OSLO/ALGIERS (Reuters) - A major gas plant in Algeria where 40 employees were killed by Islamist militants last year is returning to normal operations following a big step up in security, one of the plant's operators said on Monday.
Norway's Statoil said the In Amenas plant, which accounted for about 11.5 percent of Algeria's natural gas output before the attack, would return to full production in a few months.
Statoil had kept its permanent workers away from the plant, which it operates jointly with BP and Algeria's Sonatrach, after gunmen raided the site deep in the Sahara desert in January 2013.
They took foreign workers hostage in a four-day siege that ended when Algerian forces stormed the facility.
"The corporate executive committee has decided that ordinary rotation (of staff) is to be resumed at the plant as all defined security measures have been implemented," Statoil said in a statement.
There is greater control of people coming near the installations, an airport has been built inside the site, and more barriers have been constructed around the site, Statoil told Reuters.
"The security has been boosted with a permanent military presence on the site, helicopters scanning the region, and the airport is ready to receive the expats who will no longer need to travel the 50 km (31 miles) from In Amenas' airport to the base," Bachir Benzergua, head of the union for workers at In Amenas, told Reuters.
He said there were already some expats working at the gas plant, but they spent the night at Hassi Messaoud’s oilfield base, some 500 km (310 miles) away.
A second local source who asked not to be named said: "I don't understand why (expats) they are not back yet, security is OK, and Algerian workers and technicians are making sure production is OK."
A Statoil investigation concluded last year the operators did not have the security measures necessary to deal with a major event.
"The investigative report pointed out that we relied too much on the presence of local forces," said Statoil spokesman Knut Rostad. "We have now an improved dialogue with Algerian security authorities and other authorities."
Last year's attackers traveled to the Algerian plant from Libya, which is racked by factional violence as the armed groups which helped topple Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 turn their guns on each other in a struggle to dominate politics and the country's vast oil resources.
"The general security situation in the region is challenging," said the spokesman. "Safety at the plant is greatly improved but we will continuously monitor the situation."
Statoil employees work either three weeks on site and get three weeks off, or work four-weeks on and four-weeks off. Non-Algerians return to their home countries in their off-work period. There is no risk-related compensation for working at the plant, but employees get added compensation for working abroad.
"So far we see that we have a sufficient number of employees who are interested in working in Algeria," said Rostad.
"All employees who have accepted positions at plants in Algeria have been through thorough briefings on the situation and on the security measures that have been introduced."
FULL OUTPUT WITHIN MONTHS
A return of In Amenas to full operations would free up more natural gas for Algeria to export.
Full output is expected with a few months, once the third and last processing train, damaged during the attack, is repaired. The other two trains are already in operation.
"The work to repair the third processing train is ongoing and it will take another few months before it is fixed, so that production can return to normal," said the Statoil spokesman.
"When the third processing train is back, we expect to return to full production."
Statoil's current share of production at In Amenas is 16,000 barrels of oil equivalent (boe) per day, against a level of 22,000 boe per day before the attack, he said.
The plant has a total production capacity of 9 billion cubic meters per year.
(Additional reporting by Gwladys Fouche in Oslo, writing by Gwladys Fouche, Editing by Terje Solsvik and Mark Potter)