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.

 

IS bid to seize Kobane stalls amid air strikes

Six Tunisians killed in police-gunmen standoff

Iraq MPs divide over Kurds deployment to aid Kobane

Suspicious envelopes to consulates in Istanbul prompt alert

Morocco fossils: A rare and vanishing treasure

Germany offers to help Armenia forge peace with Turkey

Libya wakes up from ‘Dubai dream’ to face Somalia-like ‘failed state’

South Yemen separatists vow to intensify secession protests

Relatives of Iraq massacre victims: Blackwater guards should be killed

Ghannouchi makes it clear to Tunisia: It’s either political Islam or Daesh!

Deadly clashes erupt after army raid in northern Lebanon

200 Iraqi Kurd fighters to travel through Turkey to Kobane

Coalition strikes in Syria eliminate more than 500 jihadists in one month

Ahead of elections, new clashes remind Tunisia of need to fight terror

Saudi Arabia jails mothers for preparing sons to wage jihad

Jury finds Blackwater guards guilty of 2007 'massacre' in Iraq

Iraq Kurds approve reinforcements for Kobane

Israel classifies car crash as ‘hit and run terror attack’

Turkish woman arrested for stepping on Koran

Erdogan criticises US for airdrops on Kobane

Iraq schools provide shelter but late to open for classes

Syria air force shoots down two of three 'IS warplanes'

Egypt court rules on ‘Nasr City terror cell’

Fire from Egypt wounds two Israeli soldiers near border

By hook or by crook, settlers notch up property gains in East Jerusalem

Turkey envoy meets leader of parallel government in Libya

Israel arrests seven Palestinian fishermen off northern Gaza

Khamenei to Abadi: Iraq can beat 'Islamic State' without foreign troops

Saudi special court rules in cases of riots and terrorism

Libya army scores small victory in Benghazi

Only in Libya: Government calls for civil disobedience

Kasserine reaps bitter harvest from Tunisia revolution: Poverty and terrorism

Iraq Kurds set to vote on deployment of Peshmerga forces to Syria

Islamic State ‘share in US weapons’ embarrasses Pentagon

Alderton: Morocco unrivalled business gateway to sub-Saharan Africa

Protests over IS turn Istanbul University into war zone

Turkey eyes stricter punishment against lawbreakers at protests

For Sudan President: Promises are something and re-election is something else

Iran returns Abadi to ‘house of obedience’

From traditional military to counterinsurgency force: Syria army grows more capable

South Sudan rivals accept 'responsibility' for civil war

British drones in Iraq also used for Syria surveillance

Turkey launches new wave of wire-tapping arrests

Rise of Shiite militias challenges government authority in Iraq

Syria Kurds show impressive resistance to ‘Islamic State’ in Kobane