Nations scramble to account for missing after Algeria hostage crisis
POSTED: Sunday, January 20, 2013 - 12:40pm
UPDATED: Sunday, January 20, 2013 - 9:16pm
(CNN) -- The hostage crisis in eastern Algeria is over, but the questions remain.
Among them, exactly how many people are unaccounted for at a remote natural gas facility after three days of chaos that ended Saturday, leaving 23 hostages and dozens of Islamist militants dead.
Some 685 Algerian workers and 107 foreigners were freed, the Algerian Interior Ministry said.
"Search efforts are ongoing at the gas installation, looking for more possible victims. I fear the numbers will be updated with more victims later today when the search operation is expected to end," said Mohammed Said, the Algerian communication minister.
The attackers are members of six nationalities and include Arabs, Africans and people from other non-African nations, he told state-run Radio Algeria.
Eleven of the former hostages -- including several British citizens -- have received medical treatment and psychological counseling from the U.S. military at a U.S. naval base in Sigonella, Italy, a U.S. official said Sunday. The hostages were brought to the base from Algeria on Friday, the official said, and are being flown back to their home countries as their conditions warrant. The remains of one American hostage were also brought to the base, the official said.
In a statement Saturday night, the White House said it remained in close contact with the Algerian government to "gain a fuller understanding of what took place."
The State Department, meanwhile, warned against travel to Algeria.
In the United Kingdom, British Foreign Secretary William Hague echoed the White House's remarks, saying his government too was "working hard to get definitive information" about each individual.
Americans and Britons were among those held hostage as were workers from various other nations.
Algeria has not specified the nationalities of the hostages killed.
Japan, for example, said Sunday that 10 of its nationals were yet to be confirmed safe.
"As such, we are taking the government announcement that there were multiple Japanese killed extremely seriously," said a spokesman for JGC Corp., an engineering firm that was involved in gas production in In Amenas, where the attack occurred.
Algeria said that among the 32 militants killed, only three were Algerians; the rest were from other countries.
In a statement Saturday, the Algerian Interior Ministry said the military found a number of "foreign military uniforms" in its sweep of the facility to clear it of mines planted by militants.
Raids turn deadly
Militants in pickup trucks struck the sprawling gas complex in In Amenas at dawn Wednesday, gathered the Westerners who worked there into a group and tied them up.
The plant is run by Algeria's state oil company, in cooperation with foreign firms such as Norway's Statoil and Britain's BP -- and as such, employed workers from several foreign countries.
The kidnappers wielded AK-47 rifles and put explosive-laden vests on some hostages, according to a U.S. State Department official.
Algeria said the attack was in retaliation for allowing France to use Algerian airspace for an offensive against Islamist militants in neighboring Mali.
But regional analysts believe it was too sophisticated to have been planned in just days.
The next day, Algerian special forces moved in because the government said the militants wanted to flee to Mali.
The Islamic extremists also planned to blow up the gas installation and rigged it with mines throughout, the U.S. official said.
Thursday's military incursion succeeded in freeing some hostages -- but not all.
Some survivors described their harrowing escapes by rigging up disguises and sneaking to safety with locals, with at least one survivor running for his life with plastic explosives strapped around his neck.
Several hostages died. And the Algerian military came under criticism from some quarters for unnecessarily endangering the lives of the hostages.
Undeterred, the government followed with a second push Saturday. That assault killed the remaining hostage-takers but resulted in more hostage deaths.
The army intervened "to avoid a bloody turning point of events in this extremely dangerous situation," the Algerian Interior Ministry said Saturday.
"It was clear that the terrorists were determined to escape the country with the captives and to bomb the gas installations."
On Sunday, one American lawmaker said the Algerian government had turned down U.S. offers to help end the hostage situation.
"They decided they were going to handle it their way," said Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the U.S. House intelligence committee. "They did not want us or the other hostage nations involved in the decision-making."
British Defense Secretary Philip Hammond called the loss of life "appalling and unacceptable," but laid the blame solely on the terrorists.
Now, individual nations are scrambling to find out what happened to their citizens. It is not clear how many hostages were seized by the Islamist militants in the first place.
Colombia's president said a citizen was presumed dead.
There are no known French hostages unaccounted for, the Defense Ministry said Saturday.
One man -- identified as Yann Desjeux -- died after telling the French newspaper Sud Ouest on Thursday that he and 34 other hostages of nine different nationalities were well-treated.
There are still 10 Japanese who have yet to be confirmed safe, JGC -- the engineering firm -- said Sunday.
Three hostages were on their way back to Malaysia, the country's state-run news agency said Sunday. But there is a "worrying possibility" that another is dead while a fifth is unaccounted for, the agency said.
Five Norwegians are missing, while eight are safe, Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg said.
One Romanian lost his life, the country's Foreign Ministry said Saturday. Four other Romanians were freed.
Three British citizens were killed, the Foreign Office said Sunday. Three other British nationals and a UK resident are also "believed dead," he said. Twenty-two other Britons who were taken hostage have safely returned home.
At least one American, identified as Frederick Buttaccio, is among the dead, the State Department said. Six freed Americans left Algeria and one remained.