|Body count from Algeria bloodbath exceeds 25
Troops captured five kidnappers and found the bodies of 25 captives at a remote Algerian gas plant, a report said, as Algiers warned yesterday the toll from a dramatic hostage crisis at the site may rise.
Governments scrambled to track down their missing citizens as more details emerged a day after the final showdown between special forces and Islamists who took hundreds hostage, demanding an end to French military intervention in Mali, AFP reports.
The mastermind of the brazen hostage-taking, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, said meanwhile in a video posted online that the attack was carried out by 40 fighters from the Muslim world and European countries. His Al-Qaeda linked group threatened to stage strikes on nations involved in chasing out Islamists from neighboring Mali, in a stern warning, published by the Mauritanian news agency ANI.
The group said it had tried to negotiate with the Algerian army to seek an “immediate end to the aggression against Muslims in Mali and the liberation of our brothers being held by the crusaders.’’
It added: “But the Algerian army did not respond, ... preferring to stage an attack which led to the elimination of the hostages.’’
Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian of France described the hostage-taking as an “act of war’’ because of the large number of people involved.
“Five terrorists were found still alive this morning,’’ at the plant, where special forces launched a final rescue bid on Saturday that left 18 people dead, including seven hostages, Ennahar television reported.
But “three others are at large,’’ station director Anis Rahmani told AFP.
Security forces inside the In Amenas plant deep in the Sahara desert found the bodies of 25 hostages as they combed the sprawling complex, said the private TV channel.
An AFP correspondent at the In Amenas hospital was told 12 of the bodies stored at its morgue were Japanese, after Tokyo said it had no confirmation on the fate of 10 of its nationals who went missing in the 72-hour ordeal.
“In all, nine Japanese were killed,'' one Algerian witness identified as Brahim said.
The first three were killed as they tried to escape from a bus taking them to the airport at the outbreak of the militant attack on the plant run by Britain's BP, Norway's Statoil and Sonatrach of Algeria, witnesses said.
The gunmen then took the others to the residential compound, where they had seized hundreds of hostages, he said.
Citing security sources, El Watan newspaper said “30 other bodies,’’ of foreign and Algerian hostages, as well as soldiers, had been found by the special forces at the site.
But a more definitive toll is only expected at today when Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal is due to give a news conference.
Communications Minister Mohamed Said told a radio station: “I fear that it [the toll] may be revised upward,’’ after at least 23 foreigners and Algerians, mostly hostages, were killed since Wednesday.
Thirty-two kidnappers were also killed in the standoff, and the army freed 685 Algerian workers and 107 foreigners, the interior ministry said.
Describing the situation as “tragic,’’ Prime Minister David Cameron said three Britons were killed and another three were believed to be dead, along with a resident.
A security official told AFP it was believed seven foreigners were executed “in retaliation,’’ on Saturday during the final assault that state TV said also killed 11 militants.
The gunmen, whose leader Belmokhtar is a former Al-Qaeda commander, first killed a Briton and an Algerian on a bus before taking hundreds hostage at the plant.
Most hostages were freed on Thursday in the first rescue operation which was initially widely condemned as hasty, before criticism was focused on the jihadists.
“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 US President Barack 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.