The four-day hostage crisis in the Sahara reached a bloody conclusion Saturday as the Algerian army carried out a final assault on the gas field taken over by Islamist militants, killing all 32 militants involved and raising the total of hostages killed to at least 23.
With few details emerging from the remote site in eastern Algeria, it was unclear whether anyone was rescued in Saturday’s 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.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who appeared at a news conference in London, said he did not yet have reliable information about the fate of Americans at the facility, although a senior Algerian official said two had been found “safe and sound."
What little information trickled out was as harrowing as what had come in the days before, when some hostages who managed to escape told of workers being forced to wear explosives, at least one summary execution and some dying in the military’s initial rescue attempt. On Saturday, an Algerian official reported that some bodies found by troops who rushed into the industrial complex were charred beyond recognition, making it difficult to distinguish between the captors and the captured. Two were assumed to be workers because they were handcuffed.
The siege at Ain Amenas transfixed the world after radical Islamists linked to al-Qaida stormed the complex, which contained hundreds of plant workers from all over the world, then held them hostage surrounded by the Algerian military and its attack helicopters for four tense days that were punctuated with gun battles and dramatic 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 with minimal apparent mediation — first on Thursday, then on Saturday.
Immediately after the assault, French President Francois Hollande, who is conducting a military operation against al-Qaida-backed rebels in neighboring Mali, gave his backing to Algeria’s tough tactics, saying they were “the most adapted response to the crisis."
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, of Katy — was among the dead. Six of the dead probably were Britons and five Norwegian, according to European leaders.
In a statement Saturday, President Barack Obama said the U.S. stood ready to provide whatever assistance was needed in the wake of the attack.
According to a U.S. official not authorized to speak, a U.S. military C-130 transport plane flew some people, including an undisclosed number of former hostages, from Algeria to a location in Europe.