Algeria warned yesterday that the hostage death toll from a siege at a desert gas plant would rise, after its troops staged a final assault that killed all the remaining Islamist gunmen.
Britain said at least three of its citizens had been killed in the crisis, which ended when Algerian special forces stormed the In Amenas plant on Saturday. France acknowledged the death toll would be high, but cautioned against criticizing Algeria’s military response, saying it had faced an intolerable situation.
The Algerian Ministry of the Interior had reported on Saturday that 23 hostages and 32 militants were killed during assaults launched by Algerian special forces to end the crisis, with 107 foreign hostages and 685 Algerian hostages freed.
However, Algerian Minister of Communication Mohammed 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, where French forces are battling Islamist militants across the Sahara desert in Mali.
In London, British Prime Minister David Cameron said that British citizens were among the dead.
“Tragically, we now know that three British nationals have been killed and a further three are believed to be dead, and also a further British resident is also believed to be dead,” Cameron said in a televised statement.
One Briton had already been confirmed killed when the gunmen seized the hostages before dawn on Wednesday at the plant, run by Norway’s Statoil along with Britain’s BP and Algeria’s state oil company. The Islamists’ attack 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 center stage.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius defended Algeria’s handling of the crisis, after some governments expressed frustration that they had been kept in the dark.
“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,” 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 Islamist militants seized the remote compound near the Libyan border, taking a large number of hostages. Said reported that the militants had six different nationalities and the operation to clear the plant of mines laid by the hostage-takers was still under way.
Believed to be among the 32 dead militants was their leader, Abdul Rahman al-Nigeri, a Nigerien close to al-Qaeda-linked commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar, presumed mastermind of the raid.
One American has also been confirmed dead. Statoil said five of its workers, all Norwegian nationals, were still missing. Japanese and American workers are also unaccounted for.
Some Western governments expressed frustration at not being informed of the Algerian authorities’ plans to storm the complex.