Algeria Says at Least 37 Foreigners Dead in Siege

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ALGIERS -- Algeria's prime minister said Monday that at least 37 foreign hostages died during the four-day siege in his country, a steep increase from earlier estimates, and the United States government confirmed that three Americans were among them.

In his first official tally of the deadly scope of the crisis, the prime minister, Abdelmalek Sellal, also said that five foreigner hostages remained unaccounted for. Twenty-nine kidnappers were killed, including the leader of the group, he said, and three were captured alive during the ordeal that terrorized a remote internationally run gas field refining site in the desert.

Two of the attackers were Canadian, he said. Canada's government said it was investigating that assertion.

Algerian officials had been forecasting that the tally of foreign dead would rise from a preliminary estimate of 23, a concern that was reinforced by reports that a significant number of hostages from Japan and the Philippines had been killed at the site. On Monday, the Algerian prime minister said the dead came from eight different nations, without specifying which ones. He said that one Algerian hostage had been killed as well.

Mr. Sellal was more specific about the attackers, saying at the news conference that they had come from Egypt, Canada, Mali, Niger, Mauritania and Tunisia, although it was unclear how he knew for sure.

Algerian officials have been saying that few if any of the attackers are believed to have been Algerian. But the prime minister said the leader of the militant band that seized the gas field facility, an Algerian whom he identified as Bencheneb Mohamed Amine, was among the attackers killed during the crisis.

The United States had already confirmed the death of one American hostage, but on Monday the State Department announced that two additional Americans died during the siege, bringing the total to three. Victoria Nuland, a State Department spokeswoman, identified them as Victor Lynn Lovelady and Gordon Lee Rowan, without specifying their hometowns. On Friday, the State Department said that Frederick Buttacio of Katy, Texas, had died.

Ms. Nuland also said seven Americans had survived the crisis, but she did not identify them.

The Algerian prime minister, Mr. Sellal, asserted that the attackers had started out in northern Mali -- a claim made by the attackers themselves but initially dismissed by the Algerian authorities as far-fetched because the Malian border is hundreds of miles away.

The prime minister added that the attackers had ultimately crossed into Algeria through its eastern border with Libya, which is much closer to the refining site. If true, it would serve as a powerful reminder of Libya's instability since the overthrow of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi more than a year ago, and of the enormous distances that complicate the policing of national boundaries in the vast Sahara.

"We would need two NATOs to monitor our borders," Mr. Sellal said.

He corroborated assertions made by other Algerian officials and accounts from freed hostages that the militants had intended to destroy the gas complex, had planted booby-traps throughout the site and had attached explosives to some of their captives.

Algerian officials have said that the militants demanded an end to France's armed intervention in Mali, and the prime minister said they sought the release of prisoners in Algeria. The Algerian government said from the outset that it would not negotiate.

"They went wild with their demands," the prime minister said in his remarks. "It was impossible to meet, and it caused the military to intervene."

In all, the prime minister said, 790 workers were on the site, including 134 foreigners of 26 nationalities, when it was first seized by a heavily armed militant band. It was one of the most brazen assaults in years.

The prime minister's news conference represented the most detailed Algerian tally of casualties in the days of alternating standoff and confrontation that began early on Wednesday as the raiders swept in from the desert to take over the internationally managed gas plant, hundreds of miles from Algiers.

Earlier on Monday, the Philippine Foreign Affairs Department announced casualties among its citizens for the first time, saying six Filipino hostages had been killed and four were still missing.

Additionally, citing an unidentified government source, Reuters said Algeria had informed Japan that nine of its citizens had died -- if corroborated, the highest death toll by a nation reported so far -- while previous Japanese accounts had spoken of 10 unaccounted for. Officials in Tokyo declined to confirm those figures, but news reports quoted Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as saying that seven Japanese captives died and that three were still unaccounted for.

Japan's NHK television interviewed an unidentified Algerian worker who escaped the gas plant. He said that not long after sporadic firing started, militants appeared, armed with machine guns, antitank rockets and antiaircraft missiles. He said the attackers were kind to Algerian staff members, who were given food and blankets. Their targets were the foreign workers, who were rounded up.

The first ones he saw killed were two Japanese and a Filipino, gunned down before his eyes. He said the militants made the foreign hostages wear bombs strapped onto their bodies. He fled during the army attack, and did not know if those foreigners had survived.

The standoff between several dozen radical Islamists and Algerian security services came to a bloody conclusion on Saturday when the Algerians assaulted the kidnappers' last redoubt at the refining site, where hundreds of Algerian and scores of expatriate workers were employed.

