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Nightmare Details Emerge After Siege Ends In Algeria


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

President Obama took the oath for a second term yesterday, on January 20th, as the Constitution requires. The public ceremony takes place today at the Capitol, and we'll have live coverage all day long.

MONTAGNE: We're learning more about the siege at a natural gas plant in the Sahara Desert. Militants in Algeria took many hostages - hundreds. Algerian forces quickly retook the plant. But the latest report say that at least 80 people were killed, including many hostages.

NPR's Philip Reeves reports.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Algerian bomb disposal teams have been searching through the giant gas complex. They're looking for explosives left by up to 40 Islamist militants who stormed into the plant. They keep finding bodies.

Reports say the Algerian military recovered at least 20 corpses yesterday - some so badly disfigured they couldn't immediately be identified. The siege ended with an assault by Algerian Special Forces on Saturday. Algeria is being criticized by some over its use of force. It says the death toll could have been a lot worse and that its forces went in because the militants threatened to blow up the plant, killing all their captives.

According to Norway's foreign minister, the militants actually tried to detonate the plant, but they only managed to start a small fire. He says that's when they started to execute hostages - causing the Algerian military to intervene.

ABDEL RAHMAN AL-NIGERI: (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: State-run Algerian TV is running audio purportedly of the militants' leader - Abdel Rahman al-Nigeri - speaking by phone during the stand-off with an Algerian army officer.

AL-NIGERI: (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: Nigeri demands the release of prisoners whom he says have been held by Algeria for 15 years.

AL-NIGERI: (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: How many, asks the army officer? One hundred, replies Nigeri, adding that he and his fellow militants are prepared to die if their demands are not met.

Images emerging from the scene provide a glimpse of what happened. There's a grainy picture of a group of workers on their knees, hands raised. TV pictures show mangled bullet-punctured vehicles.

Many hundreds of Algerians were caught up in this horror show. So were well over 100 ex-patriot workers. Those unaccounted for include Japanese, Norwegians, Britons, and Malaysians.

Survivors returning home are beginning to tell their stories. Alan Wright, a BP worker from Scotland, says after a day hiding, his Algerian colleagues decided to escape. They disguised him in a hat - so that he looked less like a foreigner - and cut their way through the perimeter wire.

The group then ran into desert into the arms of the Algerian military. For a terrifying period, though, they weren't sure if these were soldiers or militants.

Short-term, the nations involved in this crisis are focusing on recovering victims, figuring out exactly what happened, and exploring better security measures.

Long-term, there's the big picture, the complex task of tackling the rise in North Africa of Islamist militants who share the ideology of al-Qaida.

PRIME MINISTER DAVID CAMERON: This is a global threat and it will require a global response.

REEVES: British Prime Minister David Cameron says that response calls for patience and iron resolve.

CAMERON: It will require a response that is about years, even decades, rather than months.

GRAHAM HAND: I don't think the West really assessed the scale of the threats in this region properly, and we now see that it is considerable.

REEVES: Graham Hand used to be British ambassador to Algeria. Hand says Cameron's correct to say it'll take time for the West to tackle the threat, and it won't be easy.

HAND: It's a question of finding them, rooting them out, but it's in an area which is absolutely vast.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves
Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.