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5 missing foreigners sought in Sahara after hostage battle

January 22, 2013 12:00:00 AM PST
Algerian forces searched the Sahara Desert Tuesday for five missing foreign energy workers. The workers were thought to have escaped a terrorist hostage situation at a gas complex in the desert.

Islamic militants took hundreds of hostages at a gas plant in the Sahara Desert last Wednesday. The standoff lasted four days. Algerian special forces stormed the complex. Thirty-seven hostages and 29 militants were killed in the ensuing battle.

Five foreign workers remain unaccounted for and were believed to have escaped into the desert and gotten lost.

The Ain Amenas gas plant, jointly run by BP, Norway's Statoil and the Algerian state oil company, is located deep in the Sahara, some 800 miles (1,300 kilometers) south of the Mediterranean coast, with few population centers nearby.

More than 700 people work at the facility, including 130 foreigners from 26 countries who were targeted by the militants. The Islamists caught as many of those foreign workers as they could and wrapped some with explosives to use as human shields.

Many foreign and Algerian workers hid and then slipped out of the sprawling facility into the hard featureless desert, eventually reaching the Algerian soldiers who had surrounded the complex.

The hostages could also have died in the fiery shootouts at the plant after being draped with explosive belts. Seven of the bodies recovered have yet to be identified because of their degraded condition, authorities said.

The $2 billion natural gas complex, which came online in 2006, was showing signs of life again Tuesday. Dozens of workers swarmed in to clean it up after experts went through and removed explosives that had been planted by militants.

The audacious attack showed the improved capabilities of al-Qaida-linked groups in the Sahara. Some 32 militants - coming from across North Africa, with two from Canada - participated in the attack. Three were captured and the rest killed. Algeria said the group came from northern Mali, hundreds of miles away, sneaking across the borders of Libya and Niger before finally entering Algeria.

A group called the Masked Brigade claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it came in retaliation for Algeria's support of a recent French military operation against Islamist extremists in northern Mali and promised further such attacks. The group said the operation was two months in the planning.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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