Islamist militants were still holding hostages at a remote Algerian gas field yesterday, as criticism mounted of Algiers’ decision to carry out a deadly rescue bid without warning governments whose nationals were being held.
“Some hostages are still being held at the Tiguentourine gas treatment plant, which is currently surrounded by the special forces,” Algeria’s APS news agency said.
An Algerian security source said 18 hostage-takers had been killed in Thursday’s air-ground assault on a nearby housing compound, but the remainder of the more than 30 militants remained holed up in the treatment plant.
British Prime Minister David Cameron warned that the remote In Amenas gas field deep in the Sahara was a “large and complex site and they are still pursuing terrorists and possibly some of the hostages in other areas of the site.”
Algerian Communications Minister Mohamed Said said the assault freed a “large number” of hostages, but news reports from Algiers said nearly 600 of those rescued were Algerian workers.
The Islamist militants had seized hundreds of hostages at the field deep in the Sahara on Wednesday, purportedly to avenge a French-led offensive in neighboring Mali.
Cameron said “significantly” fewer than 30 British citizens remained at risk at In Amenas field, operated jointly by British oil giant BP, Norway’s Statoil and Sonatrach of Algeria.
US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said on a visit to London that US officials were “working around the clock” to secure the safe return of an unknown number of US citizens among the hostages.
“Terrorists should be on notice that they will find no sanctuary, no refuge. Not in Algeria, not in north Africa, not anywhere,” Panetta said.
BP said that a “small number” of its staff at In Amenas were unaccounted for yesterday, adding it had evacuated hundreds of workers from it and other fields amid the “serious” hostage crisis.
Japanese plant builder JGC, which has 78 employees in the country, said it had now accounted for 17 of them — seven Japanese and 10 others — but that the whereabouts of the other 71 remained unknown.
Statoil said that another one of its Norwegian employees had been taken to safety, but that the fate of eight others was still unknown.
France said two of its nationals had returned safely, but it had no word on two others reported to have been taken hostage.
Austria said one national had been released.
One man from Northern Ireland escaped. According to his brother, Stephen McFaul fled when the convoy in which he was traveling came under fire from the army. He had earlier “had explosives tied around his neck.”
The kidnappers said 34 captives had died in the assault, but an Algerian security source described the toll as “fantasy.”
Japan’s foreign ministry summoned the Algerian ambassador to demand an explanation why it had received no prior notice of the commando raid as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe cut short a visit to Indonesia to deal with the crisis.
Tokyo called the army assault “regrettable.”
A senior US official said Washington “strongly encouraged” the authorities to make the hostages’ safety their top priority.
Cameron said he was “disappointed” not to have been informed by the Algerians in advance.
The chief hostage taker, Abu al-Baraa, who was reportedly killed in the commando raid, had told Al-Jazeera television: “We demand the Algerian army pull out from the area to allow negotiations.”