First Published: 2013-01-19

 

In fourth day of hostage crisis, uncertainty reigns in In Amenas

 

Uncertainty over fate of foreigners held at Algerian gas plant reigns, with their captors demanding prisoner swap.

 

Middle East Online

How many were killed? How many are still held?

IN AMENAS (Algeria) - An American hostage was confirmed dead Friday amid uncertainty over the fate of other foreigners held at an Algerian gas plant, with their captors demanding a prisoner swap and an end to French military action in Mali.

The Al-Qaeda-linked gunmen, cited by Mauritania's ANI news agency, said they still held seven foreigners at the site deep in the Sahara desert near the border with Libya. An Algerian security official put their number at 10.

"This is an extremely difficult and dangerous situation," US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in Washington at a joint news conference with an equally concerned Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida.

"The United States extends our condolences to all the families who have lost loved ones in this brutal assault and we remain deeply concerned about those who remain in danger. Utmost care must be taken to preserve innocent life."

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland identified the dead American as Frederick Buttaccio amid reports that a total of five Americans were initially taken hostage.

The UN Security Council "condemned in the strongest terms the terrorist attack in In Amenas, Algeria", said a statement agreed by the 15-member panel.

The council also expressed "deep sympathy and sincere condolences to the victims of these heinous acts and their families and to the people and governments of Algeria and those countries whose nationals have been affected".

International criticism of the haste with which Algeria launched a dramatic military assault to rescue those held has been mounting, after an Algerian security official said it had left dead 12 hostages and 18 kidnappers.

Kishida urged Algeria to place the "utmost priority" on ensuring the hostages' safety.

In Tokyo, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe ordered his government to do everything possible to ensure the safety of 10 Japanese nationals unaccounted for.

Abe attended a meeting of a government task force shortly after arriving in Tokyo after cutting short a trip to Southeast Asia.

"I would like you to do your best to confirm the safety of the Japanese and rescue them by using every possible means," Abe told top government officials at the meeting.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said a Frenchman had been killed in the operation. A US official said an American military transport plane had begun to help evacuate survivors, but gave no estimate of the number of US hostages.

Troops were trying to reach a "peaceful" end to the hostage crisis, before "neutralising the terrorist group that is holed up in the plant and freeing a group of hostages still being held there," a security official said.

The Al-Qaeda-linked gunmen group known as "Signatories in Blood" want an end to the French intervention in neighbouring Mali, according to Mauritania's ANI news agency, which quoted sources close to their leader, Mokhtar Belmokhtar.

The gunmen said they were still holding three Belgians, two Americans, one Japanese and a Briton, although Belgium said there was no indication that any of its nationals were being held.

ANI said Belmokhtar, a veteran Algerian extremist with Al-Qaeda ties who has claimed responsibility for the attack, also proposed exchanging the remaining two US hostages for the Egyptian blind sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman and Pakistani Aafia Siddiqui, jailed in the United States on charges of terrorist links.

"The United States does not negotiate with terrorists," Nuland said when asked about the proposal.

More workers remain unaccounted for, and the fate of at least 10 Japanese nationals and eight Norwegian hostages still unknown.

NBC News cited US officials as saying that two Americans escaped unscathed after hiding when the attack began, while the fate of two others remains unclear.

One American who escaped -- Mark Cobb -- told CNN via text message that he was "safe" after escaping with some Algerian staff.

Algerian news agency APS quoted a government official as saying the kidnappers, who claimed to have come from Niger, were heavily armed with machineguns, assault rifles, rocket launchers and missiles.

Clinton urged Algeria to show "utmost care" to preserve the lives of the hostages and offered condolences for those killed.

A photographer saw trucks delivering empty coffins to the hospital at In Amenas, where the wounded had been taken.

US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said the United States was "working around the clock" to secure the safe return of Americans, as Washington ruled out talks for a hostage swap.

Some of those who escaped said explosives had been wrapped around their necks and others said they hid, petrified, wherever they could.

Alexandre Berceaux of French catering firm CSI said he took cover in his room before troops freed him.

"I was under the bed and I put boards everywhere just in case," Berceaux said. "I had a bit of food, a bit to drink. I didn't know how long it would last."

The fate of two Malaysians believed to have been caught up in the hostage crisis remains unknown, the foreign ministry said in a statement Saturday.

Three other Malaysians who were working at the gas plant were safe. The embassy in Algeria "is still determining the fate" of the other two.

Philippine worker Jojo Balmaceda, employed by British oil giant BP, recounted on local television Saturday how he escaped from his kidnappers' clutches.

Balmaceda and three fellow Filipino workers were taken at gunpoint as they arrived for work, tied up and thrown into a truck along with Japanese and Malaysian hostages, the GMA network reported.

He escaped when the truck was hit by an explosion but sustained a gunshot wound to his head which had affected his hearing, the station added.

A Northern Ireland man, Stephen McFaul, also escaped. His brother said he fled when the convoy he was in came under army fire.

France said two of its nationals had returned safely but it had no word on two more. And Vienna said one Austrian had been released.

Algerian forces launched their rescue bid on Thursday, a day after the kidnappers seized the plant to avenge what they said was Algiers' support for French military action in neighbouring Mali.

 

Munich shooting had 'obvious link' to Breivik, not ISIS

Libya ‘NATO revolutionaries’ urge fight against French troops

Turkey extends police powers, shutters over 1,000 private schools

Coalition warplanes strike Qaeda positions in southern Yemen

Palestinian village could soon cease to exist

At least 61 people dead as ISIS claims twin blasts in Kabul

Iraq PM seeks to speed up death penalty implementation

EgyptAir flight broke up in midair after fire, evidence suggests

Germany probes motives of 'lone' Munich mass killer

Russian warplanes targeted US, British outpost in Syria

Syrians harness Pokemon frenzy to depict their plight

Bodies of 14 'executed' people found in Libya's Benghazi

UN to help Turkey bolster tourism sector

France to supply weapons to Iraqi army

Turkey tensions fester in Germany

Israel official on first visit to Chad in 40 years

EU condemns 'unacceptable' Turkey purges

Iran stops 'terrorist infiltration' from Turkey

Moscow restarts air travel to Turkey

Assad says Erdogan is 'implementing his own extremist agenda'

Egypt's Sisi says 'serious efforts' made in Palestine peace process

43 civilians dead as regime bombards rebel-held areas in Syria

UN pleads for weekly 48-hour truce in Syria's Aleppo

Kuwait upholds death for Iran spy cell 'mastermind'

Iran arrests 40 over 'terrorist' plots

US-backed forces give IS '48 hours' to leave Syria's Manbij

Syria activists urge protests over deadly coalition raids

Kuwait issues ultimatum to Yemen negotiators

Turkey coup plotters go on trial in Greece

Mali renews state of emergency after deadly attack

Turkish President declares 3-month state of emergency

Libya unity govt blasts French military presence

Erdogan critics fear what may come next

ISIS bomb kills 4 in Yemen's Aden

Outrage after Syrian rebel group beheads child

Israel parliament passes law allowing expulsion of Palestinian MPs

Europol warns 'Lone wolf' terror attacks hard to track

Turkey blocks WikiLeaks email dump on ruling party

Three French soldiers killed in Libya

Turkey's battle with PKK continues through coup drama

Saudi carries out 99 executions this year

Turkey bans academics from work trips abroad

Beijing policies pushing Chinese Muslims to join IS

Canada pledges $158 million in humanitarian aid to Iraq

French PM: There will be other attacks