Algeria crisis: Hostage-takers 'taken alive' at gas plant

Wreckage of a vehicle near the In Amenas gas field - 20 January
Image caption Algerian troops ended the siege on Saturday

Five suspected members of the Islamist group which held foreign and local workers hostage at an Algerian gas plant have been arrested, reports say.

The reports came a day after the Algerian authorities said all 32 hostage-takers had been killed at the In Amenas gas installation.

At least 25 bodies were found at the complex on Sunday, reports say.

It is unclear whether they were captors or captives. Officials say a definitive death toll will be released later.

On Saturday officials said least 23 staff at the facility had died during the four-day siege, with some Western workers still unaccounted for.

The siege was ended in a raid by troops on Saturday.

Officials said the army launched its assault after Islamist militants began killing foreign hostages.

UK Prime Minister David Cameron and US President Barack Obama have blamed "terrorists" for the hostages' deaths.

And on Sunday French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian described the hostage-taking as an "act of war".

"What strikes me the most is that we're saying 'hostage-taking' but when there are so many people concerned, I think this is an act of war," he told French TV.

As Western leaders condemned the kidnappings, Algerian Energy Minister Youcef Yousfi said Algeria would boost security at its energy installations without outside help.

"It is out of the question to allow foreign security forces to handle the security of our oil facilities," he said, quoted by Algeria's APS news agency.

During a visit to the affected plant, Mr Yousfi said it would resume production within two days.

'Talks call'

"Five terrorists were found still alive this morning," said the private Ennahar TV channel, quoted by AFP news agency.

The agency said residents of the nearby town of In Amenas were staying indoors, amid rumours that the army operation to end the siege was not over.

Algerian Communications Minister Mohammed Said said earlier that the militants were from six different countries, "nationals of Arab and African countries, and of non-African countries".

Mr Said added that a final death toll would be released in the coming hours.

Mauritanian website Sahara Media says Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the suspected organiser of the siege, has claimed responsibility for it in a video message.

The website said the video - recorded on 17 January while the siege was still going on but not posted on the website - showed the militant leader saying he was prepared to negotiate with Western and Algerian leaders if operations against Islamists in Mali were stopped.

Three Britons are confirmed dead, and a further three are missing, feared dead.

UK officials were "working hard" to locate the missing, said Foreign Secretary William Hague.

"Everything seems to indicate" that a Colombian citizen resident in the UK is among the dead, the Colombian president has said.

But he added that information about Carlos Estrada, who worked for BP, was "not 100%".

Japanese officials said they had no confirmation of the fate of 10 nationals who remained unaccounted for, despite reports that nine had died.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Yoshihide Suga said a government aircraft would be sent to bring home seven others who had survived.

Two Malaysians are unaccounted for, as are five Norwegians.

State news agency APS said 685 Algerian workers and 107 out of 132 foreigners working at the plant had been freed, citing interior ministry figures.

The nationalities of some of the hostages killed are still not known.

Well-planned assault

The crisis began on Wednesday when militants attacked two buses carrying foreign workers to the remote site in south-eastern Algeria. A Briton and an Algerian reportedly died in the incident.

The militants then took Algerians and expatriates hostage at the complex, which was quickly surrounded by the Algerian army.

A statement from the kidnappers said the assault on the gas plant was launched in retaliation for French intervention against Islamist groups in neighbouring Mali.

However, France only decided last week to intervene militarily in Mali. Analysts say the assault on the gas facility was well-planned and would have required advance research, as well as possibly inside help.

The leader of the hostage-takers was a veteran fighter from Niger, named as Abdul Rahman al-Nigeri by the Mauritanian news agency ANI, which had been in contact with the militants.

  1. Bus attack: 05:00 local time 16 January: Heavily armed gunmen attack two buses carrying gas field workers towards In Amenas airfield. A Briton and an Algerian die in the fighting.
  2. Hostages taken: The militants drive to the installation at Tigantourine and take Algerian and foreign workers hostage in the living area and the main gas facility at the complex.
  3. Army surround complex: Security forces and the Algerian army surround the hostage-takers. Western leaders, including the UK's David Cameron, urge Algeria to consult them before taking action.
  4. Army attacks: 12:00 (13:00 GMT) 17 January: Algerian forces attack as militants try to move some of their captives from the facility. Reports say some hostages escape, but others are killed.
  5. Final assault: The Algerians ended the raid on 19 January, killing the last 11 captors after they had killed seven hostages, state media reported. At least 23 hostages and 32 militants in total are now known to have died.

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