Algeria warned other nations to prepare Monday for a higher body count from a hostage bloodbath at a gas plant that was overrun in what France called an “act of war” by Islamist militants.
Algerian troops on Sunday reportedly found the bodies of 25 hostages and captured five kidnappers at the In Amenas gas plant, deep in the Sahara desert, a day after storming the remaining part of the complex still in militant hands.
Governments scrambled to track down missing citizens as more details emerged after the final showdown between special forces and extremists who had taken hundreds hostage, demanding an end to French military intervention in Mali.
“They were brutally executed,” said an Algerian who identified himself as Brahim, after escaping the ordeal, referring to Japanese victims gunned down by the hostage-takers.
Witnesses have said nine Japanese people connected to plant builder JGC were killed in the 72-hour ordeal. One Japanese man who survived gave a chilling account published Monday in the Daily Yomiuri newspaper.
The unidentified man was quoted as telling colleagues how the gunmen had dragged him from his barricaded room, handcuffed him and executed two hostages standing nearby.
“I was prepared to die,” he said, before his captors abandoned him and other hostages who had been bundled into a vehicle that came under a hail of bullets. He then trudged for an hour through the desert to safety.
At least 23 foreigners and Algerians had been confirmed killed since the crisis erupted on Wednesday.
Ennahar television reported that the bodies of 25 hostages were found on Sunday by security forces combing through the plant, and that five hostage-takers had been captured alive.
Thirty-two kidnappers were also killed in the standoff, and the army freed 685 Algerian workers and 107 foreigners, the interior ministry said.
“I fear that it (the death toll) may be revised upward,” Algerian Communications Minister Mohamed Said told a radio station, ahead of a news conference at 1330 GMT on Monday by Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal.
French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian described the hostage-taking as an “act of war” because of the large number of hostages involved -- the biggest since the 2008 attack by Islamist extremists on the Indian city of Mumbai.
‘We’re looking for Christians’
Militant extremist in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) Mokhtar Belmokhtar has claimed responsibility in the name of al-Qaeda for the mass hostage-taking in Algeria and called on France to halt air strikes in Mali, Mauritanian news website Sahara Media said on Sunday, citing a video.
“We in al-Qaeda announce this blessed operation,” Belmokhtar said in the video, according to Sahara Media. “We are ready to negotiate with the West and the Algerian government provided they stop their bombing of Mali’s Muslims.”
Former Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) emir Mokhtar Belmokhtar speaking at an undisclosed location. (AFP) Sahara Media did not display the video itself on its site and it was not immediately possible to verify the information.
The website has in the past received statements from al-Qaeda-linked fighters operating in the lawless Sahara. Before the Mali crisis erupted, Mauritania was one of the countries deemed most at risk from such groups and al-Qaeda’s north African wing AQIM is believed to have camps in its vast desert.
“We had around 40 jihadists, most of them from Muslim countries and some even from the West,” Belmokhtar said in the video, according to Sahara Media.
Most hostages were freed on Thursday in the first Algerian rescue operation, which was initially viewed by foreign governments as hasty, before the focus of public condemnation turned on the jihadists.
“The blame for this tragedy rests with the terrorists who carried it out, and the United States condemns their actions in the strongest possible terms,” President Barack Obama said, with one American confirmed dead.
Prime Minister David Cameron said six Britons and one British resident were thought to have been killed in the hostage crisis, which he said was a “stark reminder” of the threat of global terrorism.
Among the other hostages killed were at least one Algerian, one Colombian and two Romanians. Those still unaccounted for include several Japanese nationals, five Norwegians, two Americans and two Malaysians.
The plant is run by Britain's BP, Norway's Statoil and Sonatrach of Algeria.
An Algerian employee of BP who identified himself as Abdelkader said he was at a security post on Wednesday with colleagues when he saw a jeep with seven people inside smash through the barrier and screech to a halt.
One of the militants demanded their mobile phones and ordered them not to move, before disabling the security cameras.
“He said: 'You are Algerians and Muslims, you have nothing to fear. We're looking for Christians, who kill our brothers in Mali and Afghanistan and plunder our resources'.”
Witnesses agreed that the hostage-takers were well informed about the In Amenas complex, close to the Libyan border, and suspected inside help.