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U.S., other nations await Algeria death toll

January 20, 2013|By Jeffrey Fleishman
  • In this image made from video, people believed to be hostages kneel in the sand with hands raised at an unknown location in Algeria.
In this image made from video, people believed to be hostages kneel in the… (Ennahar TV / AP Photo )

CAIRO — The U.S., Britain and other countries sought to learn the fate of their citizens Sunday after Algeria announced that the death toll from a hostage crisis at a remote gas refinery was expected to rise beyond a previous estimate of 23.

It was another painstaking day for security officials trying to determine how a band of Islamist militants overran the gas complex last week, and for families and nations awaiting word of new deaths. Britain confirmed that three of its citizens were killed and three are unaccounted for.

Algerian officials said security teams defusing mines and explosive booby-traps at the Sahara Desert site had found “numerous” bodies, according to the Associated Press. Algerian communications minister Mohamed Said Belaid was quoted by the state news agency as saying: "I am afraid unfortunately to say that the death toll will go up."

As many as seven U.S. hostages are missing, along with about 14 Japanese. Other captives included Norwegians, Malaysians and French. Algerian officials said a final death count would be released in the coming hours.

Nearly 700 Algerians and 107 foreigners had been freed or had escaped from the gas field in eastern Algeria during the four-day, bloody ordeal that ended Saturday. Officials said at least 23 hostages and 32 militants had been killed. But discrepancies remained over the nationalities of the dead and the exact number of those who died.

“The priority now must be to get everybody home from Algeria," said British Prime Minister David Cameron. "This is a stark reminder once again of the threat we face from terrorism the world over. We have had successes in recent years in reducing the threat from some parts of the world, but the threat has grown particularly in northern Africa.”

Cameron, who had earlier appeared irritated that the Algerians did not inform foreign capitals before troops first stormed the refinery Thursday, tempered his criticism.

"People will ask questions about the Algerian response to these events,” he said. “But I would just say that the responsibility for these deaths lies squarely with the terrorists who launched this vicious and cowardly attack. And I'd also say that when you’re dealing with a terrorist incident on this scale, with up to 30 terrorists, it is extremely difficult to respond and to get this right in every respect.”

 The natural gas complex at In Amenas -- near the Libyan border -- is operated by BP, Statoil and Sonatrach, the Algerian national oil company. BP said four of its employees were missing.

Militants linked to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb raided the facility before dawn Wednesday. They claimed it was to avenge French airstrikes on Islamic rebels in neighboring Mali. But officials from the U.S. and other countries indicated the attack was planned ahead of this month’s French military action. 

Belaid said the militants were "nationals of Arab and African countries, and of non-African countries."

jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

(Times staff writer Henry Chu in London contributed to this report)     

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