Algeria’s prime minister describes militant attack, defends intervention

CAIRO — Algeria’s prime minister spoke publicly Monday for the first time about militants’ kidnapping of hundreds of foreign and Algerian workers last week, describing an international group of militants, including at least one Canadian who “coordinated” a well-organized attack that killed 37 people. That an international group of militants could travel hundreds miles from Mali, where al-Qaida has evolved from a kidnapping group to a terrorist organization, raised new fears about the threat that the rise of Islamic extremism poses to the north African and U.S. interests here.

Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal raised the death toll of the hostage takeover of the Ain Amenas gas plant from 23 to 37, saying the victims came from eight nations.

Twenty-nine Islamic militants also were killed and three were captured, local news agencies reported. They were from Algeria, Egypt, Mali, Mauritania and Niger, the prime minister said in a televised address.

An Algerian whom he identified as the head of the operation, Bencheneb Mohamed Amine, was among the dead, he said.

Although the group came from Mali, more than 500 miles away from the plant, the kidnappers entered Algeria from the Libyan border, which sits just 38 miles from the natural gas complex, a joint venture of the British oil giant BP and Algeria’s state oil company, the prime minister said.

On Monday, the Obama administration confirmed that three Americans — Victor Lynn Lovelady, Gordon Lee Rowan and Frederick Buttaccio — had been killed. It has yet to say how many are missing. CBS News reported that another seven were rescued.

Sellal said five foreigners were missing, but other nations have reported far more than that. Japanese officials said seven of its citizens were dead and three were missing; Norway’s prime minister has confirmed that five of its nationals are missing and eight died. Three Britons are dead and four are missing. Six Filipinos are dead and four remain missing. Two Romanians and one Frenchmen are among the dead, their governments have said. Two Malaysians are missing. Colombia’s president said he’d presumed that his missing citizen was dead.

In a statement Monday, BP officials said that of their 18 employees, four were missing. It’s flown out another 39 employees who were working around Algeria as a “precautionary measure.”

Sellal said the government initially had tried to negotiate but that failed. When the kidnappers appeared to start moving Thursday, the Algerian military attacked by air and on the ground, without informing the nations whose citizens were being held beforehand.

The kidnappers “went wild with their demands … which caused the military to intervene,” Sellal said.

He also suggested that the attack could have been an inside job.

They “knew the facility’s layout by heart,” he said.

Sellal described the grisly search for bodies at the gas plant, saying that seven sets of remains couldn’t yet be identified, and he provided details of a well-planned attack.

Attackers appeared to have seized the entire sprawling compound, taking or killing nearly everyone there.

The kidnappers first seized a bus that was transporting workers from a residence hall to the compound, with plans to take them back to Mali and hold them there, Sellal said. But their plans were thwarted, leading to the standoff at the compound, armed with a large cache of weapons, he said.

The militants then booby-trapped the facility with explosives.

“There were explosives everywhere,” Sellal said.

Algeria has identified the kidnappers as members of a Qaida-affiliated group led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a longtime militant who’s described as charismatic, ruthless and stubborn. In a statement last Wednesday, hours after the kidnappers had snatched the gas line workers, Belmokhtar’s group said the attack was in retaliation for the French-led offensive to dislodge militants in Mali.