Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Special forces storm complex in Algeria

Dozens of hostages, militants killed

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ALGIERS, Algeria -- In a bloody finale, Algerian special forces stormed a natural gas complex in the Sahara desert on Saturday to end a standoff with Islamist extremists that left at least 23 hostages dead and killed all 32 militants involved, the Algerian government said.

With few details emerging from the remote site in eastern Algeria, it was unclear whether anyone was rescued in the final operation, but the number of hostages killed on 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.

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 gunbattles and dramatic tales of escape.

In Ottawa, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird issued a statement condemning "the deplorable and cowardly attacks by terrorists in Ain Amenas, Algeria."

Baird said it's believed there were no Canadians or dual nationals among the hostages, and one permanent resident of Canada who was reported to be onsite has left Algeria and is safe.

There were reports Friday a news agency in Mauritania -- Agence Nouakchott d'Information -- quoted an unnamed source with the militant group who said the hostage-takers included people from Mali, Egypt, Niger, Mauritania and Canada.

Ottawa said it is "pursuing all appropriate channels to seek further information" and is in close contact with Algerian authorities.

Algeria's response to the crisis was typical of its history in confronting terrorists, favouring 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.

"To avoid a bloody turn of events in response to the extreme danger of the situation, the army's special forces launched an intervention with efficiency and professionalism to neutralize the terrorist groups that were first trying to flee with the hostages and then blow up the gas facilities," Algeria's Interior Ministry said in a statement about the standoff.

Immediately after the assault, French President Franßois Hollande gave his backing to Algeria's tough tactics, saying they were "the most adapted response to the crisis."

"There could be no negotiations" with terrorists, the French media quoted him as saying in the central French city of Tulle.

Hollande said the hostages were "shamefully murdered" by their captors, and he linked the event to France's military operation against al-Qaida-backed rebels in neighbouring Mali. "If there was any need to justify our action against terrorism, we would have here, again, an additional argument," he said.

U.S. President Barack Obama said in a statement Saturday the U.S. stood ready to provide whatever assistance was needed in the wake of the attack.

"This attack is another reminder of the threat posed by al-Qaida and other violent extremist groups in North Africa. In the coming days, we will remain in close touch with the government of Algeria to gain a fuller understanding of what took place so that we can work together to prevent tragedies like this in the future," the statement said.

In New York, the UN Security Council issued a statement condemning the militants' terrorist attack and said all perpetrators, organizers, financiers and sponsors of such "reprehensible acts" must be brought to justice.

In the final assault, the remaining band of militants killed the hostages before 11 of them were in turn cut down by the special forces, Algeria's state news agency said.

A total of 685 Algerian and 107 foreigner workers were freed over the course of the four-day standoff, the ministry statement said, adding the group of militants that attacked the remote Saharan natural gas complex consisted of 32 men of various nationalities.

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 20, 2013 A5

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