ALGIERS/IN AMENAS: Algerian special forces yesterday found 15 burned bodies at a desert gas plant raided by Al-Qaeda-linked fighters, two days after the army launched an assault to free hostages being held there by the hard-liners, a source familiar with the crisis said.
Efforts were underway to identify the bodies, the source told Reuters. It was not clear how they had died.
More than 20 foreigners were still captive or missing inside the plant as a standoff between the army and the gunmen — one of the biggest international hostage crises in decades — entered its fourth day, having thrust Saharan militancy to the top of the global agenda.
The number and fate of those involved — hostages alive or dead as well as fighters — has yet to be confirmed, with the Algerian government keeping officials from Western countries far from the site where their countrymen were in peril.
US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the US is working with the British and Algerian governments to assess what’s happening on the ground.
Speaking at Kings College in London, Panetta said the US is “working around the clock to ensure the safe return of our citizens.”
Panetta said the terrorists should be on notice that they’ll find no sanctuary in Algeria or North Africa.
He says anyone who looks to attack the US will have “no place to hide.”
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe yesterday ordered his government to do everything possible to ensure the safety of 10 Japanese unaccounted for.
Abe attended a meeting of a government task force on the crisis shortly after arriving in Tokyo after cutting short a trip to Southeast Asia.
“I would like you to do your best to confirm the safety of the Japanese and rescue them by using every possible means,” Abe told top government officials at the meeting.
“This Algerian incident is extremely despicable and can never be forgiven.”
Meanwhile, an Algerian man who escaped from gunmen told AFP yesterday his captors spoke in different Arabic dialects and also in English.
“I saw five inside the plant, but I don’t know how many others were outside,” said Iba El Haza, a driver at the BP gas plant near the Libyan border, of his captors.
“From their accents I understood one was Egyptian, one Tunisian, another Algerian and one was speaking English or a foreign language.”
Haza escaped during a rescue attempt launched on Thursday by Algerian special forces.
The “Signatories of Blood,” a group led by veteran jihadist commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar, says it still holds several foreigners including Belgians, Americans, one Japanese and a Briton.
“I saw two Filipinos (hostages), another who said he was American and two others who I don’t know what their nationality was. They were close to us,” Haza said.
“The first (Algerian Army) attack was around 9 a.m. on Thursday. We decided then to leave... We went straight to the army. We had broken the padlocks (on the door of the room they were held in) and we left,” he said.
He added that his captors were armed with AK-47s, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, and that they told him they were interested only in keeping the foreigners hostage.
“The terrorists said: ‘You have nothing to do with this, you are Algerians and Muslims. We won’t keep you, we only want the foreigners’.”
An AFP correspondent said five coffins were taken to a hospital in nearby In Amenas yesterday morning, where the wounded who escaped after the army’s raid were being treated.