Fears rose of a growing international death toll from the four-day terrorist attack on a remote Sahara desert natural-gas facility in Algeria, as more details emerged of the siege that has fueled new concerns about the threat posed by North Africa-based terror groups.
The Algerian government said Sunday it expects casualties to rise beyond the 23 hostages and 32 militants it has said were killed. Algerian authorities haven’t disclosed nationalities of the 23 hostage victims, and the challenge of identifying victims was sure to be difficult, with reports over the weekend of deaths in fiery explosions and charred remains at the scene.
Pictured above, Algerian Gendarmes escort freed Norwegian hostage Oddvar Birkedal at a police station at In Amenas Saturday.
The Algerian statement came as the discrepancy between the number of hostages confirmed dead by their governments and those still unaccounted for became clearer. “I strongly fear that the death toll will be revised upward,” said Algerian Communication Minister Mohamed Said on state radio Chaîne 3.
Other big questions loomed over the aftermath of the siege. One is what the militants had planned to do. Norway’s foreign minister, Espen Barth Eide, said Sunday the militants had tried to destroy the gas facility but failed and instead began to execute hostages.
“On Saturday, the terrorists tried to light up the facility and blow it up, but they didn’t succeed,” Mr. Eide said in a TV interview. “They managed to light a little fire. They then began executing hostages, and Special Forces intervened.”
The militant’s ability to so quickly take control of the facility and rig explosives that could create such carnage–while in the middle of a firefight with the Algerian military–also raised the question of whether they had prior knowledge of the plant and its layouts and had accomplices inside the facility.
There also were intriguing clues on Sunday that at least one of the hostage takers was Western. One 35-year-old Algerian employee who escaped the scene said he heard the terrorists speaking different Arabic dialects and one who didn’t speak Arabic well, but had far better command of English. “He had white skin and a blonde beard,” recalled the Algerian employee, who escaped a few hours after the attack began. Mauritania-based news agency ANI has quoted the terrorists as saying they are of various African and Western nationalities, including Canada along with Libya, Mauritania and Mali.
Algerian television said as many as five of the terrorists were alive and had been detained by early Sunday, and others were still being sought.
While the Algerian army was still combing the site for explosives militants allegedly planted, foreign governments and companies continued to seek information about the fate of some of their citizens.
One British man killed was 46-year old Paul Thomas Morgan. “We are so proud of him and so proud of what he achieved in his life,” his family said in a statement. “We are devastated by Paul’s death and he will be truly missed.” No other details were given about him by the UK Foreign Office, which released the statement. He joined Frederick Buttaccio of Katy, Texas as the only hostages governments had identified by name as slain by Sunday. Up to eight Americans were still unaccounted for.
U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron said three British nationals were confirmed dead, three more were feared dead and one British resident was also feared dead. The U.K. government said the majority of British survivors are now home or on their way home and that it is working closely with the Algerian authorities to repatriate the dead bodies. Algeria, France and Romania also have announced that some of their nationals were among the victims. (Credits: Narrative – David Gauthier-Villars in Paris and Cassell Bryan-Low in London for The Wall Street Journal, Photos – Reuters and AP).
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The Master of Disaster