ALGIERS – The Algerian army carried out a dramatic final assault to end a siege by militants at a desert gas plant on Saturday, killing 11 al Qaeda-linked gunmen after they took the lives of seven more foreign hostages, the state news agency said.
Belmokhtar also wanted to exchanging American hostages for the blind Egyptian Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman and Pakistani Aafia Siddiqui, jailed in the United States on charges of Qaeda links.
But State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said “the United States does not negotiate with terrorists.” The gunmen, cited by ANI, said they were still holding “seven foreign hostages,” denying claims of more.
According to a preliminary government toll, 23 captives and 32 kidnappers were killed in the four-day hostage crisis that ended with a bloody army assault.
The special forces managed to free 685 Algerian workers and 107 foreigners, the interior ministry said in a statement, adding that 23 hostages and 32 kidnappers were killed.
The state oil and gas company, Sonatrach, said the militants who attacked the plant on Wednesday and took a large number of hostages had booby-trapped the complex with explosives, which the army was removing.”It is over now, the assault is over, and the military are inside the plant clearing it of mines,” a source familiar with the operation told Reuters.
On Friday, an Algerian security official had said troops were trying to reach a “peaceful” end to the crisis, before “neutralising the terrorist group that is holed up in the plant and freeing a group of hostages still being held there.”
Amid a virtual news blackout in Algiers, harshly criticised by local media, world leaders took a tough stand on the fate of the remaining hostages. British Defence Secretary Philip Hammond said the hostage situation had been “brought to an end” by the Algerian army assault on the militants.
The exact death toll among the gunmen and the foreign and Algerian workers at the plant near the town of In Amenas remained unclear, although a tally of reports from various sources indicated that several dozen people had been killed.
The Islamists’ attack on the gas plant has tested Algeria’s relations with the outside world, exposed the vulnerability of multinational oil operations in the Sahara and pushed Islamic radicalism in northern Africa to centre stage.
Some Western governments expressed frustration at not being informed of the Algerian authorities’ plans to storm the complex. Algeria’s response to the raid will have been conditioned by the legacy of a civil war against Islamist insurgents in the 1990s which claimed 200,000 lives.
As the army closed in, 16 foreign hostages were freed, a source close to the crisis said. They included two Americans and one Portuguese. Britain said fewer than 10 of its nationals at the plant were unaccounted for and it was urgently seeking to establish the status of all Britions caught up in the crisis.
The base was home to foreign workers from Britain’s BP, Norway’s Statoil, Japanese engineering firm JGC Corp and others.
BP’s chief executive Bob Dudley said on Saturday four of its 18 workers at the site were missing. The remaining 14 were safe.
The crisis at the gas plant 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 captors said their attack on the Algerian gas plant was a response to the French offensive in Mali. However, some U.S. and European officials say the elaborate raid probably required too much planning to have been organized from scratch in the week since France launched its strikes.
Scores of Westerners and hundreds of Algerian workers were inside the heavily fortified gas compound when it was seized before dawn on Wednesday by Islamist fighters who said they wanted a halt to the French intervention in neighboring Mali.