Algerian firemen carry a coffin holding one of those killed during the hostage… (Anis Belghoul, Associated…)
CAIRO — Islamic militants who seized hundreds of hostages were "wild with their demands," forcing the Algerian military to act quickly in a standoff at a natural gas refinery that led to the deaths of 37 foreign captives and 29 extremists, the Algerian prime minister said Monday.
In a televised news conference from the capital, Algiers, that offered the country's official explanation for what happened at the remote compound in the Sahara desert, Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal said the attackers were rigging explosives throughout the complex and needed to be stopped before they blew it up.
The ordeal drew world attention to Algeria for five days, beginning with a predawn assault by militants Wednesday and ending Sunday when special forces captured five extremists amid booby traps and a landscape of charred vehicles and scattered, disfigured bodies.
The Algerian government moved to assure foreign energy companies, such as BP, which co-runs the refinery at In Amenas, that it would deal aggressively with terrorism. About 60% of the nation's revenue comes from oil and gas reserves, and it was reportedly the first time militants had targeted such a facility.
But the country's security and intelligence forces, among the harshest in the Arab world, appear to have been caught off guard. The prime minister said militants, including bomb makers, knew the layout of the plant and may have been assisted by a former refinery driver.
The death toll of 37 foreigners was up from an earlier estimate of 23. Seven of the dead have not been identified. Among the captives confirmed dead or missing are three Americans, seven Japanese, six Britons, six Filipinos, five Norwegians, one Colombian and nationals from other countries.
Some of them died when militants shot them in the head, Sellal said.
Three militants were captured in addition to the 29 killed. Earlier reports had put the number of captured militants at five. Some had been wearing Algerian military uniforms. Their nationalities, including Egyptian, Libyan, Tunisian and Mauritanian, indicated the spread of Islamic extremism across North Africa since the political upheaval of the "Arab Spring" began in late 2010.
Sellal said two Canadians were also involved in the attack. One of them — who spoke English and was identified only as Chedad — commanded the rounding up of foreign hostages.
The prime minister offered condolences to the families of victims, saying, "This is a terrorist act rejected by Algerians." He added that the militants, connected to a group that fought against the government in the 1990s civil war, "want to plunge Algeria back into terrorism."
The assault on the refinery was carried out by extremists who traveled from neighboring Mali, officials said. The mastermind of the plot was Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a longtime Islamic militant linked to the group Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Sellal said the Islamists headed east, crossing into Niger, Libya and finally into Algeria's desert. Their intent was to seize foreigners and hold them in Mali for ransom.
"But their original goal did not succeed," Sellal said.
Militants in pickup trucks ambushed a bus carrying foreign workers to a nearby airport. They encountered gunfire from security guards and drove the hostages to the refinery. There, they battled guards, including one who set off an alarm, alerting technical workers to stop the flow of gas through the refinery's labyrinth of pipes.
It was not clear, though, why the militants stormed the gas complex if their goal was only to kidnap foreigners. Such inconsistencies have frustrated foreign officials. Even after Sellal's comments, much of what unfolded remained opaque.
Western officials, however, have publicly supported Algeria's actions despite earlier suggestions that the military may have acted too quickly.
Once inside the compound, the militants split into two groups: One group secured the plant; the other rounded up hostages in the housing area. There were 790 workers on the site, including 134 foreigners, most of whom were separated from the Algerian workers.
"The militants knew very well the [gas complex] area and their primary goal was to take over and control the foreigners in the compound," Sellal said. "They had heavy arsenals."
Earlier accounts by freed hostages said captives were forced to wear explosives belts. Sellal said the militants set booby traps and "planted explosives everywhere." Negotiations proved fruitless when militants demanded that Islamic radicals held in Algerian prisons be released. They also said they would use hostages as shields to escape to Mali, where they would seek financial payments from the energy companies for their release.
The demands were "impossible to meet," Sellal said, "and it caused the military to intervene."