The victims were killed after hours of harrowing captivity. An unknown number of the hostages died in the assault on Saturday; Algerian officials said they also killed most of the remaining hostage takers, who they said were followers of Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a warlord linked to Al Qaeda based in northern Mali. A regional Web site reported that he had issued a video claiming responsibility for the attack.

In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron revised earlier estimates of fatalities, saying Sunday that three British citizens were confirmed dead and three more were believed to have been killed, along with one resident of Britain who was not a citizen. Earlier, the government had said five Britons and one British resident had died or were unaccounted for.

The confusion over the count of victims reflected the murky circumstances at the gas field, near a remote town in southeastern Algeria called In Amenas. Senior Algerian official in Algiers, the capital, said they were in the dark themselves about some aspects of the events.

Up until Monday, official declarations from the Algerian authorities had been sparse. The country's president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, has hardly spoken about the crisis, even as foreign leaders have demanded details.

While the Algerians have weathered criticism from British, Japanese and other foreign officials over their no-holds-barred handling of the crisis -- typical of their approach to a decades-old terrorism problem in Algeria -- other foreigners have spoken up to defend it, especially in France, the former colonial power.

The French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, said in a radio interview on Sunday that he was "shocked" that Algeria had been criticized for its response to terrorists who "pillage, rape and ransack." He said that "there can be no impunity for terrorists" and that efforts to combat them "must be relentless." The death toll at the gas field was "very high," he said, but the Algerian authorities faced an "intolerable situation" there, Mr. Fabius said.

Algerian officials said from the outset that any sort of negotiation with the kidnappers was out of the question. Their response with overwhelming force -- including missile-firing helicopters -- was in character with the brutal 10-year war Algeria waged against Islamist insurgents in the 1990s, when tens of thousands of people died. Mr. Belmokhtar, the warlord with overall command of the group that apparently staged the gas-field attack, is himself a veteran of that war.

A former BP executive, who knows In Amenas and the North African oil business well, said in an interview that Mr. Belmokhtar had been on the industry's radar as a potential threat for a decade or more. The executive said Mr. Belmokhtar, though not a member of the Tuareg ethnic group himself, often used the desert tracks that the Tuaregs use to roam among the remote desert areas of Libya, Mali, Niger and Algeria. Some of those routes pass near In Amenas.

The scale of the operation, which supplies about 5 percent of Algeria's gas output, and its location in the Sahara near the Libyan border meant that it was standard procedure for military escorts to accompany workers on every journey to or from distant wells, the airport or the town of In Amenas, the former executive said. He described the town as a base for the regional operations of the energy companies that operate the gas field -- BP, Statoil of Norway and Sonatrach, the Algerian national oil company -- as well as oil-services companies like Halliburton, Schlumberger and JGC, the Japanese company that had employees among the hostages.

Mr. Belmokhtar is believed to have been involved in a series of kidnappings of European tourists for ransom in 2003, but obtaining money does not seem to have been the main purpose of the gas field raid; rather, he reportedly claimed a political motive.

"We in Al Qaeda announce this blessed operation," Mr. Belmokhtar says in the video he issued on Sunday, according to Sahara Media, a regional Web site that sometimes receives communications from radical Islamists in North Africa. Sahara Media quoted from the video in its report, but did not immediately post the video.

The Web site said Mr. Belmokhtar offered to negotiate with "the West and the Algerian government, provided they stop their bombing of Mali's Muslims" -- a reference to the French-led military intervention in Mali. The statement was dismissed by Algerian authorities on Sunday.

Even so, it was another signal that the events at the gas field were linked in some way to those in Mali. French forces have stepped in there to assist the Malian Army and other African troops as they try to roll back the advance of radical Islamists who have carved out a ministate in the north.

That campaign is preceding largely through airstrikes against columns of Islamist pickup trucks; French television showed images on Sunday of incinerated vehicles in Diabaly, a town that was overrun and then abandoned by the jihadists after French strikes throughout the week.

French officials aid the main task for now was to stabilize central Mali and ensure that there was no further attempt by the Islamist rebels to move south toward the capital, Bamako.

Adam Nossiter reported from Algiers, and Alan Cowell from London. Reporting was contributed by Steven Erlanger and Scott Sayare from Paris, Alan Cowell and Stanley Reed from London, Floyd Whaley from Manila, Martin Fackler from Tokyo, Eric Schmitt and Michael R. Gordon from Washington, Ian Austen from Ottawa, and Michael Schwirtz and Rick Gladstone from New York.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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