x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Algeria hostage recounts survival tactics, as toll rises

Tony Grisedale's account of survival amid the carnage of the terrorist attack on the Algerian gas plant makes an agonising ordeal seem almost commonplace. Colin Randall pieces together the drama

Algerian firemen carry a coffin containing the body of a person killed during the hostage crisis to the Ain Amenas morgue.
Algerian firemen carry a coffin containing the body of a person killed during the hostage crisis to the Ain Amenas morgue.

Tony Grisedale's account of survival amid the carnage of the hostage crisis at Ain Amenas natural gas refinery makes an agonising ordeal seem almost commonplace.

Hearing the emergency alarm as a gang of Islamist militants attacked the plant, he retreated to the complex's living quarters, lay low and, as the sounds of gunfire punctuated the silence, hoped for the best.

"I just went back to the accommodation, locked the door, battened down the shutters, knocked the lights off and kept quiet," said Mr Grisedale, 60, from Cumbria in northwestern England.

There he remained, with plenty of water but no food, until rescued after two days by Algerian security forces. "There was no food for two days, no telecommunications, no electricity, no running water. So I just lay still and relaxed.

"I made a game plan for what I'd do if no one came for me and listened to some music on my phone. I don't know if that was a good or a bad thing to do, as it could have attracted the bad guys. I slept most of the time really."

Others, many others, were not so fortunate. After Algerian special forces had carried out their final assault to end four days of tension and terror, the reckoning was bleak enough. It soon got bleaker.

A Saharan hostage crisis that began and ended in appalling bloodshed was initially thought to have caused the deaths of at least 23 workers of several nationalities, as well as 29 of their captors. But as Algerian military personnel scoured the plant for signs of life, or booby trap devices, the death toll rose to at least 38 people killed. As of this morning, five people were still missing.

It was also learnt that one of the freed hostages had died after being returned to his native Romania. And reports from Tokyo suggested that nine Japanese workers now known to have been killed were not reflected in earlier figures.

In time, an accurate narrative will evolve, completing the jigsaw of the chilling events that unfolded at Tigantourine, 30 kilometres inside Algeria from the western Libyan border.

But a detailed picture is taking shape. What is known is that the calm of the desert was shattered at dawn on Wednesday as two buses carrying foreign employees of the site, operated jointly by the Algerian state company Sonatrach, BP and the Norwegian energy giant Statoil, left for the 50km journey to the refinery's own airport.

It was around 5.30am local time, half an hour earlier by some accounts, when the gang of Islamists militants led by Abdul Rahman Al Nigeri, originally from Niger and with links to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, struck.

What happened in the immediate aftermath of the ambush, and in the three days that followed, can be pieced together from a stream of reports from the foreign and domestic media.

A radio operator from the refinery's communications room, identified only as Azedine, said: "Moments after the bus left, I heard shooting and then nothing."

What Azedine heard was probably an exchange of fire between the first wave of attackers and the military escort accompanying the buses. One Briton and one Algerian, possibly a security man, were killed.

As the remaining passengers sought refuge, the militants turned their attention to the plant and nearby residential compound, where hundreds of workers of several nationalities - mainly Algerian but including American, British, Japanese, French, Norwegian, Filipino, Colombian and Romanian - were taken prisoner.

There has been talk of the power supply being cut and desperate attempts by employees to take cover in any available hiding place.

The attackers seemed determined to leave no hostage untouched.

And they were formidably armed, Algerian television later displaying some of the weaponry: grenades, machineguns, landmines and thousands of ammunition rounds.

For the hostages, survival and death was a something of a lottery. One French catering worker hid under his bed for 40 hours and was rescued by Algerian soldiers. Stephen McFaul, from Belfast, somehow clambered to safety with Semtex explosives strapped to his neck, when one of a convoy of attackers' vehicles crashed. But Japanese victims were executed in cold blood, according to "Brahim" and other Algerian witnesses.

As for the kidnappers, one early communique proclaimed allegiance to Al Qaeda.

The attack, they said, was "a reaction to Algeria's flagrant interference in allowing French planes into its airspace to launch raids on northern Mali". Outside Algeria, observers suspected the atrocity must have been planned some time before French intervention.

The group, calling itself Those Who Sign With Blood, is led by an Islamist combatant, Algerian-born Mokhtar Belmokhtar. He did not take part in the attack but posted a claim of responsibility in an online video describing it as a "blessed" operation.

