PARIS -- Hostages who escaped or were freed from their Islamist captors at the natural-gas field in Algeria have described scenes of fear and terror. Some said they had explosives hung around their necks, and others spoke of the sudden shooting of unarmed colleagues as the terrorist group seized control of the residential quarters of the plant.
The drama began at about 5:30 a.m. on Wednesday with an attack on a bus carrying workers to the nearby airport that was thwarted by Algerian security escorts. It turned into a major hostage-taking as well-armed and experienced Islamists took over the facility's residential area, which is situated at a distance from the plant to protect workers should an explosion occur.
A Briton called his wife while he was being taken hostage, saying he had been forced to sit at his desk with Semtex, an explosive, strapped to his chest. After the man, Garry Barlow, 49, called his wife, Lorraine, 52, The Daily Mail reported, she informed the Foreign Office that an attack was under way. "He rang home and told his wife the complex had been taken over by what they thought then was the mujahedeen," a friend told the newspaper.
"He said: 'I'm sat here at my desk with Semtex strapped to my chest. The local army have already tried and failed to storm the plant, and they've said that if that happens again they are going to kill us all,' " the friend said. Mr. Barlow's fate is not yet clear.
Al Mulathameen, the Islamist group that has claimed responsibility for the attack, has made clear in statements to Mauritanian news outlets that foreign citizens were explicitly targeted.
According to an Algerian man who worked on the site and escaped on Thursday afternoon, foreigners were separated from Algerian workers. The attackers told Algerians that they were their "brothers," the man said, speaking on the condition of anonymity from In Amenas, the city not far from the gas site.
Perhaps 40 people, including 9 foreigners, were eating breakfast in the cafeteria at the site at about 5:30 a.m. when they heard gunshots, the man said. They remained in place until fighters entered the cafeteria at about 9 or 10 and began to separate the Algerians from the foreign workers, whose hands they bound. Five dark-skinned foreigners hid among the Algerians and were allowed to leave with them when they were directed into a separate building nearby, the man said. Workers whom the man identified as Pakistanis were placed among other foreigners, but argued with the attackers that, like them, they were Muslims; it was not clear how the attackers responded.
Many of the attackers spoke with non-Algerian accents, the man said, and he suggested that some of them may have been Libyan and Syrian, along with Algerians. One of the fighters was French, the man said.
At one point, he said, the fighters shot a European man in the back in the presence of other hostages. It was not clear why he had been shot, the man said, and he did not know if the man was alive or dead. He claimed that there had been several executions, but that he had not been present for them.
On Thursday afternoon, the fighters urged him to leave the site with other Algerians. They boarded a bus and rode toward the perimeter of the site, where security forces halted and searched them. The five foreigners who had claimed to be Algerian were among those to escape, the man said.
One French hostage, who works for the catering company CIS at the facility, said he hid in a room away from other foreign hostages, arranging planks of wood to conceal his presence, and survived thanks to food brought by Algerian colleagues.
The man, Alexandre Berceaux, told Europe 1 radio after his release that the hostage-taking on Wednesday was a complete surprise. "I heard an enormous amount of gunfire," he said. "The alarm telling us to stay where we were was going off. I didn't know if it was a drill or if it was real. Nobody expected this. The site was protected. There were soldiers in place."
He described "intervals of heavy fire" on Thursday, when the Algerian military tried to storm the site, using helicopters.
"I stayed hidden for nearly 40 hours in my bedroom," he said. "I was under the bed, and I put boards everywhere just in case. I had a bit of food, a bit to drink; I didn't know how long it would last."
He said he was sure he would be killed. "When the military came to get me, I did not know whether it was over," he said. The soldiers came with Algerian colleagues, he said, "otherwise I would never have opened the door."
Mr. Berceaux said Algerian soldiers found some British hostages hiding on the roof and were still searching the site for others when he was escorted to a nearby military base, from which he expected to be transferred to France. "I think there are still people hidden," he said. "They are in the process of doing a count now."
A hostage who escaped unharmed on Thursday said the Algerian Army bombed four jeeps carrying fellow captives and probably killed many of them, his brother told Reuters. The hostage, Stephen McFaul, an Irishman, told his family that he survived because he was aboard the only one of five jeeps not hit by Algerian bombs on Thursday, according to his brother Brian, who spoke to Stephen's wife, Angela.
"They were moving five jeeploads of hostages from one part of the compound," Brian McFaul said. "At that stage they were intercepted by the Algerian Army. The army bombed four out of five of the trucks, and four of them were destroyed." The truck Stephen McFaul was in crashed, and "at that stage Stephen was able to make a break for his freedom," his brother said. "He presumed everyone else in the other trucks was killed."
Mr. McFaul, his brother said, said that some of the hostages had their mouths taped and explosives hung from around their necks.
Another French former hostage, who was unnamed, told France24 television that the Islamists attacked both the gas plant and the residential quarters at the same time. He said the militants were heavily armed and tied explosive belts around some hostages, threatening to blow up the gas plant if the Algerian Army intervened. "They entered the interior, and once it was daylight, they assembled everyone together," the hostage said.
Yann Desjeux, 52, also French and a former hostage, told the newspaper Sud Ouest that he was kept with 34 other hostages of nine nationalities, while 6 others were kept hostage in the gas plant.
Jo Calmette, a French tourist who had camped out in In Amenas on Wednesday night, told the newspaper Midi Libre that he had met some of the hostages who escaped the gas plant after the Islamist assault. He spoke to a French nurse identified as Murielle at the local police station of In Amenas. "She told me that the Islamist commando had given them orders to stay in their bungalows, but at night, with a group of Algerian friends, they managed to cut up the wire fence and escape," Mr. Calmette said.
The nurse said she escaped with Algerians but also with an American, a Briton and another Westerner. "They escaped and ran into the Algerian Army right away," Mr. Calmette said.
Khaled, an Algerian engineer for Sonatrach, an Algerian hydrocarbons company, told L'Express that he escaped captivity when the Algerian Army assaulted the plant on Thursday. He did not see the initial attack on the bus taking foreigners to the airport, he said, but soon afterward he saw about a dozen pickup trucks with the militants, whom he called Salafists. "I don't know exactly how they infiltrated the site," he said. "I heard bursts, heavy gunfire." He said the leader of the commandos came and told them to call him "Belaouar," and said he would release the locals quickly. "It was the foreigners that interested him," Khaled said. "They only wanted them."
The locals were allowed to have their cellphones to call their families, Khaled said. "But it soon became impossible to get in touch with anyone," he said. "Someone told me they had liberated women, but I didn't see that."
During the army assault, he said, he was in the game room. "There was a stampede," he said, and some people forced open the security door. "Then we all started to run."
Scott Sayare contributed reporting.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.