ALGIERS, Algeria – The death toll from the bloody terrorist siege at a natural gas plant in the Sahara climbed to at least 81 on Sunday as Algerian forces searching the complex for explosives found dozens more bodies, many so badly disfigured they could not immediately be identified, a security official said.
Algerian special forces stormed the facility on Saturday to end the four-day siege of the remote desert refinery, and the government said then that 32 militants and 23 hostages were killed, but that the death toll was likely to rise.
The militants came from six countries, were armed to cause maximum destruction and mined the Ain Amenas refinery, which the Algerian state oil company runs along with BP and Norway's Statoil, said Algerian Communications Minister Mohamed Said. The militants "had decided to succeed in the operation as planned, to blow up the gas complex and kill all the hostages," he said in a state radio interview.
With few details emerging from the remote site of the gas plant in eastern Algeria, it was unclear whether anyone was rescued in the final operation, but the number of hostages killed Saturday -- seven -- was how many the militants had said that morning they still had.
The Algerian security official said the 25 bodies found by bombs squads on Sunday were so badly disfigured that it was difficult to tell whether they were hostages or attackers. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation and said those casualties were not official yet.
The squads were bombing the plant in the Sahara Desert to defuse mines they said were planted throughout the vast site, not far from the Libyan border.
In addition to the bodies found at the site Sunday, a wounded Romanian who had been evacuated and brought home died, raised the overall death toll to at least 81.
The Masked Brigade, founded by Algerian militant Moktar Belmoktar, claimed responsibility for the attack. Belmoktar claimed the attack in the name of Al Qaeda, according to the text from a video the Mauritania-based Internet site, Sahara Media, said it had obtained. The site sometimes carries messages of jihadists.
"We at Al Qaeda are responsible for this operation that we bless," Sahara Media quoted the video as saying. The video was dated Jan. 17, a day after the attack began. Belmoktar recently created his own group in a schism with associated in Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, but his statement appears to show his link with the terror group's motherhouse and put the stamp of global jihad on the action by a special commando unit, "Those Who Sign in Blood."
The American government has warned that there are credible threats of more kidnapping attempts on Westerners in this North African nation which shares a long border with Mali where a French intervention is underway to end a threat by Islamist militants holding the country's vast north.
The kidnappers focused on the foreign workers, largely leaving alone the hundreds of Algerian workers who were briefly held hostage before being released or escaping.
"Now, of course, people will ask questions about the Algerian response to these events, but I would just say that the responsibility for these deaths lies squarely with the terrorists who launched a vicious and cowardly attack," British Prime Minister David Cameron said Sunday. Three Britons were killed and another three believed dead, along with a foreign resident of Britain.
The siege at Ain Amenas transfixed the world after radical Islamists linked to Al Qaeda stormed the complex where hundreds of people from around the world work, on Wednesday, 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.
"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.
An audio recording of Algerian security forces speaking with the head of the kidnappers, Abdel Rahman al-Nigiri, indicates that the hostage-takers were trying to organize a prisoner swap with authorities.
"You see our demands are so easy, so easy if you want to negotiate with us," al-Nigiri said in the recording broadcast by Algerian television. "We want the prisoners you have, the comrades who were arrested and imprisoned 15 years ago. We want 100 of them."
People familiar with al-Nigiri confirmed that the voice in the recording was his.
In another phone message, al-Nigiri described how half the militants had been killed by the Algerian army on Thursday and that he was ready to blow up the remaining hostages if security forces attacked again.
SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors videos from radicals, posted one showing al-Nigiri with what appears to be an explosive belt strapped around his waist, dating from Jan. 17, after the start of the attack.
Algeria's prisons are filled with militants from the long battle with Islamist extremists that began in the 1990s.
David Plouffe, a senior adviser to President Barack Obama, said Sunday that Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda-affiliated groups remain a threat in northern Africa and other parts of the world, and that the U.S. is determined to help other countries destroy these networks. Speaking on "Fox News Sunday," Plouffe said the tragedy in Algeria shows once again "that all across the globe countries are threatened by terrorists who will use civilians to try and advance their twisted and sick agenda."
The U.S. State Department issued a travel warning Saturday night for Americans in or traveling to Algeria, citing credible threats of the kidnapping of Western nationals. The department also authorized the departure from Algeria of staff members' families if they choose to leave.
Immediately after the assault, French President Francois 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 Qaeda-backed rebels in neighboring Mali. "If there was any need to justify our action against terrorism, we would have here, again, an additional argument," he said.
On Sunday, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said he was "appalled" at the idea that blame would be laid on Algerian authorities instead of the jihadist captors.
"The terrorists ... they're the ones to blame," Fabius said on France's iTele TV channel. He said Algerian officials were in touch with the French during the crisis. "But they didn't have to tell us: `Here is what we will do."'
In the final assault, the remaining band of militants killed seven hostages before 11 of them were in turn cut down by the special forces, Algeria's state news agency said. The military launched its Saturday assault to prevent a fire started by the extremists from engulfing the complex and blowing it up, the report added.
A total of 685 Algerian and 107 foreigner workers were freed over the course of the four-day standoff, the Interior Ministry statement said, adding that the group of militants that attacked the remote Saharan natural gas complex consisted of 32 men of various nationalities, including three Algerians and explosives experts. The military also said it confiscated heavy machine guns, rocket launchers, missiles and grenades attached to suicide belts.
Algeria has fought its own Islamist rebellion since the 1990s, elements of which later declared allegiance to Al Qaeda and then set up new groups in the poorly patrolled wastes of the Sahara along the borders of Niger, Mali, Algeria and Libya, where they flourished.
The standoff has put the spotlight on Al Qaeda-linked groups that roam these remote areas, threatening vital infrastructure and energy interests. The militants initially said their operation was intended to stop a French attack on Islamist militants in neighboring Mali -- though they later said it was two months in the planning, long before the French intervention.
The militants, who came from a Mali-based Al Qaeda splinter group run by an Algerian, attacked the plant Wednesday morning. Armed with heavy machine guns and rocket launchers in four-wheel drive vehicles, they fell on a pair of buses taking foreign workers to the airport. The buses' military escort drove off the attackers in a blaze of gunfire that sent bullets zinging over the heads of crouching workers. A Briton and an Algerian -- probably a security guard -- were killed.
The militants then turned to the vast gas complex, divided between the workers' living quarters and the refinery itself, and seized hostages, the Algerian government said. The gas flowing to the site was cut off.
The accounts of hostages who escaped the standoff showed they faced dangers from both the kidnappers and the military. The militants focused on the foreign workers from the outset, largely leaving alone the hundreds of Algerian workers who were briefly held hostage before being released or escaping.