At least one American died and an unknown number of other foreigners remain unaccounted for Friday as details began to emerge of this week’s assault by Islamist militants on a natural gas production complex in eastern Algeria.
The U.S. State Department, which had maintained a stony silence about what it had been told about the Islamist assault and an Algerian army rescue attempt the next day, acknowledged late Friday that an American, Frederick Buttaccio, had died. But its brief statement, released shortly after 7 p.m., did not say whether he had been killed by the Islamists or in the Algerian rescue effort and did not provide his hometown.
“We express our deepest condolences to his family and friends,” the statement said. “Out of respect for the family’s privacy, we have no further comment.”
The U.S. acknowledgement that one American had died came as other world leaders offered detailed accounts of what they’d been told by Algerian authorities. Survivors also provided descriptions of the ordeal that began when the al Qaida-linked extremists swept through the Ain Amenas natural gas complex in eastern Algeria in the early hours of Wednesday. The Algerian rescue effort came the next day.
One survivor described how he hid for 40 hours underneath a bed until Algerian troops arrived. Another told how he saw four vehicles loaded with hostages obliterated by Algerian army fire during the rescue. But other survivors said the Algerian attack allowed hundreds to escape.
One of the most detailed accounts came from British Prime Minister David Cameron, who told Parliament that the initial Islamist attack was a “large, well-coordinated and heavily armed assault” on both the compound’s residential complex and its work areas.
In all, he said that the number of British involved was “significantly less than 30,” and that one was killed during the initial assault.
In France, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said that a French national was among the dead, shortly after getting word from Algeria.
"The Algerian authorities have just informed us that one of our compatriots, Mr. Yann Desjeux, unfortunately lost his life during the operation to free hostages," Fabius said in a statement.
Other nations were equally forthcoming about what they knew had taken place. In the initial hours after the attack, Norway, Ireland and Japan identified how many of their citizens were missing; a day later, Japan, Norway and Great Britain acknowledged that the Algerians did not tell them in advance that they were about to launch a ground and air offensive to rescue the hostages.
That stood in marked contrast to Obama administration’s refusal throughout much of the day to provide information about what it knew about what had taken place.
At her last press conference as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton limited her remarks to saying that the U.S. is “deeply concerned about those who remain in danger,” without saying how many of them were Americans. A stone-faced Victoria Nuland, the State Department spokeswoman, turned away questions from exasperated reporters. “I don’t have any information to share on the current ground situation right now,” she said.
There was no explanation offered for the U.S. reticence to provide the kind of information on the Algerian events that seemed to be flowing from other world capitals, but it comes at a time when the Obama administration is still facing questions about what it had said publicly in the days after the Sept. 11 killing of Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, and three other Americans when Islamists attacked U.S. diplomatic compounds in Benghazi, Libya. Clinton is scheduled to testify about the matter before Congress next week.
American officials also might be hesitant about demands, reported Friday by Mauritania’s ANI news agency, that the Islamists were seeking the release of two people convicted in U.S. federal court of terrorist attacks: Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, the so-called “blind sheikh” who is serving a life term in connection with the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, and Aafia Siddiqui, a U.S.-trained Pakistani neuroscientist who was convicted of trying to kill her American interrogators in Afghanistan.
It remained unclear how many hostages and kidnappers died in the military assault and how many had escaped. It was also unknown how many hostages were still being held. Algeria said it was attempting to resolve the situation peacefully amid reports that the hostage-takers still held the industrial portion of the Ain Amenas complex.
According to Algerian state media, more than 500 people were in the compound, jointly operated by British oil giant BP, the Norwegian company Statoil and Algeria’s state oil company, when the kidnappers surrounded the site. At least 12 hostages are dead, the Algerian accounts said, though they did not give the nationalities of the victims.
Employees who escaped the compound said the surprise attack came early Wednesday morning from all sides as men surrounded them at their residential compound and where they work, quickly separating the hundreds of Algerians from the 132 foreign workers at the site, according to Algerian state media. According to the Associated Press, of those foreign workers, 100 are now free.
The Algerian counterattack came more than 24 hours later, at midday Thursday. One Irishman, Stephen McFaul, told his family that he’d seen four vehicles loaded with hostages blown up by attacking Algerian forces, according to The Irish Times newspaper.
One Algerian worker told state media that 260 of his fellow citizens were being held in a room when attacking Algerian troops blew off the door. The Algerians fled. Another said that they then waved a sign so that the Algerian military would know that they were employees and rescue them. “It happened so fast,” the worker was quoted as saying.
A French hostage told a European television station that he hid under his bed for 40 hours until Algerian soldiers rescued him.
A Briton riding a bus shortly after his rescue said he escaped during the military attack. Another British hostage, interviewed on local television, said he was “very impressed with the Algerian army.”
Cameron said Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal told him that the Algerian government launched the attack because it “judged there to be an immediate threat to the hostages and had felt obliged to respond.”
Meanwhile, Algeria reported that the United States had dispatched a plane to pick up survivors.
Algeria has identified the kidnappers as members of an al Qaida-affiliated group led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a one-eyed longtime militant who is described as charismatic, ruthless and stubborn. In a statement Wednesday, hours after the kidnappers snatched the gas line workers, Belmokhtar’s group said the attack was in retaliation for the French-led offensive in Mali.