Algerian security forces were trying Saturday to bring an end to a four-day-old standoff with Islamist extremists holding foreign hostages at a remote gas plant.
An unknown number of captives, including Americans, remain trapped at the complex. Some militants and hostages were killed, including at least one American, with the unverified toll potentially in the dozens.
Survivors on Friday narrated close escapes, even as Algerian military forces continued to sweep the sprawling compound for remaining captives.
One escaped worker, Stephen McFaul, said through a family spokesman that he initially avoided capture. McFaul, who is from Northern Ireland, locked himself in a room at the compound in the hopes of avoiding detection, said John Morrisey, a family spokesman briefed about the ordeal.
Over the course of the day, however, he was discovered and taken hostage, a fact he revealed to his worried wife and mother through brief telephone calls back home to West Belfast on Thursday morning.
As the militants prepared to move hostages to a more secure area later Thursday, McFaul was loaded on to one of several Jeeps, according to the family spokesman. But as the vehicles moved away, Algerian helicopters closed in on the convoy, raining down a barrage of heavy artillery that directly hit and severely damaged most of the vehicles, causing the one McFaul was traveling in to overturn.
McFaul, Morrisey said, then scrambled away from the wreckage through the window and managed to escape. He was scheduled to land Friday evening in London.
“He is still very worried about those still back in Algeria, but as you can imagine, he is looking forward to getting home,” Morrisey said.
Hundreds of captives appear to have been released, with the first of the British survivors landing late Friday at London’s Gatwick Airport via a transport flight chartered by energy giant BP.
Algerian TV broadcast images of survivors on Friday, with some Turkish and Filipino workers at a hospital bandaged and burned and others jubilantly hugging. Weary-looking British workers boarded a bus, where they expressed relief that they were going home.
Algeria’s state-run news service on Friday painted a chaotic picture of the ongoing crisis, with militants reportedly taking more than 650 hostages on Wednesday.
“I heard a lot of gunshots, and an alarm telling us to stay where we were,” Alexandre Berceaux, a catering contractor, told French radio station Europe 1 on Friday by telephone. Once he realized the danger, he said, he barricaded himself into his room to try to keep himself safe.
“I stayed hidden for almost 40 hours in my room, under my bed. I put planks everywhere just in case,” he said.