Updated Sunday, January 20, 2013 at 08:30 AM
ALGIERS, Algeria — In a bloody finale, Algerian special forces stormed a natural-gas complex in the Sahara Desert on Saturday to end a standoff with Islamist extremists that left at least 23 hostages dead and killed all 32 militants involved, the Algerian government said.
With few details emerging from the remote site in eastern Algeria, it was unclear whether anyone was rescued in the final operation, but the number of hostages killed Saturday — seven — was how many the militants had said that morning they still had. The government described the toll as provisional and some foreigners remained unaccounted for.
Although the government declared an end to the siege, authorities believed a few militants were still hiding in the sprawling complex, and said troops were searching for them.
The details of what transpired in the Sahara and the final battle for the plant remained murky late Saturday — as did information of which hostages died and how — with even the Obama administration suggesting it was unclear what had happened. A brief statement said the administration would “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.”
Philip Hammond, the British defense secretary, called the loss of life “appalling and unacceptable.” U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who appeared with Hammond at a news conference in London, said he did not have reliable information about the fate of Americans at the facility, although an Algerian official said two had been found “safe and sound.”
Late Saturday, Britain’s foreign secretary, William Hague, said five Britons and one British resident had died in the final battle for the plant. He declined to provide details.
The siege at Ain Amenas started Wednesday, when Islamists linked to al-Qaida stormed the complex, which contained hundreds of plant workers from all over the world. In response, the Algerian military and its attack helicopters surrounded the complex for four tense days that were punctuated by gunbattles and 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 — first Thursday, then on Saturday.
Immediately after the assault, French President François Hollande gave his backing to Algeria’s tough tactics, saying they were “the most adapted response to the crisis.”
“There could be no negotiations” with terrorists, the French media quoted him as saying in the central French city of Tulle.
Hollande said the hostages were “shamefully murdered” by their captors, and he linked the event to France’s military operation against al-Qaida-backed rebels in neighboring Mali. “If there was any need to justify our action against terrorism, we would have here, again, an additional argument,” he said.
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. The reports could not be confirmed independently.
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 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.
Sonatrach, the Algerian state oil company running the Ain Amenas site along with BP and Norway’s Statoil, said the entire refinery had been mined with explosives, and that it was being cleared of the devices.
The accounts of hostages who escaped the standoff showed they faced dangers from both the kidnappers and the military.
Ruben Andrada, 49, a Filipino civil engineer who works as one of the project-management staff for Japanese company JGC, described how he and his colleagues were used as human shields by the kidnappers, which did little to deter the Algerian military.
On Thursday, about 35 hostages guarded by 15 militants were loaded into seven SUVs in a convoy to move them from the housing complex to the refinery, Andrada said. The militants placed “an explosive cord” around their necks and were told it would detonate if they tried to run away, he said.
“When we left the compound, there was shooting all around,” Andrada said, as Algerian helicopters attacked with guns and missiles. “I closed my eyes. We were going around in the desert. To me, I left it all to fate.”
Andrada’s vehicle overturned, allowing him and a few others to escape. He sustained cuts and bruises and was grazed by a bullet. He later saw the blasted remains of other vehicles, and the severed leg of one of the gunmen.
While the Algerian government has only admitted to 23 hostages dead so far, the militants claimed through the Mauritanian news website ANI that the helicopter attack alone killed 35 hostages.
One American, a Texan — Frederick Buttaccio, 58, from the Houston suburb of Katy — was among the dead. “Fred spent a lifetime experiencing the world and always respecting everyone he met, no matter their position, culture, or religion,” the family said in a statement Saturday.
The attack by the Masked Brigade, founded by Algerian militant Moktar Belmoktar, had been in the works for two months, a member of the brigade told the ANI news outlet.
He said militants targeted Algeria because they expected the country to support the international effort to root out extremists in neighboring Mali.
The kidnappers focused on the foreign workers, largely leaving alone the hundreds of Algerian workers who were briefly held hostage before being released or escaping.
The Associated Press
Two British hostages gather their belongings Saturday after being freed at the Algerian complex.
Frederick Buttaccio died in the siege.