Seven more hostages die as firefight ends crisis
LONDON: It was mid-morning on Sunday when Algeria's special forces, known as ''the Ninjas'', launched their final, fatal assault. The result was perhaps inevitable: a bloodbath ending in the deaths of seven foreign hostages and 11 of the kidnappers.
The Algerian military had already proved itself trigger-happy when 48 hours earlier - without the knowledge of any other government - army helicopters had opened fire on a fleet of vehicles speeding through the Tigantourine gas facility, killing terrorists and hostages indiscriminately.
By Sunday morning, the rump of the heavily armed Islamist militants had retreated from the accommodation blocks to the main gas complex itself about three kilometres away. Reports suggested they had holed up in a machine room with 23 hostages being used as human shields.
Hostages at the Tigantourine gas facility in Algeria. Photo: Reuters
The Algerian authorities had refused to negotiate with the terrorist group, whose leader on the ground was named as Abdul Rahman ''the Nigerian''.
They had with them hostages from Britain, the US, Germany, Romania and Portugal.
What happened next remains unclear but details can be pieced together from the various sketchy reports.
Satellite view ... the gas plant and town of In Amenas in Algeria. Photo: Suplied
Sixteen hostages - including two Americans, two Germans and one Portuguese - were freed but a further seven were left dead, either executed in cold blood by the terrorists or else mown down in the firefight.
''The assault took place mid-morning. Eleven terrorists lost their lives with the foreign hostages,'' an Algerian security source said. ''We think they were killed in retaliation.''
Official sources told Algeria's al-Watan newspaper, known for its close contact with the country's feared secret services, that the terrorists had tried but failed to set fire to the gas plant on Friday night.
''We're pressing the Algerians for details on the exact situation,'' the British Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond, told a joint press conference with his US counterpart, Leon Panetta.
The loss of life was ''appalling and unacceptable and we must be clear that it is the terrorists who bear sole responsibility for it'', Mr Hammond said.
The Algerian response had begun on Thursday with army attack helicopters, capable of firing 5000 rounds a minute, shooting indiscriminately at seven vehicles, driven by the kidnappers and carrying about 35 hostages.
The militants, about 15 of them, fired back. Four cars were blown up and one crashed. On survivor said the militants placed ''an explosive cord'' around the hostages' necks and they were told that they would explode if they tried to run away. Ground troops moved into the complex in the aftermath of that first skirmish, searching for survivors before trying to secure it.
At some point in that operation another of the terrorists' leaders, Abu al-Baraa ''the Algerian'', is believed to have been shot.
The army assault was led by General Arthman ''Bachir'' Tartag, 60, the deputy head of the security services. General Tartag is under strict orders to eliminate al-Qaeda in Algeria.
''He has a reputation for brutality which goes back to the Algerian civil war in the 1990s,'' one expert said.
A former Algerian diplomat now living in exile in London, Mohamed Larbi Zitout, said the secret services, led by General Mohammed ''Tewfik'' Mediene, had remained at the heart of power despite changes of government in the past 20 years.
''[General Mediene] runs everything with his deputy General Tartag, who is known for being one of the most bloodthirsty men in Algeria,'' Mr Zitout said.
''They have a state of mind that Algeria must be run by the army. They don't believe that civilians could run the country,'' he said.