ALGIERS, Algeria The death toll from the bloody terrorist siege at a natural gas plant in the Sahara climbed to at least 81 on Sunday as Algerian forces searching the complex for explosives found dozens more bodies, many so badly disfigured they could not immediately be identified, a security official said.
Algerian special forces stormed the facility on Saturday to end the four-day siege of the remote desert refinery, and the government said then that 32 militants and 23 hostages were killed, but that the death toll was likely to rise.
The militants came from six countries, were armed to cause maximum destruction and mined the Ain Amenas refinery, which the Algerian state oil company runs along with BP and Norway’s Statoil, said Algerian Communications Minister Mohamed Said. The militants “had decided to succeed in the operation as planned, to blow up the gas complex and kill all the hostages,” he said in a state radio interview.
With few details emerging from the remote site of the gas plant 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 Algerian security official said the 25 bodies found by bombs squads on Sunday were so badly disfigured that it was difficult to tell whether they were hostages or attackers. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation and said those casualties were not official yet.
The squads were bombing the plant in the Sahara Desert to defuse mines they said were planted throughout the vast site, not far from the Libyan border.
In addition to the bodies found at the site Sunday, a wounded Romanian who had been evacuated and brought home died, raised the overall death toll to at least 81.
The Masked Brigade, founded by Algerian militant Moktar Belmoktar, claimed responsibility for the attack. Belmoktar claimed the attack in the name of al-Qaida, according to the text from a video the Mauritania-based Internet site, Sahara Media, said it had obtained. The site sometimes carries messages of jihadists.
“We at al-Qaida are responsible for this operation that we bless,” Sahara Media quoted the video as saying. The video was dated Jan. 17, a day after the attack began. Belmoktar recently created his own group in a schism with associated in al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, but his statement appears to show his link with the terror group’s motherhouse and put the stamp of global jihad on the action by a special commando unit, “Those Who Sign in Blood.”
The American government has warned that there are credible threats of more kidnapping attempts on Westerners in this North African nation which shares a long border with Mali where a French intervention is underway to end a threat by Islamist militants holding the country’s vast north.
The kidnappers focused on the foreign workers, largely leaving alone the hundreds of Algerian workers who were briefly held hostage before being released or escaping.
The siege at Ain Amenas transfixed the world after radical Islamists linked to al-Qaida stormed the complex where hundreds of people from around the world work, on Wednesday, then held them hostage surrounded by the Algerian military and its attack helicopters for four tense days that were punctuated with gun battles 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 on Thursday, then on Saturday.