LONDON — Defying global calls for restraint, the Algerian military staged a final assault Saturday against Islamist militants at an energy complex in the Sahara, culminating a four-day siege that left some two dozen hostages dead and spawned fears of a resurgent al-Qaeda in North Africa.
Eleven kidnappers and seven hostages died in Saturday’s operation targeting the remaining militant stronghold at the vast facility run by London-based BP, Norway’s Statoil and Algeria’s state energy giant, according to Algeria’s state news service and France’s Agence France-Presse.
An Algerian security official quoted by the news agencies suggested that the militants killed the hostages as forces moved in on their position. Earlier reports indicated that the heavily armed militants were holding two Americans, three Belgians, a Japanese and a Briton in one section of the compound, but there was as yet no official confirmation of the identities of the victims.
Algeria’s interior minister, Daho Ould Kablia, said on state television Saturday evening that the standoff was over, and that in all it had resulted in the deaths of 32 terrorists and at least 23 foreign hostages. Ould Kablia said that troops had found a huge amount of military equipment and highly sophisticated weapons in the complex.
At a news conference in London, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said the U.S. government was “still trying to get accurate information about how many Americans were there and what happened to them.”
Asked whether the Algerian security forces had moved too quickly to resolve the standoff or had acted too aggressively, Panetta declined to criticize them. British Defense Secretary Philip Hammond said that “it’s the terrorists that bear sole responsibility.”
But he acknowledged that Algeria had refused outside offers of assistance and that Britain may have handled things differently. “We find that they don’t always do things the way we would do them.”
“They’ve been clear from the outset that this is something they’re going to manage themselves,” Hammond said. “There can be no doubting their commitment to dealing with Islamist terrorism.”
As he has since the outbreak of the Algeria crisis, Panetta reiterated the Obama administration’s commitment to go after terrorists. But he gave no specifics about how it intended to respond to the hostage-taking, or more broadly against the threat of terrorism in Mali and elsewhere in North Africa.
In Washington, President Obama said in a statement that the attack served as “another reminder of the threat posed by al Qaeda and other violent extremist groups in North Africa” and pledged to work “with all of our partners” to prevent future such tragedies.
The standoff began early Wednesday when dozens of militants stormed the compound, taking hundreds of hostages. Most of the hostages were Algerians who were allowed to go free.
BP Group Chief Executive Bob Dudley told reporters in a Saturday afternoon conference call that the militants had laced the plant with explosives in an apparent attempt to destroy it, leaving the Algerian military in the process of smaller search and rescue missions and mine sweeps to fully secure the labyrinthine facility.
Governments that had nationals taken hostage, including the United States, had urged caution after a rescue attempt on Thursday led to a number of deaths. On Saturday, however, many refrained from pointed criticism, reminding journalists of the need to keep working with the Algerians on operations against al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the local affiliate of the global terrorist network. The siege this week was linked to an AQIM offshoot, the Masked Brigade, which is led by the one-eyed Algerian militant Mokhtar Belmokhtar.
In comments Saturday, French President Francois Hollande went as far as to endorse Algeria's tactics: "When there is a hostage-taking with so many people involved, and terrorists so coldly determined, ready to murder . . .there could be no negotiation."
The military assault recalled the horrors of Algeria’s long civil war against Islamist militants in the 1990s, shattering a new image of progress embodied in the North African nation’s vast energy fields, which supply 20 percent of Western Europe’s natural gas, according to Jon Marks, North Africa expert at Chatham House, a London think tank.
Following the deadly attack by Islamist militants on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi last September and their advances in Mali that led to French military intervention last week, the siege in Algeria suggested a jihadist movement reinvigorated and increasingly bold.
Although the militants were demanding a withdrawal of French troops now battling Islamist forces in Mali, observers said the attack’s level of sophistication suggested planning had been in the works for weeks.
“This was an attack designed to embarrass, to show the Algerian government it hadn’t beaten the terrorist threat it had been confronting since the 1990s,” said George Joffe, an expert on northern Africa and terrorism at the University of Cambridge.
However, he said that for the militants, the outcome could also not be viewed as mission accomplished. “It was a major defeat,” Joffe continued. “It looks like they’ve just been eliminated as a group. I don’t think they intended the operation to go that way. I think their primary purpose was to get hostages and then get into the desert.”
Nearly 670 hostages have been freed or escaped since armed Islamist militants seized the facility on Wednesday. But given Algeria’s lockdown on information and the remoteness of the site, details have been slow to emerge, and sketchy.
Domestically, the assault could have mixed effects. It has hit the Algerians where it hurts most – their cherished oil and gas deposits that fund the regime of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Those resources made it possible for the government to offer higher wages to state workers during the onset of the Arab Spring, nipping a pro-democracy movement in the bud.
“Algeria is fiscally dependent on hydrocarbons. What the militants were doing was not just striking at Western countries, but striking at the economic viability of the entire Algerian state,” said Shashank Joshi, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London. “The likelihood is that the Algerians will be absolutely traumatized by this. It’s a near unprecedented occurrence for Algeria. It really shows how vulnerable they are.”
But state-run Algerian media took pains to emphasize the heroism of the military in the hours after the furious counterattack and interviewed tired-looking former hostages who effusively praised their liberators, in some cases prodding injured workers lying on hospital beds to give their accounts. Although there were some critical reports in the Algerian press, even some opposition papers hailed the military’s bravery.
State media drove home the message with interviews like one in which a journalist asked freed foreign hostages on a bus, “What do you think about operation of the Algerian army to save you?”
“I thought the army and the gendarmes did fantastic jobs,” said a man with an Irish accent. “They kept us all nice and safe and fought off the bad guys. . . . I never really felt any danger, to be honest.”
Many Algerians have access to satellite television, allowing them to view independent news reports, particularly in French, that have carried international criticisms of the operation’s handling. However, analysts expected the events to have little impact on the government beyond more calls to strengthen Algeria’s borders and redouble efforts to fight extremism.
“This is not going to hurt the government with the Algerian public,” said Rachid Tlemcani, professor of politics at the University of Algiers. “There will be questions about how this ever could have happened in the first place, but Algerians think that terrorists should be eradicated, and the security forces have done their job.”
Birmbaum reported from Berlin. Edward Cody in Paris and Craig Whitlock and Eliza Mackintosh in London contributed to this report.