Death toll rises to 81 in Algeria

  • Article by: MICHAEL BIRNBAUM
  • Washington Post
  • January 21, 2013 - 12:06 AM

Algerian security forces on Sunday made discoveries of two dozen bodies at a sprawling natural gas facility, a day after a violent showdown put an end to an international hostage crisis.

As Algeria tallied up the losses, a debate was emerging about whether the militant group linked to al-Qaida that seized the plant had been intent on a massacre or whether it had simply been after money.

Security officials told Algerian media Sunday that they had discovered 25 charred bodies after they mounted a final assault at the remote Sahara plant the previous day, apparently leaving the kidnappers and remaining captives dead.

Those discoveries, coupled with the death of a Romanian hostage who succumbed to his injuries after escaping, brought the overall death toll to at least 81. Algerian officials had said Saturday that 23 hostages and 32 militants had been killed in the standoff. It was not known Sunday whether the 25 newly discovered bodies were those of hostages or captors.

The crisis erupted Wednesday, when militants staged a dawn raid on the desert gas complex. The United States and other Western governments had urged caution and intensely pressed the Algerians to avoid hostage deaths.

Obama administration officials and congressional staff members said Sunday they received only scant information from Algeria's government and military throughout the ordeal. Algerian authorities seemed determined to use force even at the risk of harm to hostages, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Analysts said Algeria's no-negotiations approach had long been a policy and should not have surprised the West or the militants. But the group that took responsibility for the attack said in statements Sunday that it had been seeking talks, not a bloodbath.

The Signatories in Blood brigade, led by al-Qaida-linked Mokhtar Belmokhtar, said the Algerian government had ignored its push for a bargain, calling the harsh crackdown "barbaric" in a statement published by the Mauritanian Nouakchott News Agency.

The militant group had been "offering negotiations" as late as Saturday, the statement said.

The statement also included a threat, warning any country that assists France with its operations in crisis-hit Mali that more attacks would come. And it told "Muslim brothers" to stay away from Western companies, especially French ones, "for their own safety."

Belmokhtar, who has been involved in gun-running and kidnapping, had long been seen as less ideologically driven than some of his compatriots in al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, analysts said. Instead, he raised millions of dollars for the umbrella group by auctioning off the release of hostages for ransoms.

Although he had carried out deadly attacks in the past, several analysts suggested that he may not have expected such a harsh response from the Algerian government at the gas plant. He and his followers apparently split from al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb just weeks ago. Many analysts doubted that he would have sent so many members of his group to their deaths at one time.

Heavily armed

But analysts also were careful not to play down the potential of violence by a group that brought a trove of arms that included six machine guns, 21 rifles, two 60mm mortars, rockets, six 60mm missiles with launchers, two grenade launchers with eight rockets and 10 grenades arranged into explosive belts, according to officials quoted by Algeria's state news agency.

The militants had also placed explosives around the complex, Algerian authorities said Sunday, and a mine-sweeping operation was underway to remove them.

Western governments were struggling to balance frustration over the deaths of their citizens with an understanding for Algeria's decades-old history of tough tactics against militants.

"Now, of course, people will ask questions about the Algerian response to these events," said British Prime Minister David Cameron. "I would just say that the responsibility for these deaths lies squarely with the terrorists... ."

Cameron also confirmed that three British nationals had died and that three more, along with a British resident, were feared dead. One American, Frederick Buttaccio, has been confirmed dead, and others are unaccounted for.

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