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Algeria: Accounts emerge as nearly 100 foreigners reported freed

January 18, 2013|By Kim Willsher | This post has been updated. See the note below for details.

PARIS -- The Algerian state news agency Friday reported nearly 100 of 132 foreign hostages and at least 573 Algerians had been freed at the In Amenas gas plant.

Algerian television aired footage of rescued hostages hugging in relief. The death toll in the ongoing crisis is still unknown amid conflicting reports about the number of casualties suffered as the Algerian military stormed the facility Thursday.

Harrowing accounts emerged Friday from gas plant workers who escaped: Alexandre Berceaux endured 40 hours hiding underneath the bed in his living quarters, only opening the door for Algerian co-workers who used a password, the French worker told Europe 1 radio.

"I heard an enormous amount of fire but I had no idea what was happening,” Berceaux said of the attack, later adding, “I was afraid. I could see myself ending up between four planks of wood” – in a coffin.

His Algerian colleagues brought him food and water throughout the crisis and ultimately accompanied the Algerian soldiers who came to free him Thursday, Berceaux told the radio station. The Algerian forces also found British hostages in the roof spaces, he said in the interview.

"I saw some dead. They said there were many dead. I don't know how many. There were terrorists who were dead along with foreigners and locals," Berceaux recounted.

Even with the French military intervention in neighboring Mali, Berceaux said those at the oil facility were not on alert. He told the radio station that he could not sleep, still shocked by the ordeal.

"Nobody was expecting this. The site was protected, there were military forces there," he said.

Another foreign worker, Belfast engineer Stephen McFaul, escaped after the vehicle that militants had hustled him into came under attack by Algerian forces and crashed, his brother Brian told the Irish Times late Thursday. Another four jeeps full of hostages were blown up in the attack, Brian McFaul said.

“The Al Qaeda were trying to take him from the compound, but to where Stephen was not 100% sure,” Brian McFaul told the newspaper. Captors had tied explosives around his neck before his escape.

“It was a terrible ordeal for him. You have to remember some of his friends are still being held captive,” Brian McFaul added.

[Updated 10:36 a.m. PST Jan. 18: French television relayed another account of the crisis from a driver identified as Brahim, who said he crept under the floor of his living quarters to hide after he heard a siren and shots rang out.

Brahim said a metal fence blocked him from seeing what was happening in the areas controlled by the militants. The electricity cut out.

"Thanks to our walkie-talkies, though, we were able to receive a few bits of information.  But pretty soon the line went dead,” Brahim told France 24 television. “We were then cut off from the outside world.”

Two Turkish workers and a third from the Philippines managed to escape the part of the gas facility controlled by the militants by cutting a hole through the metal fence; they hid with him and his co-workers, Brahim told the television station. As the Algerian army started to attack Thursday, the workers decided it was time to make a run for it.

“As bullets rang out nonstop, we cut holes in the metal fence with large clippers, and once through, we all started running,” Brahim said in the interview. “There were about 50 of us plus the three foreigners. We were quickly taken in by the special forces stationed just a dozen meters from the base. I didn’t look back.”

An unnamed witness, who identified himself as an engineer, told France Info that the attackers smashed down doors on the base, shouting, “We’re only looking for foreigners, you Algerians can go!” They encircled the foreigners and tied them up, he said in a phone interview with the radio station.

The attackers had "accents that seemed to be Libyan and Algerian. … They were extremely well armed, and at ease. Aged between 30 and 35 years. Carrying bombs,” the witness said.]


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Emily Alpert in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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