* Hostage death toll rises to 48, six militants captured
* Algeria PM to hold Monday news conference on attack
* Gas plant due to restart in two days
By Lamine Chikhi
ALGIERS, Algeria, Jan 21 The death toll has
risen to at least 48 hostages killed during a four-day siege at
a gas plant deep in the Sahara as a veteran Islamist fighter
claimed responsibility on behalf of al Qaeda for the attack.
Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal is expected to give details
at a Monday news conference about one of the worst international
hostage crises in decades, which left American, British, French,
Japanese, Norwegian and Romanian workers dead or missing.
A security source said on Sunday Algerian troops had found
the bodies of 25 hostages, raising the number of militants and
their captives killed to at least 80. He said six militants were
captured alive and troops were still searching for others.
One-eyed veteran Islamist fighter Mokhtar Belmokhtar claimed
responsibility on Sunday for the attack on behalf of al Qaeda.
"We in al Qaeda announce this blessed operation," he said in
a video, according to Sahara Media, a regional website. He said
about 40 attackers participated in the raid, roughly matching
the government's figures for fighters killed and captured.
The fighters swooped out of the desert and seized the base
on Wednesday, capturing a plant that produces 10 percent of
Algeria's natural gas exports, as well as a nearby residential
They demanded an end to French air strikes against Islamist
fighters in neighbouring Mali that had begun five days earlier.
However, U.S. and European officials doubt such a complex raid
could have been organised quickly enough to have been conceived
as a direct response to the French military intervention.
The siege turned bloody on Thursday when the Algerian army
opened fire saying fighters were trying to escape with their
prisoners. Survivors said Algerian forces blasted several trucks
in a convoy carrying both hostages and their captors.
Nearly 700 Algerian workers and more than 100 foreigners
escaped, mainly on Thursday when the fighters were driven from
the residential barracks. Some captors remained holed up in the
industrial complex until Saturday when they were overrun.
The bloodshed has strained Algeria's relations with its
Western allies, some of whom have complained about being left in
the dark while the decision to storm the compound was being
taken. Nevertheless, Britain and France both defended the
Algerian military action.
"It's easy to say that this or that should have been done.
The Algerian authorities took a decision and the toll is very
high but I am a bit bothered ... when the impression is given
that the Algerians are open to question," said French Foreign
Minister Laurent Fabius. "They had to deal with terrorists."
British Prime Minister David Cameron said in a televised
statement: "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 this vicious and cowardly attack.
"We should recognise all that the Algerians have done to
work with us and to help and coordinate with us. I'd like to
thank them for that. We should also recognise that the Algerians
too have seen lives lost among their soldiers."
Algeria had given a preliminary death toll of 55 people
killed - 23 hostages and 32 militants - on Saturday and said it
would rise as more bodies were found.
The security source said that toll did not include the
bodies of 25 hostages found on Sunday, which meant the total
number of captives killed - foreign and local - was at least 48.
The search was not over, and more could yet be found, he said.
Among foreigners confirmed dead by their home countries were
three Britons, one American and two Romanians. The missing
include at least 10 Japanese, five Norwegians, three other
Britons, and a British resident. The security source said at
least one Frenchman was also among the dead.
Alan Wright, now safe at home in Scotland, said he had
escaped with a group of Algerian and foreign workers after
hiding for a day and a night. While hiding inside the compound,
he managed to call his wife at home with their two daughters.
"She asked if I wanted to speak to Imogen and Esme, and I
couldn't because I thought, I don't want my last ever words to
be in a crackly satellite phone, telling a lie, saying you're OK
when you're far from OK," he recalled to Sky News.
Despite the incident, Algeria is determined to press on with
its energy industry. Oil Minister Youcef Yousfi visited the site
and said physical damage was minor, state news service APS
reported. The plant would start back up in two days, he said.
The Islamists' assault has tested Algeria's relations with
the outside world and exposed the vulnerability of multinational
oil operations in the Sahara.
Algeria, scarred by the civil war with Islamist insurgents
in the 1990s which claimed 200,000 lives, insisted from the
start of the crisis there would be no negotiation in the face of
France especially needs close cooperation from Algeria to
crush Islamist rebels in northern Mali.