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.
Then, on Thursday, relief came, Berceaux said: his compatriots, accompanied by men in green uniforms.
The Algerian news service said that the military had used “missiles, rocket launchers, grenades, machine guns and assault rifles” to free virtually all of the 573 Algerian hostages, along with 100 of the 132 foreign nationals from eight different countries, including the United States.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Friday called the militant attack “an act of terror,” saying that she had spoken with Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal and emphasized that “the utmost care must be taken to preserve innocent life.” But she did not criticize Sellal for his handling of the crisis. The State Department said that Americans were among the remaining hostages.
At least one American at the complex, Frederick Buttaccio, a Texas resident, died at the complex, according to State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
A timeline emerges
Echoing the dismay of many governments representing the foreign hostages, British Prime Minister David Cameron on Friday told Parliament that he had not been given advance notice of the Algerian operation.
Cameron laid out the fullest official timeline yet of the crisis that began at dawn on Wednesday, saying groups backed by the one-eyed Islamist militant Mokhtar Belmokhtar launched their attack on transit buses on the isolated compound near In Amenas that left two dead. The militants then fanned out, seizing both a residential compound as well as a gas pumping facility, holding a still-unknown number of hostages.
Cameron said the British were not informed of the Algerian strike against the militants that began early Thursday, saying he only learned of it while on the phone with his Algerian counterpart. He said the Algerians insisted they had to act fast.
“They judged there to be an immediate threat to the hostages,” he said.
A senior French official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to address sensitive issues, said that Algerian authorities have not been forthcoming about tallies of the dead and rescued.
The Mauritanian news agency ANI, which has been in contact with the extremists who have asserted responsibility for the siege, said the group has offered to release its remaining American hostages in exchange for two high-profile prisoners being held in the United States.
ANI said the militants are seeking the release of Pakistani scientist Aafia Siddiqui, convicted in a U.S. court in 2010 of the attempted murder of U.S. personnel in Afghanistan, and Egyptian Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind sheik convicted on terrorism charges.
The news agency also quoted a spokesman for the “Masked Brigade,” the Islamist group allegedly behind the attack on the gas complex. The group was affiliated with the umbrella organization known as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), but it reportedly broke with AQIM last month, according to terrorism experts in France.
Quoting unnamed sources, the Mauritanian news agency described the hostage takers as being from Algeria, Canada, Mali, Egypt, Niger and Mauritania.
The spokesman linked the attack to Western efforts to help the government of Mali fight Islamist insurgents and warned that the group would carry out “more operations.” He called on Algerians to stay away from installations operated by foreign companies, because “we will spring up where nobody expects it,” the news agency said.
The U.S. military said Friday that one of its medical planes flew to Algeria to evacuate between 10 and 20 freed or rescued hostages. The former hostages will be transported to “a U.S. facility” in Europe, said Tom Saunders, a spokesman for the U.S. Africa Command, which is based in Stuttgart, Germany.
One Algerian engineer told the France Info radio station on Friday that the captors were interested only in the foreign employees. “They came into the bedrooms,” one said. “They broke down the doors. They were shouting: ‘We’re only looking for the expatriates! The Algerians can leave!’ They rounded up the expats. . . . They tied them up.”
Birnbaum reported from Berlin, and Faiola from London. Edward Cody in Paris, Sari Horwitz in Washington and Craig Whitlock and Eliza Mackintosh in London contributed to this report.