Pair of Canadians among attackers in Algeria siege, prime minister says
ALGIERS — An attack on a remote natural gas complex in the Sahara desert was conducted by an international band of Islamists, apparently including two Canadians, who wore Algerian army uniforms and had help from the inside, Algeria's prime minister said Monday, in his government's first official accounting of the bloody four-day siege.
Three Americans died in the violence and seven U.S. citizens survived, the State Department said Monday.
The terrorists, who wore military uniforms and knew the layout, included explosives experts who rigged it with bombs and a leader whose final order was to kill all the captives.
“You may have heard the last words of the terrorist chief,” Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal said. “He gave the order for all the foreigners to be killed, so there was a mass execution. Many hostages were killed by a bullet to the head.”
The Algerian government captured three of the militants alive, Sellal told reporters in Algiers, in remarks carried by the state-run news agency. The carefully planned attack, which he said was two months in the making, targeted foreign workers at the complex and included assistance by a terrorist from Niger who formerly worked at the site as a driver. The attackers appeared to know the layout of the sprawling facility by heart, Sellal said.
The prime minister said 38 hostages and 29 militants died during the takeover and subsequent recapture of the complex at Tiguentourine near Algeria's eastern border with Libya. Only one of the dead hostages was Algerian; the rest were foreigners from at least seven countries, he said. Five foreign workers remain unaccounted for, Sellal said.
The State Department confirmed last week that one American, Frederick Buttaccio, a resident of Katy, Tex., who worked for the British energy giant BP, had died at the complex. Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Monday that two other Americans — Victor Lynn Lovelady and Gordon Lee Rowan — also died in the attack. The department did not release details about the victims.
All but one of the dead victims, an Algerian security guard, were foreigners. The dead hostages included seven Japanese workers, six Filipinos, three energy workers from Britain, two from Romania and one from France.
The vast complex is deep in the Sahara, about 18 hours by car from Algiers, with a network of roads and walkways for the hundreds of workers who keep it running.
Former captives said that the terrorists did not just shoot their way in.
“Our attention was drawn by a car. It was at the gate heading toward the production facility. Four attackers stepped out of a car that had flashing lights on top of it,” one of the former hostages, Liviu Floria, a 45-year-old mechanic from Romania, told The Associated Press.
The militants had said during the standoff that their band included people from Canada, and hostages who escaped recalled hearing at least one of the militants speaking perfect English with a North American accent.
The kidnappers came from Egypt, Canada, Mali, Niger, Mauritania and Tunisia, the prime minister said. The Canadians were of Arab descent, he added.
“The announcement of the Algerian prime minister is fine, but we need verification. It could be a forged document. We need to confirm,” a Canadian official told Associated Press.
An earlier report from an Algerian security official that as many as 80 people had died in the assault — including hostages and attackers — appears to have overstated the toll, but the official had cautioned that many bodies discovered during a sweep of the facility were badly disfigured, making it difficult to reach a total.
The attack began early Wednesday with the attempted hijacking of two buses filled with workers outside the complex. Repelled by Algerian forces, the militants moved on the main complex, armed with missiles, mortars and bombs for their three explosives experts, according to Sellal. They split into two groups, with one infiltrating the complex's living quarters and the other the gas plant.
Sellal praised the quick wits of a guard who tripped an alarm that stopped the flow of gas and warned workers of an attack.
“It was thanks to him that the factory was protected,” the prime minister said.
In a statement, the al-Qaida-linked Masked Brigade, the group that claimed to have masterminded the takeover, has warned of more such attacks against any country backing military intervention in neighboring Mali, where the French are trying to stop an advance by Islamists.
Algeria, despite its government's reservations about the French decision in Mali, is allowing French jets to use their airspace.
The Washington Post and Associated Press contributed to this report.