A picture taken from Algerian TV shows hostages speaking about their ordeal after fleeing from Islamist captors at the desert gas field near In Amenas, Algeria. (AFP)
Paris, Jan. 18: Hostages who escaped or were freed from their Islamist captors at the natural-gas field in Algeria have described scenes of fear and terror.
Some said they had explosives hung around their necks, and others spoke of the sudden shooting of unarmed colleagues as the terrorist group seized control of the residential quarters of the plant.
The drama began at about 5.30am on Wednesday with an attack on a bus carrying workers to the nearby airport that was thwarted by Algerian security escorts. It turned into a major hostage-taking as well-armed and experienced Islamists took over the facility’s residential area, which is situated at a distance from the plant to protect workers should an explosion occur.
A Briton called his wife while he was being taken hostage, saying he had been forced to sit at his desk with Semtex, an explosive, strapped to his chest. After the man, Garry Barlow, 49, called his wife, Lorraine, 52, The Daily Mail reported, she informed the foreign office that an attack was under way. “He rang home and told his wife the complex had been taken over by what they thought then was the mujahideen,” a friend told the newspaper. “He said: ‘I’m sat here at my desk with Semtex strapped to my chest. The local army have already tried and failed to storm the plant, and they’ve said that if that happens again they are going to kill us all,’” the friend said. Barlow’s fate is not yet clear.
Today, Algeria’s state news service reported that nearly 100 of the 132 foreign workers kidnapped by Islamic militants had been freed. It also said that 12 hostages have been killed since the start of the operation. The APS news agency said 18 of the hostage-takers had been killed.
This meant that the fate of over 30 foreign workers was unclear. The militants also offered to trade two captive American workers for two terror figures jailed in the US.
Al Mulathameen, the Islamist group that has claimed responsibility for the attack, has made clear in statements to Mauritanian news outlets that foreign citizens were explicitly targeted.
Foreigners were separated from Algerian workers, according to an Algerian man who worked on the site and escaped yesterday afternoon. The attackers told Algerians that they were their “brothers”, the man said, speaking on the condition of anonymity from In Amenas, the city not far from the gas site.
Perhaps 40 people, including 9 foreigners, were eating breakfast in the cafeteria at the site at about 5.30am when they heard gunshots, the man said. They remained in place until fighters entered the cafeteria at about 9 or 10 and began to separate the Algerians from the foreign workers, whose hands they bound.
Five dark-skinned foreigners hid among the Algerians and were allowed to leave with them when they were directed into a separate building nearby, the man said. Workers whom the man identified as Pakistanis were placed among other foreigners, but argued with the attackers that, like them, they were Muslims; it was not clear how the attackers responded.
Many of the attackers spoke with non-Algerian accents, the man said, and he suggested that some of them may have been Libyan and Syrian, along with Algerians. One of the fighters was French, the man said.
At one point, he said, the fighters shot an Italian man in the back in the presence of other hostages. It was not clear why he had been shot, the man said, and he did not know if the Italian was alive or dead. He claimed that there had been several executions, but that he had not been present for them.