TOKYO/OSLO: The seven Japanese survivors of the Algerian hostage crisis, and nine of the 10 dead, arrived back in a shell-shocked Japan Friday as the prime minister spoke of the nation’s “deepest grief.”
Emotional reunions away from the glare of publicity awaited those who made it out of the Ain Amenas complex alive, amid a renewed national sense of the perils of doing business in resource-rich, but unstable parts of the world.
A government-owned plane with its national flag livery touched down at Haneda Airport as a warm orange sun rose over Tokyo.
Airport officials used black umbrellas to shield those getting off the plane from the glare of cameras feeding blanket media coverage in a country baffled by what had happened half a world away.
Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida stood alongside officials from engineering firm JGC, which employed – directly or indirectly – all Japanese caught up in the siege, bowing deeply after the coffins were brought out from the plane’s cargo hold.
Three trailers, each carrying three coffins, lined up near the plane’s tail as the assembled dignitaries laid on them bouquets of white flowers, a common offering for the deceased in Japan.
Tokyo has accounted for all 10 men who had been out of contact since Islamist gunmen stormed the desert gas plant on Jan. 16.
Dozens of foreigners were killed during a four-day standoff that ended in a bloody showdown with Algerian commandos Saturday, with reports of summary executions.
Friday, Norwegian energy company Statoil ASA said two Norwegian employees missing after the attack on the gas plant had been confirmed dead.
Statoil CEO Helge Lund said the two workers are 58-year-old Tore Bech and Thomas Snekkevik, 35. Three other Norwegian Statoil employees are still missing.
Japan’s body count of 10 is the highest of any nation whose citizens were caught up in the crisis in the Sahara and an unusual taste of jihadist anger for a country that has remained far from U.S.-led wars in the Muslim world.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, at a meeting of his senior ministers Friday, said the nation was in mourning for those killed. “It is with deepest grief we have learned that 10 Japanese nationals who worked on the front lines of international business have become casualties,” he added.
Flags flew at half-mast at government buildings across Tokyo and a statement of condolences on the prime minister’s Facebook page had been been “Liked” by thousands of people.
At the headquarters of JGC, mourners continued to pay respects in front of a makeshift altar.
A steady stream of visitors dressed in black solemnly bowed to a Buddhist cenotaph, as they urged departed souls to find peace.
The loss of so many colleagues is a heavy blow to JGC in a country where corporate communities are close-knit and company loyalties remain strong.
The firm’s president, Koichi Kawana held a deep bow for several seconds when he appeared in front of Japan’s assembled press corps. “Our grief is heartbreaking,” he said, in remarks that were televised live nationwide.
“We have lost 10 magnificent staff. Our task now is to push forward the engineering business of which we are all so proud and ensure absolutely the safety of our staff, the most valuable assets a company has.”
Kawana, who flew to Algeria to spearhead the company’s response to the crisis, recounted the rush of horror that flooded through him as he walked into the morgue to identify the bodies of the fallen.
“When I saw them, I prayed it was not them,” he said, pausing to gather his thoughts, tears visibly welling in his eyes. “But unfortunately it was.”
“I felt pain, pain and pain,” he added, biting his lip. “I was filled with sorrow.”
Kawana said that the identification of the dead had only been possible because the survivors volunteered for the grisly task.
“Although they themselves had a terrible experience, they worked hard to identify the bodies,” he said.
“They sorted things out one by one. They did a great job,” he added.
“I’m immensely proud of all of them,” Kawana said.
At least 37 foreign hostages were killed in the siege according to a preliminary death toll, as well as one Algerian. Several people still remain missing and some bodies have not yet been identified.
The body of the 10th dead Japanese hostage is expected to arrive at Narita Airport Saturday.