American, Frenchman Confirmed Killed in Algeria Siege
El Mokhtar Ould Sidi, editor of the Mauritanian news site ANI, said several calls on Thursday came from the kidnappers themselves giving their demands and describing the situation.
"They were clearly in a situation of war, the spokesman who contacted us was giving orders to his colleagues and you could hear the sounds of war in the background.... He threatened to kill all the hostages if the Algerian forces tried to liberate them," he said.
With the standoff entering its second day Thursday, Algerian security forces moved in, first with helicopter fire and then special forces, according to diplomats, a website close to the militants and an Algerian security official. The government said it was forced to intervene because the militants were being stubborn and wanted to flee with the hostages.
Militants claimed 35 hostages died when the military helicopters opened fire as they were transporting hostages from the living quarters to the main factory area where other workers were being held.
The group -- led by a Mali-based al-Qaeda offshoot known as the Masked Brigade -- suffered losses in Thursday's military assault -- but garnered a global audience.
The militants made it clear that their attack was in revenge for the French intervention against Islamists who have taken over large parts of neighboring Mali. France has encountered fierce resistance from the extremist groups in Mali and failed to persuade many Western allies to join in the actual combat.
Even violence-scarred Algerians were stunned by the brazen hostage-taking Wednesday, the biggest in northern Africa in years and the first to include Americans as targets. Mass fighting in the 1990s had largely spared the lucrative oil and gas industry that gives Algeria its economic independence and regional weight.
The official Algerian news agency said four hostages were killed in Thursday's operation, two Britons and two Filipinos. Two others, a Briton and an Algerian, died Wednesday in the initial militant ambush on a bus ferrying foreign workers to an airport. Citing hospital officials, it said six Algerians and seven foreigners were injured.
APS said some 600 local workers were safely freed in the raid -- but many of those were reportedly released the day before by the militants themselves.
One Irish hostage managed to escape: electrician Stephen McFaul, who'd worked in North Africa's oil and natural gas fields off and on for 15 years. His family said the militants let hostages call their families to press the kidnappers' demands.
"He phoned me at 9 o'clock to say al-Qaeda were holding him, kidnapped, and to contact the Irish government, for they wanted publicity. Nightmare, so it was. Never want to do it again. He'll not be back! He'll take a job here in Belfast like the rest of us," said his mother, Marie.
Dylan, McFaul's 13-year-old son, started crying as he talked to Ulster Television. "I feel over the moon, just really excited. I just can't wait for him to get home," he said.
The crisis posed a serious dilemma for Paris and its allies as French troops attacked the hostage-takers' al-Qaeda allies in neighboring Mali. It left question marks over the ability of OPEC-member Algeria to protect vital energy resources and strained its relations with Western powers.
Two Japanese, two Britons and a French national were among at least seven foreigners killed, a source told Reuters. Eight dead hostages were Algerian. The nationalities of the rest, as well as of perhaps dozens more who escaped, were unclear.
Some 600 local Algerian workers, less well guarded, survived. Fourteen Japanese were among those still unaccounted for by the early hours of Friday, their Japanese employer said.
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has canceled part of his trip in Southeast Asia, his first overseas trip since taking office, and is considering flying home early due to the hostage crisis, Japan's top government spokesman said on Friday.
"The action of Algerian forces was regrettable," said Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, adding Tokyo had not been informed of the operation in advance.
The overall commander, Algerian officials said, was Belmokhtar, a veteran of Afghanistan in the 1980s and Algeria's bloody civil war of the 1990s. He appears not to have been present and has now risen in stature among a host of Saharan Islamists, flush with arms and fighters from chaotic Libya, whom Western powers fear could spread violence far beyond the desert.
Algeria's government spokesman made clear the leadership in Algiers remains implacably at odds with Islamist guerrillas who remain at large in the south years after the civil war in which some 200,000 people died. Communication Minister Mohamed Said repeated their refusal ever to negotiate with hostage-takers.
"We say that in the face of terrorism, yesterday as today as tomorrow, there will be no negotiation, no blackmail, no respite in the struggle against terrorism," he told APS news agency.
The apparent ease with which the fighters swooped in from the dunes to take control of an important energy facility, which produces some 10 percent of the natural gas on which Algeria depends for its export income, has raised questions, over the value of security measures that are outwardly draconian.
Foreign firms were pulling nonessential staff out of the country, which has recovered stability only in recent years and whose ruling establishment, heirs to fighters who ended French rule 50 years ago, has resisted demands for reform and political freedoms of the kind that swept North Africa in the Arab Spring.
"The embarrassment for the government is great," said Azzedine Layachi, an Algerian political scientist at New York's St John's University. "The heart of Algeria's economy is in the south. where the oil and gas fields are. For this group to have attacked there, in spite of tremendous security, is remarkable.
Algiers, whose leaders have long had frosty relations with the former colonial power France and other Western countries,may have some explaining to do over its tactics in putting an end to a hostage crisis whose scale was comparable to few in recent decades bar those involving Chechen militants in Russia.
Government spokesman Said sounded unapologetic, however:
"When the terrorist group insisted on leaving the facility, taking the foreign hostages with them to neighboring states, the order was issued to special units to attack the position where the terrorists were entrenched," he told state news agency APS, which said some 600 local workers were freed.