algerian army Thursday and that he was ready to blow up the remaining hostages if security forces attacked again.

SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors videos from radicals, posted one showing Nigiri with what appeared to be an explosive belt around his waist.

Armed with heavy machine guns, rocket launchers, missiles and grenades, the militants singled out foreign workers at the plant, killing some of them on the spot and attaching explosive belts to others.

Algeria’s tough and uncompromising response to the crisis was typical of its take-no-prisoners approach in confronting terrorists, favoring military action over negotiation. Algerian military forces, backed by attack helicopters, launched two assaults on the plant, the first one Thursday.

The Algerians’ use of force raised an international outcry from some countries worried about their citizens, but French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Sunday on French television: “The terrorists ... they’re the ones to blame.”

David Plouffe, a senior adviser to President Barack Obama, said that Al-Qaeda and Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups remain a threat in North Africa and other parts of the world, and that the United States was determined to help other countries destroy their networks.

Speaking on “Fox News Sunday,” Plouffe said the tragedy in Algeria shows once again “that all across the globe, countries are threatened by terrorists who will use civilians to try and advance their twisted and sick agenda.”

“The blame for this tragedy rests with the terrorists who carried it out, and the United States condemns their actions in the strongest possible terms,” said Obama after at least one American had already been confirmed dead.

Among the other hostages killed were at least one Algerian, one Colombian and two Romanians. Those still unaccounted for include five Norwegians, two Americans and two Malaysians.

French troops advanced Sunday toward Mali’s Islamist-held north as Russia and Canada offered to help transport French and African soldiers to boost the Paris-led offensive.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 21, 2013, on page 1.

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