Western governments voiced alarm over the fate of dozens of foreigners seized by Islamists at a gas plant in the Algerian desert after several hostages were killed in a dramatic rescue operation.

The Algerian military assault left “several people” killed or wounded but freed a “large number” of hostages, according to Communications Minister Mohamed Said, as special forces took control of a residential compound at the complex.

Hundreds of hostages were being held at the compound, part of the sprawling In Amenas site, after Islamist militants seized the gas plant on Wednesday purportedly to avenge a French-led offensive in Mali.

Algerian officials said soldiers were still surrounding the site’s main gas facility, which was yet to be secured in the air and ground assault.

Algerian reports said nearly 600 local workers and four foreigners — two from Britain, one from France and one from Kenya — were freed during yesterday’s operation.

One man from Northern Ireland escaped. According to his brother, Stephen McFaul fled when the convoy in which he was travelling came under fire from the army, and had earlier “had explosives tied around his neck“.

A total of 41 foreigners had been reported among the hostages. The huge plant employs workers from Britain, France, Italy, Japan, Norway and the United States among others, and there was widespread anxiety at the fast—moving developments.

British Prime Minister David Cameron, who cancelled a key speech on European policy to monitor the crisis, described a “very bad situation” at the site near Algeria’s border with Libya.

“Already we know of one (Briton) who has died,” Cameron said. “It is a very dangerous, very uncertain, a very fluid situation, and I think we have to prepare ourselves for the possibility of bad news ahead.”

Foreign governments said Algeria gave them no prior warning of the raid. A senior US official said Washington “strongly encouraged” the authorities to make the hostages’ safety their top priority.

Japan’s government also urged Algiers to protect the hostages, arguing that the army raid was “regrettable” and that there was no clear information emanating from the scene.

The kidnappers said 34 captives had died in the assault, but this was impossible to confirm. They told Mauritanian news agency ANI they would “kill all the hostages if the Algerian forces succeed in entering the complex“.

The site is run by British oil giant BP, Norway’s Statoil and Algerian energy firm Sonatrach. Japanese construction company JGC said it had confirmed the safety of three out of its 17 Japanese staff, and one Filipino.

(This article was published on January 18, 2013)
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