Algeria said on Sunday it expected heavy hostage casualties after its troops ended a desert siege, but Western governments warned against criticizing tactics used by their vital ally in the struggle with Islamists across the Sahara.
An Algerian minister acknowledged the death toll would rise, and a private television station reported that 25 bodies had been found at the gas plant near the town of In Amenas after forces staged a final assault against the Islamist hostage-takers on Saturday.
Some Western governments had expressed frustration at not being informed of the Algerian authorities' plans to storm the complex. But France, which is fighting Islamist rebels across the desert in Mali, joined Britain in playing down any suggestion the response from Algeria — the main military power in the Sahara region — had been over-hasty or heavy-handed.
"What everyone needs to know is that these terrorists who attacked this gas plant are killers who pillage, rape, plunder and kill. The situation was unbearable," French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said.
"It's easy to say that this or that should have been done. The Algerian authorities took a decision and the toll is very high but I am a bit bothered ... when the impression is given that the Algerians are open to question. They had to deal with terrorists," he told Europe 1 radio in an interview.
The Islamists' pre-dawn attack on Wednesday has tested Algeria's relations with the outside world, exposed the vulnerability of multinational oil operations in the Sahara and pushed Islamist radicalism in northern Africa to centre stage.
Algeria, scarred by a civil war with Islamist insurgents in the 1990s which claimed 200,000 lives, had insisted there would be no negotiation in the face of terrorism.
Prime Minister David Cameron pointed out on Sunday its record in fighting Islamists. "Of course people will ask questions about the Algerian response to these events, but I would just say that the responsibility for these deaths lies squarely with the terrorists who launched this vicious and cowardly attack," he said in a television statement.
"We should recognise all that the Algerians have done to work with us and to help and coordinate with us. I'd like to thank them for that. We should also recognise that the Algerians too have seen lives lost among their soldiers."
France especially needs close cooperation from Algeria to have a chance of crushing Islamist rebels in northern Mali. Algiers has promised to shut its porous 1,000-km border with Mali to prevent al Qaeda-linked insurgents simply melting away into its empty desert expanses and rugged mountains.
Algeria's permission for France to use its airspace, confirmed by Fabius last week, also makes it much easier to establish direct supply lines for its troops which are trying to stop the Islamist rebels from taking the whole of Mali.
Higher Death Toll
Algeria's Interior Ministry had reported on Saturday that 23 hostages and 32 militants were killed during the assaults launched by Algerian special forces to end the crisis, with 107 foreign hostages and 685 Algerian hostages freed.
However, Minister of Communication Mohamed Said said this would rise when final numbers were issued in the next few hours. "I am afraid unfortunately to say that the death toll will go up," Said was quoted as saying by the official APS news agency.
Details are only slowly emerging on what happened during the siege, which marked a serious escalation of unrest in northwestern Africa.