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Death toll in Algeria tops 80

| Sunday, Jan. 20, 2013, 8:38 p.m.

ALGIERS — The death toll from the terrorist siege at a natural gas plant in the Sahara Desert climbed past 80 on Sunday as Algerian forces searching the refinery for explosives found dozens more bodies, many so badly disfigured that it was unclear whether they were hostages or militants, a security official said.

Algerian special forces stormed the plant on Saturday to end the four-day siege, moving in to thwart what government officials said was a plot by the Islamic extremists to blow up the complex and kill all their captives with mines sown throughout the site.

In a statement, the Masked Brigade, the group claiming to have masterminded the takeover, warned of more such attacks against any country backing France's military intervention in neighboring Mali, where the French are trying to stop an advance by Islamic extremists.

“We stress to our Muslim brothers the necessity to stay away from all the Western companies and complexes for their own safety, and especially the French ones,” the statement said.

Algeria said after the assault on Saturday by government forces that at least 32 extremists and 23 hostages were killed. On Sunday, Algerian bomb squads sent in to blow up or defuse the explosives found 25 more bodies, the security official said.

“These bodies are difficult to identify. They could be the bodies of foreign hostages or Algerians or terrorists,” the official said.

In addition, a wounded Romanian who had been evacuated died, raising the overall death toll to at least 81.

“Now, of course, people will ask questions about the Algerian response to these events, but I would just say that the responsibility for these deaths lies squarely with the terrorists who launched a vicious and cowardly attack,” British Prime Minister David Cameron said. Three Britons were killed, and three are feared dead.

The dead hostages are known to include at least one American, as well as Filipino and French workers. Nearly two dozen foreigners by some estimates were unaccounted for.

It was unclear whether anyone was rescued in the final assault on the complex, which is run by the Algerian state oil company along with BP and Norway's Statoil.

Authorities said the bloody takeover was carried out on Wednesday by 32 men from six countries, under the command from afar of the one-eyed Algerian bandit Moktar Belmoktar, founder of the Masked Brigade, based in Mali. The attacking force called itself “Those Who Sign in Blood.”

The Masked Brigade said on Sunday that the attack was payback against Algeria for allowing over-flights of French aircraft headed to Mali and for closing its long border with Mali. In an earlier communication, the group claimed to have carried out the attack in the name of al-Qaida.

Armed with heavy machine guns, rocket launchers, missiles and grenades, the militants singled out foreign workers at the plant, killing some of them on the spot and attaching explosive belts to others.

Algeria's tough and uncompromising response to the crisis was typical of its take-no-prisoners approach in confronting terrorists. Algerian military forces, backed by attack helicopters, conducted two assaults on the plant, the first one on Thursday.

The militants had “decided to succeed in the operation as planned, to blow up the gas complex and kill all the hostages,” Algerian Communications Minister Mohamed Said told state radio.

Norwegian Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide said the terrorists had tried to blow up the plant on Saturday but managed to start only a small fire.

“That's when they started to execute hostages, and the special forces intervened,” Eide said.

Norway's Statoil said five Norwegians are still missing.

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