Jan 22, 2013 No Comments ›› Spit Stixx
ALGIERS — 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 American 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.
American counterterrorism officials and experts said they would have taken a more cautious approach, using detailed surveillance to gain an information advantage and hopefully outmaneuver the militants. But others declined to second-guess the Algerians, saying events had unfolded so rapidly that the government might have felt it had no choice but to kill the kidnappers, even if hostages died in the process.
The debate over how the Algerians handled one of the worst hostage-taking episodes in recent memory reflects conflicting ideas over how to manage such mass abductions in an age of suicidal terrorist acts in a post-9/11 world.
The Algerians — and some Western supporters — argue that the loss of innocent lives is unavoidable when confronting fanatics who will kill their captives anyway, while others say modern technology provides some means of minimizing the deaths.
At a news conference in Algiers, the 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 last Wednesday in remote eastern Algeria as a matter of national character and pride.
“The whole world has understood that the reaction was courageous,” Mr. Sellal said, calling the abductions an attack “on the stability of Algeria.”
“Algerians are not people who sell themselves out,” he said. “When the security of the country is at stake, there is no possible discussion.”
It was the Algerian government’s first detailed public explanation of its actions during the siege, a brazen militant assault that has raised broad new concerns about the strength of extremists who have carved out enclaves in neighboring Mali and elsewhere in North Africa.
Mr. 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 captives remained unaccounted for. It was unclear how many had died at the hands of the kidnappers or the Algerian Army. The United States said that three Americans were among the dead and that seven had survived.
The prime minister also 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. Mr. 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.
First, the United States would have engaged in longer discussions with the captors to identify the leaders and buy time, the officials said. In the meantime, the Pentagon, the C.I.A. and possibly allied security services could have moved surveillance drones, high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft and electronic eavesdropping equipment into place to help identify the locations of the hostages and the assailants.
“It would have been a precision approach as opposed to a sledgehammer approach,” said Lt. Gen. Frank Kearney, a retired deputy commander of the United States military’s Special Operations Command.
A senior American official said the Algerians had allowed an unarmed American surveillance drone to fly over the gas field on Thursday. But it was unclear what role, if any, it had played in the Algerian Army’s assault that day. American officials said they had not been told of the strike in advance.
Prime Minister Sellal conceded no mistakes as he provided the government’s first distinct timeline in the sequence of events, breaking it down into three episodes.
First, the militants attacked a guarded bus carrying foreign plant workers to the airport at In Amenas, and two people aboard were killed. “They wanted to take control of this bus and take the foreign workers directly to northern Mali so they could have hostages, to negotiate with foreign countries,” he said. “But when they opened fire on the bus, there was a strong response from the gendarmes guarding it.”
After they failed to capture the bus, the prime minister said, the militants split into two groups: one to seize the complex’s living quarters, the other to capture the gas plant itself, a maze of pipes and machinery. They invaded both sections, taking dozens of hostages, attaching bombs to some and booby-trapping the plant.
At this point, he said, the facility was ringed by security forces.
Perhaps late Wednesday or early Thursday morning — Mr. Sellal described it as a nighttime episode — the kidnappers attempted a breakout. “They put explosives on the hostages. They wanted to put the hostages in four-wheel-drive vehicles and take them to Mali.”
Mr. Sellal then suggested that government helicopters immobilized the kidnappers. Witnesses have described an intense army assault, resulting in both militant and hostage deaths.
“A great number of workers were put in the cars; they wanted to use them as human shields,” the prime minister said. “There was a strong response from the army, and three cars exploded,” he said. One contained an Algerian militant whom the prime minister identified as the leader, Mohamed-Lamine Bouchneb.
The second and final operation happened Saturday, Mr. Sellal said, when the 11 remaining kidnappers moved into the gas-producing part of the complex, a hazardous area that he said they had already tried to ignite.
“The aim of the terrorists was to explode the gas compound,” he said. In this second assault, he said, there were “a great number of hostages,” and the kidnappers were ordered to kill them all. It was then, he said, that army snipers killed the kidnappers.
None of the Algerian reporters questioned the prime minister’s version of events, and some spoke of a disconnect between foreign complaints about the way Algeria had managed the crisis and Algeria’s protracted struggle with Islamic militancy over the past three decades.
“The terrorists came with a precise plan: Kidnap foreigners and destroy the gas plant,” said Hamid Guemache, a journalist at TSA-Tout sur l’Algérie, an online news site, dismissing criticism of the government. “Did it really have a choice? If the assault hadn’t been undertaken quickly, maybe the terrorists would have succeeded in killing all the hostages, and blowing up the factory.”
Some American counterterrorism officials conceded that point.
“If the terrorists were shooting hostages or at least putting explosives around their necks and their intent was to sabotage the plant, this might have been a suicide mission to blow up the plant, and not negotiate,” said Henry A. Crumpton, a retired career C.I.A. officer and formerly the State Department’s top counterterrorism official.
“It sounds horrible to say, but given the number of hostages and scope of this, this is not as bad an outcome as what could have happened, if that was their intent.”
In all, 790 workers were on the site — including 134 foreigners of 26 nationalities — when it was first seized, the prime minister said.
From the start of the siege, the Algerians were bound to respond with force, said Mansouria Mokhefi, a professor who heads the Middle East and Maghreb program at the French Institute for International Relations in Paris. The question, she said, was how bloody the outcome would be.
“Everyone knows the Algerians do not negotiate,” Dr. Mokhefi said, and surely the attackers knew this as well.
After all, she said, the foundation of the Algerian government is its longstanding defeat of Islamist militancy and its restoration of a “certain peace” to the country after the civil war during the 1990s, when tens of thousands died.
“The legitimacy of this government in Algeria is its fight against terrorism and the security of the country,” Dr. Mokhefi said.
Criticizing the Algerians for their harsh tactics, as the British and Japanese have done, simply shows “a deep lack of knowledge about this regime, of its functioning,” she said.
But the French understand the Algerians, Dr. Mokhefi said.
French officials have publicly supported Algeria’s actions, in part because France needs to use Algerian airspace for its military intervention in Mali and wants Algeria to work harder to seal its borders with Mali.
“There isn’t a military unit that would have done better, given the strategic conditions, the place where this unfolded, the number of assailants and the number of hostages,” said Christian Prouteau, who was chief of security under President François Mitterrand. “I challenge any Western country confronting this kind of operation to do better.”