The PJ Tatler

Algerian Military in 'Final Assault' to Free Hostages

Reuters is reporting that the Algerian army has staged a final assault on the terrorists holding an unknown number of western hostages.

Apparently, all terrorists and the hostages they were holding have been killed.

The Algerian army on Saturday carried out a final assault on al Qaeda-linked gunmen holed up in a desert gas plant, killing 11 of the Islamists after they took the lives of seven more foreign hostages, a local source and the state news agency said.

“It is over now, the assault is over, and the military are inside the plant clearing it of mines,” a local source familiar with the operation told Reuters.

The state oil and gas company, Sonatrach, said the militants who attacked the plant on Wednesday and took a large number of hostages had booby-trapped the complex with explosives.

The exact death toll among the gunmen and the foreign and Algerian workers at the plant near the town of In Amenas close to the Libyan border remained unclear.

Earlier on Saturday, Algerian special forces found 15 burned bodies at the plant. Efforts were under way to identify the bodies, the source told Reuters, and it was not clear how they had died.

Sixteen foreign hostages were freed on Saturday, a source close to the crisis said. They included two Americans, two Germans and one Portuguese. Britain said fewer than 10 of its nationals at the plant were unaccounted for.

The attack on the plant swiftly turned into one of the biggest international hostage crises in decades, pushing Saharan militancy to the top of the global agenda.

The sad fact is, Algeria really doesn’t care much about the hostages — their own or westerners. They are out to deter any other attacks on their oil and gas industry and by making it clear they won’t negotiate,  and will take decisive military action, they are sending a grim message to al-Qaeda: attack, and you will be sacrificing your lives for nothing.

As for the final body count, it may be days before we know. Hundreds were taken hostages when the crisis broke on Wednesday — most of the Algerian — with at least 40 and perhaps many more westerners among the prisoners. Estimates on the number of dead hostages vary greatly:

Before the final assault, different sources had put the number of hostages killed at between 12 and 30, with many foreigners still unaccounted for, among them Norwegians, Japanese, Britons and Americans.

The figure of 30 came from an Algerian security source, who said eight Algerians and at least seven foreigners were among the victims, including two Japanese, two Britons and a French national. One British citizen was killed when the gunmen seized the hostages on Wednesday.

The U.S. State Department said on Friday one American, Frederick Buttaccio, had died but gave no further details.

AP has a slightly different number:

The Algerian government now says 19 hostages and 29 militants have died since Thursday. Before the final assault, the militants claimed through the Mauritanian website ANI that the helicopter attack alone killed 35 hostages and 15 militants.

One American, from Texas, is among the dead, and the militants offered to trade two other American hostages for two terrorists behind bars in the U.S., an offer firmly rejected by Washington. At least one Briton, a Frenchman and Algerians have also died in the standoff. Escaped Algerian workers describe seeing people of many nationalities, including Japanese, shot down.

The rising Islamist tide in western Africa, including the battle now being waged by the French against al-Qaeda in Mali, presents western policy makers with a new strategic headache. And our friends in the region are poorly prepared to meet the threat on their own.