On Thursday, the hostage-takers called on the Algerian army to withdraw and allow negotiations to begin. It appears the Algerian authorities had no intention of engaging. Recordings have now emerged of a telephone conversation between Al Nigeri, the attackers' operational commander, and an Algerian official. The commander is heard demanding the release of 100 Islamist prisoners held in Algerian jails and said he and his men would die - one implication being that so would the hostages - if the demand were not met.

Algeria, in any event, was in no mood for conciliation. Information from the capital Algiers and reaching at least three of the countries most affected by the crisis - Britain, Norway and France - confirmed that a military counter-attack was under way.

A number of people - 30 Algerian captives according to officials, 15 foreigners as stated by the Algerian television network Ennahar - escaped, some fleeing into the desert and found by security forces. But, ominously, the hostage-takers claimed 34 prisoners and 15 Islamist attackers had been killed in a military air raid. This could not be verified and may have been no more than camouflage for the slaughter of innocents that had already begun.

Later, there was further hopeful news when the official Algerian news service, APS, reported that the army had rescued 600 Algerians, two Britons, a Frenchman and a Kenyan and that, out of a total of more than 30 kidnappers, 18 had been killed.

In Tokyo, London, Oslo and Washington, officials were alarmed at the failure to alert them to the planned operation. But Paris, as is now known from French ministers' own declarations, reacted with understanding to the uncompromising but high-risk Algerian response.

Why, then, did Algeria not inform friendly governments of its intentions or ask for help from specialist special operations units such as Britain's SAS, highly-trained servicemen with a strong track record of intervention in comparable crises?

A sense of pride in handing its own problems is part of the explanation. But Algeria also argued that the threat to life and property was imminent, with plans to kill more hostages or take them into Libya and blow up as much of the refinery as possible.

There was, it insisted, no room for delay. The Algiers government's hardline position was also influenced by experience of fighting a bloody Islamist insurgency throughout the 1990s. By Friday, any hopes that Thursday's counter-attack had brought the crisis to an end were dismissed. David Cameron, the British prime minister, said Algerian troops were still pursuing attackers and attempting to locate hostages.

From the APS state news agency came a report that Algerian troops had freed about 100 foreign hostages, leaving some 30 still missing. Mr Cameron warned that bad news should be expected.

On Saturday, the final day of the siege, the extent of loss of life became clearer as APS announced that the military operation to retake the refinery was over. It still told only part of the story. That provisional toll - a minimum of 23 or more hostages - reflected fatalities inflicted over the course of the crisis. But seven of the hostages died in the closing stage as troops tried to free them, said APS. And, as subsequent disclosures have shown, the true figure was in fact far higher.

In all, the Algerian reports said, 685 Algerian workers and 107 foreigners had been saved. As a foretaste of the news then still to come, an Algerian minister cautioned that the number of dead hostages could rise again as the plant and living quarters were searched for remaining casualties as well as booby-trap devices.

After all the bloodshed, questions remain:

Ÿ Could the natural gas plant, remotely situated, have been better protected? It was an obvious target - if one of many among Algeria's gas and oilfields - for militants who may have access to remnants of the former Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi's arsenal and mercenary forces.

• Should Algeria have paused to consult concerned foreign governments before launching the first assault?

• Did the attackers regard themselves all along as being on a suicide mission - with the aim, consequently, of killing as many people as possible - given their assumptions about the Algerians' likely response?

• Were the families of hostages kept unnecessarily and, for them, agonisingly in the dark by the governments and energy companies?

• What does the scale and ruthlessness of the incident tell the world about the capacity of Al Qaeda and its offshoots to launch attacks across North Africa?

• Who, exactly, were the people making up this large group of militants, well prepared and armed to the teeth? The Algerian prime minister said they came from Egypt, Mali, Niger, Mauritania, Tunisia, Canada and Algeria itself. Six are said to have been captured alive.

The answers to one or more of those questions will become known in the days, months and years to come.

Mr Cameron spoke of the world's need to acknowledge that the international community's response could last for decades.

"What we face is an extremist, Islamist, Al Qaeda-linked terrorist group," he said. "Just as we had to deal with that in Pakistan and in Afghanistan so the world needs to come together to deal with this threat in North Africa.

"It is linked to Al Qaeda, it wants to destroy our way of life, it believes in killing as many people as it can. We need to work with others to defeat the terrorists and to close down the ungoverned spaces where they thrive with all the means that we have."

foreign.desk@national.ae

* Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse and Reuters

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