Hostage crisis: Algeria ignored captives' plea to withdraw

Jan 18, 2013

Algeria's zero-tolerance policy towards insurgents led to troops going in 'with all guns blazing'

AS DOWNING STREET awaits confirmation on how many Britons died in yesterday's botched attempt by Algerian forces to free hostages seized by jihadist militants at the BP gas plant, a picture is beginning to emerge of how events unfolded at the facility.

David Cameron, who had urged the Algerians to try and resolve the crisis through negotiation and had demanded prior warning of any attack, was only told that a military operation was underway at 11.30am on Thursday.

The crisis had begun on Wednesday when a group of militants linked to al-Qaeda, called the Masked Brigade, raided the complex, taking local and foreign workers captive. A French captive said many of the westerners, held in the plant's accommodation block, were forced to wear explosive belts.

Before the situation escalated on Thursday, some of the estimate 41 Western captives were allowed to talk to the media. In interviews with Al-Jazeera they urged the Algerian military, which had surrounded the plant, to withdraw. An unnamed British captive told the broadcaster: "Negotiation is a sign of strength and will spare many a loss of life."

An Irish hostage said: "We call on the Algerian army to withdraw... We are worried because of the continuation of the firing."

There were reports of sniper fire around the plant as kidnappers struggled to maintain order, says The Independent. "The 20 or 30-strong gang of kidnappers had difficulty in controlling so many captives. There were reports during the day of small groups of Algerian and foreign workers escaping."

With tensions mounting, the militants were offered what the Daily Telegraph called a "take it or leave it deal" by the Algerian forces and told to leave the compound without the hostages. When the Masked Brigade refused, "the Algerians, in keeping with their policy towards insurgents during their years of civil war, went in with all guns blazing".

The trigger to the Algerian assault appeared to be an attempt to "either move the hostages between locations or to break through the military cordon in a convoy of 4x4 vehicles," said the Telegraph.

In the ensuing violence helicopter gunships opened fire on "anything that moved" in the compound, and there were explosions around the plant, some thought to have been caused by suicide bombers.

Amid the chaos and conflicting reports there was some good news. Northern Irish captive, Stephen McFaul, 36, from Belfast telephoned his family on Thursday night to say he was safe. But at the time of posting the fate of dozens of other hostages remains unclear, with reports that some of the militants are still holding out against Algerian forces.

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