Conflicting reports suggest anything between six and 34 hostages have lost their lives as rescue operation continues
A large number of western hostages, including Britons, were feared dead after Algerian troops stormed a desert gas field seized by a jihadist group, in a bloody end to the worst international hostage crisis of recent years.
Reports from the remote outpost on the country’s eastern border were conflicting: the Algerian government said six foreign hostages had been killed – while the militant hostage-takers claimed 34 had lost their lives. One British contractor was killed in the initial attack by the Islamists on Wednesday, but the fate of an unspecified number of other western hostages was unclear.
David Cameron warned that the country “should be prepared for further bad news in this very dangerous, fluid situation”. The Foreign Office called it “an appalling tragedy”.
The Algerian authorities said that the rescue operation was still going on, and that many of the militant hostage-takers had been killed. Officials said that 600 Algerian workers at the site had been freed and that more than 20 foreigners had also survived.
Twelve Norwegians, working for the Statoil oil company, were reported to have been at the gas field site at the time of Wednesday’s attack. The government in Oslo said it had no news of their fate.
The Algerian government said it had had to take instant action to end the stand-off, and that the jihadist group, known as the “Signers in Blood” had intended to take the hostages out of the country.
One Algerian survivor said that the militants had stated their intent to kill the “Christians and infidels” among the hostages.
But the British government complained that it had not been informed before the military operation was launched. Cameron only heard once it was underway and immediately demanded an explanation from Algiers. Washington and Paris indicated they too had been left in the dark.
There were also questions about the tactics used by the Algerians to break the hostage stand-off.
Several reports from the scene describe helicopter gunships strafing the workers’ living quarters where the hostages were being held. The militants claimed 34 westerners had been killed in the Algerian army attack and that they still hold seven: two Americans, three Belgians, one Japanese and one British citizen.
Earlier in the day, the Algerian authorities claimed that 30 Algerians and 20 foreign workers had escaped their captors and had been picked up by army helicopters.
One of the survivors was Stephen McFaul, an Irish national, who called his wife, Angela, in west Belfast at 3pm to say he was alive and free.
The White House said it was concerned about the loss of life and was seeking clarification. A senior official told journalists travelling with the US defence secretary, Leon Panetta, in the UK: “Details remain very murky over this raid and what has happened. We’re assessing reports that the Algerians may have conducted some kind of action in connection with the incident, but cannot confirm precisely what happened.”
In France, President François Hollande told business leaders that the hostage crisis “seems to be heading towards an end in dramatic conditions” and that the violence in Algeria justified his decision last Friday to launch a military campaign against Islamist militants in neighbouring Mali.
The Algerian raid, thought to have been spearheaded by the army’s special intervention group, was carried out only hours after the British government had said its “focus is on working through the Algerian government and BP” — a partner in the gas field.
According to Downing Street, Cameron learned of the rescue attempt from British officials in Algiers in touch with London by satellite link. He then rang the Algerian prime minister at 11am to be informed that the operation was already underway, despite an earlier appeal by the British prime minister that no substantial action be taken without first consulting him.
“The prime minister explicitly told the Algerians he wanted advance warning of any military operation, but they just went for it,” a Downing Street source said.
One source described the 10-15 minute phone call as businesslike, but stressed that no British judgment would be made on the operation while it was still underway.
However a spokesman said: “The prime minister explained we would have preferred to be consulted in advance.”
The prime minister made that view known first in a phone call on Wednesday, but Algerians countered that it had not been possible since in its judgement it had been imperative to act immediately.
Asked if Britain had counselled against a direct strike, the prime minister’s spokesman said “the aim of the British government had been to work with the Algerian government and the company to resolve the situation peacefully”.
According to two separate reports many of the casualties were caused when an Algerian helicopter gunship opened fire on one of the jihadists’ vehicles, which was carrying militants and hostages. It is not clear whether the vehicle was attempting to flee the scene at the time.
Even before the main Algerian army attack, the jihadists told al-Jazeera television that the army was firing on the complex, and a Japanese hostage reported he and a Norwegian hostage had been wounded by army snipers. Another hostage warned the “message does not seem to be getting through,” al-Jazeera reported, and Algerian troops were continually firing at the camp.
The Signers in Blood militant group that attacked the gas field before dawn on Wednesday also called itself the Masked Brigade and owed allegiance to Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a one-eyed veteran jihadist who until last year was a deputy leader in al-Qaida in the Maghreb. He broke away from the group to start his own faction, pledging to fight western influence in the region. One of the hostage survivors said that members of the group spoke Arabic with Egyptian, Tunisian and Syrian accents.
“The terrorists told us at the very start that they would not hurt Muslims but were only interested in the Christians and infidels,” another survivor, a 53-year-old local man called Abdelkader, told Reuters news agency. “We will kill them, they said.” He added: “The terrorists seemed to know the base very well … Moving around, showing that they knew where they were going.”
The timing of the attack also suggested inside knowledge. The group struck when there was an unusually high number of foreigners at the gas field and some of them were leaving in a bus to the airport.