Algerian Military truck seen on the road to Ain Aminas. Anis Belghoul- AP Photo
A standoff between the Algerian Army and Al Qaeda terrorists who took foreign hostages at a natural gas field in eastern Algeria came to a violent end when Algerian Special Operations Forces stormed the facility on Saturday.
Algerian special forces stormed a natural gas complex in the Sahara desert on Saturday to end a standoff with an Al Qaeda-linked terror group that left at least 23 hostages dead and killed all 32 militants involved, the Algerian government said.
The siege at Ain Amenas transfixed the world after radical Islamists stormed the complex, which contained hundreds of plant workers from all over the world, then held them hostage surrounded by the Algerian military and its attack helicopters for four tense days that were punctuated with gun battles and dramatic tales of escape.
Algeria's response to the crisis was typical of its history in confronting terrorists, favoring military action over negotiation, which caused an international outcry from countries worried about their citizens. Algerian military forces twice assaulted the two areas where the hostages were being held with minimal apparent mediation -- first on Thursday, then on Saturday.
"To avoid a bloody turn of events in response to the extreme danger of the situation, the army's special forces launched an intervention with efficiency and professionalism to neutralize the terrorist groups that were first trying to flee with the hostages and then blow up the gas facilities," Algeria's Interior Ministry said in a statement about the standoff.
In the final assault, the remaining band of militants killed the hostages before 11 of them were in turn cut down by the special forces, Algeria's state news agency said. The military launched its Saturday assault to prevent a fire started by the extremists from engulfing the complex and blowing it up, the report added.
A total of 685 Algerian and 107 foreigner workers were freed over the course of the four-day standoff, the ministry statement said, adding that the group of militants that attacked the remote Saharan natural gas complex consisted of 32 men of various nationalities, including three Algerians and explosives experts.
The military also said it confiscated heavy machine guns, rocket launchers, missiles and grenades attached to suicide belts.
The facility at Ain Aminas is run by Sonatrach, the Algerian state oil company- along with BP [NYSE: BP] and Norway's Statoil [NYSE: STO]. Sonatrach officials said the entire refinery had been mined with explosives, and that the process of clearing it out is currently under way.
Algerian officials believe the raid on the Ain Amenas facility and subsequent seige was done with inside help.
At least some of up to 70 Islamist guerrillas who stormed in before dawn on Wednesday launched their operation hours earlier, barreling over smugglers tracks across the Libyan border just after midnight, an Algerian security official told Reuters, citing evidence from mobile phones traced to the militants.Officials from Algeria's Interior Ministry said troops had moved in to prevent the terrorists from moving the captured hostages across the border to more lawless areas of Libya or Mali. An Algerian hostage said that some of the foreign hostages were forced to wear explosive vests or belts and that the Algerian hostages were more loosely guarded by the attackers. At least one American and one Briton were confirmed killed in the seige while another American and five Norweigans are unaccounted for.
The ease with which they entered the fortified housing compound and nearby natural gas plant also left Algerians in little doubt the gunmen had allies among people at the site.
"They had local cooperation, I'm sure, maybe from drivers or security guards, who helped the terrorists get into the base," said Anis Rahmani, editor of Algeria's Ennahar newspaper and a writer on security issues who said he was briefed by officials.
Algeria has taken a hard line against terrorists and Islamic militants since a prolonged civil war in the 1990s between the military and jihadists killed an estimated 100,000 people.