15 February 2013

Algeria: Tiguentourine Overcomes Tragedy

Tiguentourine — One month after the al-Qaeda terrorist attack on the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria, officials and reporters returned to the scene of the carnage.

The In Amenas gas plant is coming back to life, one month after an al-Qaeda siege left 38 people dead in the Algerian desert.

The nearest town to Tiguentourine is 70 kilometres away and the regional government seat is hundreds more, but for four days in January, the place made news around the world.

The Sonatrach-BP facility had been closed since January 20th, when Algerian forces freed hundreds of hostages held by fighters loyal to al-Qaeda emir Mokhtar Belmokhtar.

"The No. 1 site satisfied all the technical and security assurances for the return to service," Sonatrach official Slimane Benazou told officials and reporters at the plant on Tuesday (February 12th).

Visitors eager to see the gas facility up and running include Illizi Governor Mohamed Laid Khelifi, who was himself kidnapped in Debdeb last year.

"This will never happen again," Khelifi said. "The security measures taken right after this attack will make that certain."

Illizi Assembly chief Bilal Mansouri also voiced shock at the deadly strike by Belmokhtar's "Signed in Blood" brigade.

"Even during the dark years, the region did not see any acts of terrorism," he said. "But this will not discourage us or frighten us."

Inside, the impact of the terrorist attack is plain to see in the form of bullet-holes in the walls, especially the wall of the lobby where the Algerian hostages were holed up.

The mood was still sombre, even though members of staff at the workers' living quarters tried to smile.

Farid, who was taken hostage, is one of 300 employees who decided to return to work.

"I received a call, I came back without hesitating. We have to keep working and move on," he tells Magharebia.

"Life is starting once again at the living quarters," employee Mustapha adds. "For the time being, there are only Algerians. But we are in constant contact with foreign officials."

In the area where the terrorists had herded hostages together amid booby-trapped explosives, site manager Lotfi Ben Adouda recounts the horror of his captivity.

Hostage describes days of terror

"Twelve terrorists got into the living quarters. Their first target was the VIP building. I was there, along with the BP and Statoil bosses and high-ranking guests. They wanted to capture as many foreigners as possible. They identified me just two hours later. They got me to communicate their demands to the Algerian authorities," Ben Adouda says.

"On Wednesday night, they got the Algerian hostages out and used us as human shields. On Thursday morning, they became very aggressive as they were convinced that they could not get out of the living quarters with the foreign hostages. They demanded vehicles and stocked up with fuel and food in readiness to leave," he adds.

The plant official adds that the complex was stormed at ten o'clock. "The leader of the group, Tahar (ed. Mohamed el-Amine Bencheneb an Algerian militant killed in the siege), was injured. I saw him with my own eyes. His associates left him with the Algerian hostages when the complex was stormed," he says.

Ben Adouda says he is convinced that it was an inside job.

"They came in via a route that only those in the know are familiar with," he claims. This intelligence, he says, must have been given to them by support staff (car park attendants, kitchen staff or security guards) and not technical personnel.

If the terrorists had received assistance from plant workers, they would not have placed their explosives in the production units. There were more sensitive locations that the terrorist group did not know about, Ben Adouda says.

On the road leading from the living quarters to the plant, the burnt-out shells of the cars used by the terrorists can still be seen. Soldiers stand guard at the entrance to the plant. The first production unit still bears the scars of the terrorist attack.

"The terrorists blew their hostages up," a technician tells us.

Technical teams are still scouring every inch of the plant for the smallest dangerous object before it goes back into operation.

"We're looking for bullets above all. We can't take any risks. If there's even one bullet remaining, it could cause damage," another worker tells Magharebia.

All of the employees make it a point to mention Mohamed Amine Lahmar, the young Algerian security guard who helped prevent an even worse outcome.

He triggered the security alarm, alerting workers to shut down the machines.

Terrorists shot him in the head.

On February 24th, the Tiguentourine base will honour the slain hero.

Meanwhile, site officials are doing everything they can to get the plant up and running again.

The re-launch operation will be conducted solely by Algerian staff. Statoil and British Petroleum employees are expected to return in about three months.

"I'm in favour of soldiers being present on the site, and this is what I will propose to our partners when the new security plan is drawn up," Ben Adouda said.

Recruitment arrangements for contracted staff, such as cooks, car park attendants and security guards, will also need to be re-evaluated. One member of the group of assailants was a former driver from Niger who had worked at the workers' residence hall.

The brother of AQIM leader Abou Zeid (aka Hamid Essoufi and Mohamed Ghadir) owned a transport company that held contracts with British Petroleum. Abou Zeid reportedly managed to place three members of his family at the plant as contract workers.

Algerian intelligence officials were reportedly already working with BP on the security breach.

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