- Associated Press - Monday, January 21, 2013

ALGIERS (AP) — The Islamist militants who attacked a natural-gas plant in the Sahara included two Canadians and a team of explosives experts who had memorized the layout of the sprawling complex and were ready to blow the place sky-high, Algeria‘s prime minister said Monday.

Militants in the highly-organized operation also wore Algerian army uniforms and appeared to have help from the inside — a man from Niger who once had worked as driver at the plant, he said.

Algeria detailed a grim toll from the attack, saying that 38 hostages and 29 militants died in four days of mayhem. Three of the attackers were captured, and five foreign workers remained unaccounted for, Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal told reporters at a news conference in Algiers, the capital.

He did not specify the nationalities of the captured militants, report their medical conditions or say where they were being held.

Monday’s account offered the first Algerian government narrative of the four-day standoff, from the attempted bus hijacking early Wednesday to the moment that the attackers prepared to explode bombs across the gas plant, which spreads out over 2 square miles deep in the desert, 800 miles south of Algiers.

All but one of the dead hostages — an Algerian driver — were foreigners. The dead hostages included seven Japanese workers, six Filipinos, three each from the U.S. and Britain, two from Romania and one from France.

The final death toll was still unclear, since accounts from other governments appeared to indicate that more than five workers were still missing. It was also lower than the 81 estimated Sunday from Algerian reports of dead and missing.

The militants said during the standoff that their group included Canadians, and hostages who had escaped recalled hearing at least one of the militants speaking English with a North American accent.

In addition to the Canadians, the Algerian prime minister said the militant cell included men from Egypt, Mali, Niger, Mauritania and Tunisia, as well as three Algerians.

Officials in Canada could not immediately confirm whether two of the attackers were citizens.

“Canada condemns in the strongest possible terms this deplorable and cowardly act and all terrorist groups which seek to create and perpetuate insecurity,” said Chrystiane Roy, a spokeswoman for the Department of Foreign Affairs.

“We are pursuing all appropriate channels to seek further information and are in close contact with Algerian authorities,” she said in a statement.

The Algerian prime minister indicated that this operation was not — as the Islamists had claimed — an immediate reaction to France’s recent military intervention against Islamists in neighboring Mali, since the captured militants said it took two months of planning. But he said the group did come from northern Mali, hundreds of miles away from the gas plant.

He said they included a former driver at the complex from Niger who “knew the facility’s layout by heart.” They wore Algerian military uniforms, he said, bolstering accounts by escaped hostages that they didn’t just shoot their way in.

“Four attackers stepped out of a car that had flashing lights on top of it,” one of the former hostages, Liviu Floria, a 45-year-old mechanic from Romania, told The Associated Press.

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