Sunday, December 17, 2017

Algeria defends tough response to hostage crisis

ALGIERS, Algeria — The prime minister of Algeria offered an unapologetic defense on Monday of the country's tough actions to end the Sahara hostage crisis, saying that the militants who had carried out the kidnappings intended to kill all their captives and that the army saved many from death by attacking.

But the assertion came as the death toll of foreign hostages rose sharply, to 37, and as U.S. officials said they had offered sophisticated surveillance help that could minimize casualties, both before and during the military operation to retake a seized gas field complex in the Algerian desert.

At least some of the assistance was accepted, they said, but there were still questions about whether Algeria had taken all available steps to avert such a bloody outcome.

At a news conference in Algiers, Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal portrayed the military's deadly assaults on the Islamist militants who had stormed and occupied an internationally run gas-producing complex Wednesday in remote eastern Algeria as a matter of national character and pride.

"The whole world has understood that the reaction was courageous," Sellal said, calling the abductions an attack on Algeria.

Sellal said that the 37 foreign workers killed during the episode — a toll much higher than the 23 previously estimated — came from eight countries and that five remained unaccounted for. It was unclear how many died at the hands of the kidnappers or the Algerian army.

The United States said three Americans were among the dead and seven had survived. The United States had already confirmed the death of one U.S. hostage, Frederick Buttaccio of Katy, Texas. The State Department identified the two others as Victor Lovelady of Houston and Gordon Lee Rowan of Sumpter, Ore.

Sellal said that 29 kidnappers had been killed, including the leader, and that three had been captured alive. The militants were from Egypt, Mali, Niger, Mauritania, Tunisia and Canada, he said — an assertion the Canadian government said it was investigating. Sellal said the group began the plot in Mali and entered Algeria through Libya, close to the site.

Other countries, notably Japan and Britain, have raised concerns about what they considered Algeria's harsh and hasty response. The United States has not publicly criticized Algeria, which it regards as an ally in the fight to contain jihadist groups in Africa. But law enforcement and military officials said Monday that they almost certainly would have handled such a crisis differently.

In all, 790 workers were on the site, including 134 foreigners of 26 nationalities, when it was first seized, the prime minister said.

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