Algiers — The outcome of an Algerian military operation to free hostages held at the In Amenas gas complex remained unclear on Friday (January 18th), amid conflicting reports from local authorities and foreign governments.
Algerian Special Forces began a rescue mission Thursday that freed nearly 650 hostages, including dozens of foreigners, according to APS. Eighteen terrorists were reportedly killed in the operation.
British Prime Minister David Cameron said Friday that the operation was "on-going".
Cameron told Parliament that he spoke with Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal, who said that the first stage of the rescue mission was complete but the gas plant was a large and complex site and Algerian forces were "still pursuing terrorists and possibly some of the hostages in other areas of the site".
Algerian Communications Minister Mohamed Said told the press Thursday evening that an "important" terrorist was killed in the siege. He said that Algeria would not give in to "blackmail", adding there would be "no respite" in the fight against terrorism.
"It is a multinational terrorist attack against the Algerian people and the state," the minister said.
Said urged Algerians to remain vigilant. "The terrorists will fail to achieve their goals through the determination of Algerians to defend their country and their economy and remain united to face the wave of terrorism that takes a new form where there are also multinational drug traffickers," the minister said.
The attack on the Tiguentourine gas complex near In Amenas in Illizi wilaya began on Wednesday morning. Former al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) emir Mokhtar Belmokhtar (also known as Laaouar) reportedly orchestrated the assault on the Sonatrach-BP-Statoil facility.
Laaouar's El Moulethemine Brigade ("The Masked Brigade") claimed credit for the attack. The group also referred to itself as the "Singed-In Blood Brigade", with the operation named for Mauritanian terrorist Teyeb Ould Sidi Ali (aka Abderrehim al-Muritani). Ould Sidi Ali died in a 2011 car crash in Mali.
The incident was the first of its kind targeting an Algerian oil or gas plant. The facility has a production capacity of more than 25 million cubic metres a day for export. The complex is located roughly 100km from the Libyan border.
According to an Algerian interior ministry statement, the attack began when a "heavily armed terrorist group" first targeted a bus as it left the complex carrying foreigners en route to In Amenas airport.
The statement noted that one Algerian and a foreigner were killed in the initial attack, which was repelled by police who had been escorting the bus, while six others - two foreigners, two gendarmes and two security agents - were wounded.
The kidnappers threatened to blow up the entire facility in the event security forces stormed the complex, prompting Sonatrach to halt gas flows for fear the terrorists might have rigged the plant with explosives.
A released hostage said that the kidnappers separated the Algerians from the foreigners. He noted that the kidnappers discussed some demands that would be made to the Algerian authorities to end the operation. They included the stoppage of the French military operation in Mali and the release of terrorists detained by the Algerian authorities, including relatives of Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, leader of the "Tariq ibn Ziyad" brigade.
Another freed worker at the gas complex said that elements from different Arab nationalities were among the kidnappers. In a statement to maghrebemergent.info, he said that kidnappers were speaking Arabic in different dialects, and said that they included "Egyptians, Tunisians and one Syrian".
The militants were dressed in Afghan-style clothes and Sonatrach security uniforms, according to another released worker.
In a special interview with Echorouk, Interior Minister Dahou Ould Kabila said that the terrorist group that carried out the In Amenas attack came from Libya.
"All data and facts show that the terrorist group that attacked the In Amenas oil facility came from Libya officially and that the operation was planned and supervised by terrorist Mokhtar Belmokhtar on Libyan soil," the minister said.
In response to a question about his statements on Wednesday where he stated that the kidnappers were locals, Ould Kabila said that "it was difficult to identify the entity based on data available yesterday, and that was why I had reservations on mentioning that."
When the attackers tried to flee the facility on Thursday, Algerian troops moved to intercept them.
"The group tried to break the security siege Thursday at dawn in an attempt to flee with a number of hostages, but the security forces prevented them from leaving," a security source told Magharebia on condition of anonymity.
That led to an ensuing gunfight between the terrorists and Algerian forces. As of press time, a yet unknown number of hostages and captors were killed in the exchange.