In a bloody finale, Algerian special forces stormed a natural-gas complex in the Sahara desert Saturday to end a standoff with Islamist extremists that left at least 23 hostages dead and killed all 32 militants involved, the Algerian government said.
With few details emerging from the remote site in eastern Algeria, it was unclear whether anyone was rescued in the final operation, but the number of hostages killed Saturday — seven — was how many the militants had said that morning they still had. The government described the toll as provisional and some foreigners remained unaccounted for.
The siege at Ain Amenas transfixed the world after radical Islamists linked to al-Qaida stormed the complex, which contained hundreds of plant workers from all over the world, then held them hostage surrounded by the Algerian military and its attack helicopters for four tense days that were punctuated with gunbattles and dramatic tales of escape.
Algeria’s response to the crisis was typical of its history in confronting terrorists, favoring military action over negotiation, which caused an international outcry from countries worried about their citizens. Algerian military forces twice assaulted the two areas where the hostages were being held with minimal apparent mediation — first Thursday, then Saturday.
Immediately after the assault, French President Francois Hollande gave his backing to Algeria’s tough tactics, saying they were “the most adapted response to the crisis.”
“There could be no negotiations” with terrorists, the French media quoted him as saying in the central French city of Tulle.
Hollande said the hostages were “shamefully murdered” by their captors, and he linked the event to France’s military operation against al-Qaida-backed rebels in neighboring Mali. “If there was any need to justify our action against terrorism, we would have here, again, an additional argument,” he said.
President Barack Obama said in a statement Saturday that the U.S. stood ready to provide whatever assistance was needed in the wake of the attack.
“This attack is another reminder of the threat posed by al-Qaida and other violent extremist groups in North Africa. In the coming days, we will remain in close touch with the government of Algeria to gain a fuller understanding of what took place so that we can work together to prevent tragedies like this in the future,” the statement said.