| TIGUENTOURINE, Algeria
TIGUENTOURINE, Algeria Jan 31 Algerian
engineers at the In Amenas natural gas plant are working to get
at least some of the desert facility back to work in the coming
days, two weeks after three dozen foreign workers were killed in
an Islamist hostage siege.
Lying deep in the Sahara, the site was surrounded by troops
with armoured vehicles when Algerian officials gave journalists
a first view of the area since gunmen attacked on Jan. 15 and
seized hundreds of hostages before the army stormed in four days
Outside the dusty and sprawling residential compound where
dozens of foreigners were held, an electronic information board
recorded the passage of time since normal work ended - it was 16
days, it said, since the last entry in the employee absence log.
The marks of hundreds of bullets and several grenade blasts
scarred the concrete walls of some of the single-storey villas
where foreign employees - about one in six of a total labour
force of 700 - had lived, and where some had died.
Local workers in anti-contamination suits were still
labouring on the clean-up operation in 20-degree (50-degree
Fahrenheit) midday winter temperatures and ranged along a
perimeter fence were shattered wrecks of half a dozen pickup
trucks and jeeps.
In one of the most violent moments, one British man recalled
seeing several trucks carrying fellow hostages and their captors
blasted in an apparent helicopter gunship strike. In all, 37
foreigners and an Algerian were reported killed in the siege,
along with all but three of 32 Islamist militants.
Among the dead were Japanese, Americans, British, French,
Norwegians, Filipinos and Romanians - as well as at least one
gunman whom Algerian officials described as a Canadian citizen.
Some 3 km (two miles) from the residential compound, the
natural gas plant itself also showed signs of damage. One of its
main units, masses of steel piping and containers, was blackened
by smoke - the result, officials said, of an attempt by the
militants to set fire to the facility and blow it up.
Two other units were less affected, engineers said, and at
least one could be operating again in a few days.
"Partial production is to resume in the coming days," local
engineer Abdelaziz Hafsi said, though quite when was unclear.
The energy minister said on Tuesday that no date had been set.
"There is not a single foreigner at the gas facility, but we
can manage to repair and resume production on our own," Hafsi
added. "Foreign workers will be back in three months."
Many survivors said they would not wish to venture back. But
the government has pledged to review security against a renewed
Islamist threat which has been exacerbated by French military
intervention across the border in Mali. And the lure of high
wages for foreigners in the desert is expected to remain strong.
On Tuesday, Algeria's energy minister promised a secure
working environment. He said officials were still assessing
damage at the site, known as Tiguentourine, 50 km from the town
of In Amenas near the Libyan border.
There was, he said, no date fixed at that time for
restarting a plant that produces about 11 percent of the
country's annual gas output, a vital export for the nation.
For journalists visiting the normally tightly restricted
area of the gas field for the first time, the sense of isolation
was evident, as was the military presence along the roads. Only
fences protected the perimeters of the plant and villa compound.
Lotfi Benadouda, general manager at the site, told
reporters: "The terrorists used us as shields.
"I'm very lucky to be still alive and very sad about my
foreign colleagues who died."
An army officer said his men were proud of the way they
dealt with a situation which prompted international concern
about the level of security in the gas field and about the
number of casualties among the foreign hostages: "Our moral is
high," he said. "We did our job which is to defend our country."
Algerian officials who organised the visit for the media
were keen to emphasise a national consensus on security.
Mansouri Belal, the head of In Amenas municipal council,
said: "This is something that has not just affected us, but has
affected the entire world. We all condemn this criminal and
cowardly act at the gas facility in Tiguentourine. We praise the
members of the national army for intervening so quickly and
saving the hostages, the Algerian and the foreign hostages."
(Writing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Jason Webb)