How Algeria’s hostage crisis unfolded

Terrorist attack In Amenas Algeria

In Amenas, the gas installation attacked by terrorists on 16 January 2013

31 January 2013

BBC Radio 4

Last week I contributed to the early stages of the research for a BBC Radio 4 programme that aired last night on the terrorist attacks on the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria two weeks ago that left at least 48 hostages dead. It’s well worth a listen.

The programme asks whether the events of 16th and 17th January could have had a different outcome. It questions whether there was sufficient security at the plant, and asks what impact a workers’ strike on the day of the attacks involving drivers and security guards working at the plant might have had.

Most disturbingly, it asks whether there could be any truth in allegations that one of the local companies employed at the plant was run by a brother of the leader of the North Africa branch of Al Qaeda.

But the programme’s most striking footage is of workers who witnessed the horror of the attacks at first hand.

One eye witness tells of the way in which about a dozen hostages were used as a human shield against the threat of attack from the Algerian army.

“They were attached by a wire to a bomb, with a kamikaze one in the middle holding the wire, and if our army were to attack then they would blow the whole thing up,” he says.

These may well be the 11 hostages who it was revealed today by BP’s general manager at the plant were chained up and then blown up by a powerful bomb, said the programme.

The programme also reveals more about the statement by the Algerian government that a Canadian national played a leading part in the operation.

One of the terrorists spoke English very well,” says the eye witness. “He was foreign with blue eyes and a European face. I couldn’t tell you his nationality, but he had glasses, he was a handsome lad. He wasn’t Algerian. There was a Tunisian, a Libyan, and another that…did not talk.”

Another western worker interviewed on the programme tells of how he owes his life to the bravery of his Algerian colleagues, who risked their lives hiding foreign workers and helping them to escape:

“They cut a hole in the fence within 30-35 seconds, they gave us hats to put on…so that…everybody looked exactly the same. Away we went, through the hole in the fence and out into the desert.”

The programme tells of how the next day the Algerian army began an assault on the plant after they saw foreign workers being lined up with explosives strapped to them:

“One eyewitness said he saw four foreign hostages murdered, shot at point blank range, including one of the Britons.”

Explaining why at one point the Algerian army apparently opened fire on the hostages, another witness says that an army representative told him that it did not shoot at the hostages, but opened fire “just to cause chaos.”

To listen to the programme in full, click here.

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Richard Nield is a freelance journalist, photographer and filmmaker covering the Middle East and Africa. In 10 years covering the region, he has been published and broadcast by clients including the BBC, Reuters, Al Jazeera, The Economist, The Financial Times, The Independent and Foreign Policy magazine. He has reported from throughout the region, including Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, South Sudan, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.