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Algeria crisis ends with one American dead, fate of others unknown

- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 20, 2013

The four-day armed hostage standoff between al-Qaeda-linked terrorists and the Algerian military at a natural-gas plant in the remote Sahara desert ended over the weekend with at least 23 hostages dead, including at least one American, out of more than 130 foreigners and several hundred Algerians held by the extremists.

The casualty figures, reported by Algerian state media, are were expected to rise.

Algerian officials said special forces killed the 32 heavily armed kidnappers, part of a multinational group of terrorist loyal to the one-eyed Algerian jihadist known as Mokhtar Belmokhtar.

The Algerian military said it had recovered heavy machine guns, rocket launchers, missiles and grenades at the site, which they said had been wired with booby-trap bombs. One hostage who spoke to the media during the siege said the Westerners among them were made to wear explosive belts.

As Algerian special forces continue to search the huge plant for survivors and bodies, the death toll "may be revised upward," Algerian Communications Minister Mohamed Said warned Sunday.

Unidentified Algerian officials told reporters that an additional 25 bodies had been found at the plant, though it was not immediately clear whether they were hostages or terrorists.

In Washington on Friday, the State Department identified the dead American as Frederick Buttaccio but gave no further details out of respect for the family's privacy, according to spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.

Over the weekend, Fox News identified him as a Texan and said he had died of a heart attack during the second assault on the plant by Algerian special forces Friday.

Other media reports said Mark Cobb, another Texan working at the plant, had escaped with Algerian colleagues and contacted his family to say he was safe.

Questions about the assault

There was no word of the fate, or even the number, of other Americans who were kidnapped.

"We do know that there were Americans there, and we do know that they were held hostage," said Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta before returning to the United States on Saturday from a European trip.

"As to what has happened [to them], that's something, frankly, we just need to get better information on."

In a brief statement from the White House on Saturday evening, President Obama said, "We will remain in close touch with the government of Algeria to gain a fuller understanding of what took place so that we can work together to prevent tragedies like this in the future."

British Prime Minister David Cameron said Sunday that three British subjects had been killed and another three were unaccounted for and believed dead, along with a foreigner who was living in Britain. He said that 22 Britons who had survived the ordeal were now back in Britain.

"Now, of course, people will ask questions about the Algerian response to these events," he added, addressing widespread concern about the tactics employed by Algerian special forces.

The Algerian military failed to inform other governments with citizens held captive about their decision to assault the plant Thursday and then again Saturday.

Mr. Cameron declined to second-guess Algerian tactics at what he called "one of the most remote places on earth."

The sprawling complex is Algeria's third-largest natural-gas facility and is located near the desert frontier town of Ain Amenas on Algeria's border with Libya..

"The responsibility for these deaths lies squarely with the terrorists who launched a vicious and cowardly attack," Mr. Cameron said.

Japanese officials were the most critical of the Algerian military assaults.

"We never tolerate terrorism," Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters Sunday in Tokyo.

"But we had asked the Algerian government to put top priority on the lives [of the hostages]. It's extremely regrettable to see developments like this."

Talks with terrorists

On Sunday, Algerian TV broadcast a recording of the terrorist leader — an African known as Abdel Rahman al-Nigeri — negotiating with authorities and appearing to try to arrange a swap of the hostages for as many as 100 prisoners jailed in Algeria about 15 years ago.

The audio recording highlights questions about the Algerian decision to assault the plant so early.

"You see our demands are so easy, so easy if you want to negotiate with us," al-Nigeri said, according to a translation of his comments by the Associated Press. "We want the prisoners you have, the comrades who were arrested and imprisoned 15 years ago. We want 100 of them."

The reference to prisoners from 15 years ago and the hard-line tactics used by authorities recall the dark days of Algeria's Islamist insurgency during the 1990s. For most of that decade, the country's security forces fought a brutal and uncompromising war against Islamists after the military annulled free and fair elections won by an Islamic party.

Islamic insurgents instituted a campaign of terror in Algeria, carrying out mass killings. The security services made widespread use of arbitrary detention, torture and extra-judicial killings during the long, bitter struggle, according to human rights organizations.

Mr. Panetta made oblique reference to that history Saturday, when he backed the Algerian approach.

"They understand the threat from terrorism better, probably, than a lot of other countries," he said of Algeria. "And they've developed the capability to try to deal with terrorism."

He added that every country in the region has its own approach to dealing with terrorism.

"And I'm not going to make judgments about what's good or bad. What I care about is that they do everything they can to make sure that [al Qaeda] does not establish a base of operations in that area. That's what I care about," Mr. Panetta said.

An independent Algerian TV station reported Sunday that the military had captured five of the hostage-takers and that three more were still at large.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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