(Updates with U.S. death toll beginning in third paragraph.)
Jan. 21 (Bloomberg) -- A multinational group of terrorists entered the In Amenas gas complex seeking to blow it up and escape into neighboring Mali with foreign hostages, Algeria’s premier said, in the first official account of the raid.
Only the actions of the Algerian army prevented the 32-man militant squad, which had “a massive arsenal” and its own explosives experts, from escaping with their captives, Abdelmalek Sellal told reporters in Algiers today. At least one member of the group was a Canadian national whose job it was to contact the media, he said.
The operation, which left 38 hostages dead, including three Americans, underscored the dangers Algeria faces as French forces engage in operations in Mali targeting jihadis. Sellal, whose nation fought a decade-long battle against Islamists in the 1990s, reiterated that Algeria backed peaceful dialogue and wouldn’t commit troops to Mali.
The three U.S. citizens killed in the attack were Victor Lynn Lovelady, Gordon Lee Rowan and Frederick Buttaccio, the U.S. State Department announced today. Seven other Americans survived the ordeal, Victoria Nuland, a spokeswoman for the department, said in a statement.
The scenario outlined by the Algerian prime minister was of an orchestrated assault planned by the militants over two months and complete with inside information from a former driver at the Saharan gas facility, operated by London’s BP Plc, Statoil ASA of Norway, and state-run Sonatrach. The siege was dealt with “professionally” by the Algerian military, Sellal said.
“The army first tried to negotiate in the hope of resolving the situation, but the terrorists were determined and their position was clear, and they had unacceptable demands,” Sellal said. A total of 37 foreign workers and one Algerian were killed, and five people remain unaccounted for, he said. Three militants were captured and 29 killed, with the attackers hailing from eight nations including Tunisia, Egypt, Niger, Mauritania and Canada.
The deceased hostages also came from diverse backgrounds, including people from Japan, the U.S., the Philippines, Colombia, Britain and France, according to their respective governments. The workers were killed one-by-one, Sellal said, in a mass execution.
He said the attackers crossed from north Mali into Niger, then Libya and finally Algeria, evidence of the difficulties of policing the porous borders Algeria shares with its neighbors. The group was headed by a man named Bechneb Mohamed al-Amin, who belonged to the Masked Brigade, according to Sellal.
The first stage of the “cowardly act by a group of terrorists” began at 5:30 a.m. on Jan. 16 and targeted a bus carrying passengers to In Amenas airport, Sellal said. BP’s country manager was among the passengers, he said.
The militants “started firing at the bus and received a severe response from soldiers,” he said. “They failed to achieve their goal, which was to kidnap foreign workers.”
The attackers then divided into two groups, with 11 men heading to the gas plant and another to the housing unit. The militants were heavily armed, with rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons as they stormed the complex that housed a total of 790 workers, of whom 134 were foreigners from 26 nations, the prime minister said.
A young Algerian security guard at the gas factory was among the first to be killed. Before dying, he managed to sound the alarm, a heroic effort that allowed workers to shut down the complex and to hide, Sellal said.
During the first night, the militants began preparations to flee to Mali in a convoy of vehicles, strapping explosives to the hostages. They were prevented from leaving the complex by the army, which had surrounded the site and struck with “force,” killing the group’s leader, Sellal said.
The attackers then sought to join their fellow militants, putting the hostages into the vehicles and using them as human shields. The military’s final assault came amid fears the attackers were trying to destroy the facility, he said.
Commenting on the intervention by security forces, Sellal said, “I swear before God that there are few in this world who could achieve” what the Algerian armed forces undertook.
The remarks appear aimed at initial criticism directed at Algeria over the military’s response -- efforts later defended by France, the nation’s former colonial ruler.
Responsibility was claimed by militants of the al-Qaeda- linked al Mulathameen group, who said their action was inspired by the arrival last week of French forces seeking to block a jihadist takeover of neighboring Mali. The group, headed by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a one-eyed Algerian militant, warned other attacks could follow, according to a statement published on Mauritania’s private ANI news agency yesterday.
The full details of the death toll have yet to become completely clear, with official and independent media earlier putting the toll at more than 80, including the militants.
Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said seven Japanese were killed, the Kyodo news agency reported. In addition, six Filipinos, at least three Britons, two Romanians, one French security worker and a Colombian were killed.
--With assistance from Nicole Gaouette and Nick Taborek in Washington. Editors: Francis Harris, Robin Meszoly