ALGIERS (Reuters) - Algeria’s prime minister accused a Canadian of coordinating last week’s raid on a desert gas plant and, praising the storming of the complex where 38 mostly foreign hostages were killed, he pledged to resist the rise of Islamists in the Sahara.
Algeria will never succumb to terrorism or allow al Qaeda to establish “Sahelistan”, an Afghan-style power base in arid northwest Africa, Abdelmalek Sellal told a news conference in Algiers where he also said at least 37 foreign hostages died.
“There is clear political will,” the prime minister said.
Claimed by an Algerian al Qaeda leader as a riposte to France’s attack on his allies in neighbouring Mali the previous week, the four-day siege drew global attention to Islamists in the Sahara and Sahel regions and brought promises of support to African governments from Western powers whose toppling of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi helped flood the region with weapons.
The attack on a valuable part of its vital energy industry raised questions about the security capacity of an establishment that took power from French colonists 50 years ago, held off a bloody Islamist insurgency in the 1990s and has avoided the democratic upheavals the Arab Spring brought to North Africa.
Sellal said a Canadian citizen whom he named only as Chedad, a surname found among Arabs in the region, was among 29 gunmen killed and added that he had “coordinated” the attack. Another three militants were taken alive and were in custody.
Among hostages confirmed dead by their own governments were three Americans, seven Japanese, six Filipinos and three Britons; others from Britain, Norway and elsewhere were listed as unaccounted for. Sellal said seven of the 37 foreign dead were unidentified, while a further five foreigners were missing.
Nearly 700 Algerians and 100 other foreigners survived.
An Algerian security source said investigators pursuing the possibility that the attackers had inside help to map the complex and gain entry were questioning at least two employees.
Prime Minister David Cameron told parliament in London that Britain would increase its help to Algeria’s intelligence and security forces and might do more for France in Mali, though he ruled out sending many of its stretched armed forces to Africa.
Noting a shift in the source of threats to British interests from Afghanistan to Africa, he also noted Sellal’s rundown of a multinational group of gunmen from across north and west Africa and said the region was becoming “a magnet for jihadists”.
Alongside a “strong security response”, however, he called for efforts to address long-standing grievances, such as poverty and political exclusion, which foster support for violence. Some militants in Algeria want autonomy for the south and complain of domination by an unchanging establishment in Algiers.
As Algerian forces combed the Tigantourine plant near the town of In Amenas for explosives and the missing, survivors and the bereaved told tales of terror, narrow escapes and of death.
“The terrorists lined up four hostages and assassinated them ... shot them in the head,” a brother of Kenneth Whiteside told Sky News, in an account of the Briton’s death given to the family by an Algerian colleague who witnessed it. “Kenny just smiled the whole way through. He’d accepted his fate.”
Filipino survivor Joseph Balmaceda said gunmen used him for cover: “Whenever government troops tried to use a helicopter to shoot at the enemy, we were used as human shields.”
Another Briton, Garry Barlow, called his wife from within the site before he was killed and said: “I‘m sat here at my desk with Semtex strapped to my chest.”
Several hostages died on Thursday when Algerian helicopters blasted jeeps in which the militants were trying to move them.
An Algerian security source had earlier told Reuters that documents found on the bodies of two militants had identified them as Canadians: “A Canadian was among the militants. He was coordinating the attack,” Sellal said.
In Ottawa, Canada’s foreign affairs department said it was seeking information. Security experts noted that some Canadian citizens had been involved with international militants before.
Officials have also named other militants in recent days as having leadership roles among the attackers. Veteran Islamist Mokhtar Belmokhtar claimed responsibility on behalf of al Qaeda.
In a video distributed on the Internet, the one-eyed veteran of Afghan wars of the 1980s, of Algeria’s civil war and of the lucrative trans-Sahara cigarette smuggling trade, said: “We in al Qaeda announce this blessed operation.”
Dressed in combat fatigues, Belmokhtar demanded an end to French attacks on Islamist fighters in Mali.
The jihadists had planned the attack two months ago in neighbouring Mali, Sellal added. They had travelled from there through Niger and Libya, hence evading Algeria’s strong security services, until close to In Amenas. Their aim, he said, had been to take foreign hostages to Mali, and they made a first attempt to take captives from a bus near the site early on Wednesday.
Normally producing 10 percent of Algeria’s natural gas, the facility was shut down during the incident. The government said it aimed to reopen it this week, although officials at Britain’s BP and Norway’s Statoil, which operate the plant with Algeria’s state energy firm, said the plans were not clear.
An Algerian newspaper said the jihadists had arrived in cars painted in the colours of Algerian state energy firm Sonatrach but registered in Libya, a country awash with weaponry since Western powers backed a revolt to oust Gaddafi in 2011.
Using his oil wealth, the Libyan dictator exercised a degree of influence in the region and the consequences of his death are still unfolding.
In a sign of the complexities wrought by the Arab Spring revolts, Egypt, a former military dictatorship now led by one of the generals’ Islamist foes, criticised France’s intervention in Mali on Monday. President Mohamed Mursi called instead for more spending to address rebels’ grievances and warned that the military moves would “inflame the conflict in this region”.
The bloodshed also increased the strains in Algeria’s long fraught relations with Western powers, where some complained about being left in the dark while the decision to storm the compound was being taken.
But this week, Britain and France both defended the military action by Algeria, the strongest military power in the Sahara and an ally the West needs in combating the militants.
Chafik Mesbah, a former Algerian presidential security adviser, said: “The West did not criticise Algeria because it knows an assault was inevitable in the circumstances ... The victims were a minimum price to pay to solve the crisis.”
Writing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Mark Heinrich