Fear and confusion: how workers ran for their lives as brutal onslaught began

Eyewitnesses describe hostages seeking refuge under beds and in roof spaces as Algerian forces took matters into their own hands

It was more than 24 hours after jihadists had stormed the Saharan gas plant, taking scores of hostages, that foreign workers were loaded onto a convoy of trucks.

The militants appear to have anticipated that the Algerian military would storm the facility rather than negotiate. By mid-morning on Thursday some of the hostages had their mouths taped and explosives hung around their necks. It is unclear whether the fighters were trying to flee the refinery near Algeria's desert border with Libya. In any case they did not get far.

Bombs rained down on four of the five vehicles and the opening phase of Algeria's fateful rescue operation at the In Amenas gas field had begun. Among the hostages was Irishman Stephen McFaul, who later recounted to his family what had happened. "They were moving five jeep-loads of hostages from one part of the compound," Brian McFaul, the hostage's brother, told Reuters. "At that stage they were intercepted by the Algerian army. The army bombed four out of five of the trucks, and four of them were destroyed."

Mr McFaul, who successfully escaped the siege after the bombs missed the vehicle he was in, believes that hostages in the other vehicles did not survive. As of last night, there were still more than 30 foreign hostages unaccounted for.

Algerian forces had ringed the complex soon after militants announced their presence by attacking two buses carrying gas workers to a nearby airport at 5.30am local time on Wednesday.

Foreign governments, aware that at least 10 nationalities were among the hostages, had been urging caution. The exact timing of the assault is unclear as several witness accounts suggest the Algerian army was firing on the complex soon after the siege began. A Japanese hostage, whose fate is unknown, told Al Jazeera by telephone that army snipers had wounded him and a Norwegian hostage prior to the helicopter attack.

PM David Cameron first heard that the storming of the plant was under way as he spoke with his Algerian counterpart at 11am on Thursday. Around the same time, jihadists from the "Signed in Blood" militant group, talking to a radio station in Mauritania, said that Algerian helicopters were strafing the complex.

Official estimates suggest there were as many as 600 Algerian employees and 132 foreign workers at the Tigantourine complex. Reports suggest the militants had sorted the Algerian workers from the foreigners, even telling them that they would not target Muslims, "only Christians and infidels".

Most of the ex-pats were in the residential area, two miles from the gas pumping station, built there in case of an accidental explosion.

Since the attack, many of them had employed different tactics to hide and survive. In the cafeteria, where 40 workers had waited since the first shots were heard, gunmen were sorting Algerians from other nationalities. One European man was shot in front of the others without warning. After the shooting, five darker-skinned foreigners pretended to be Algerian. They were able to escape when the locals were allowed to leave on a bus.

Frenchman Alexandre Berceaux, who worked with the site's catering company, took a different tack. He fled the chambers where other workers were being held and locked himself in another room, hiding under a bed.

From his hiding place, on Thursday morning he heard "intervals of heavy fire" and helicopters outside and assumed that a battle for the plant had begun. He had been under the bed for 40 hours by the time he heard Algerian colleagues' voices saying it was safe to open the door. He assumed the soldiers he saw on the other side, in green uniforms, were Algerian army.

Azedine, 27, the plant radio operator, said he is still in shock. He saw the body of his French supervisor. "My supervisor was a great man; I learned a lot from him. He had been shot, but I did not see the execution. All I saw was his body when I ran with some colleagues to leave the base. We are very lucky, but the face of my French supervisor is still before my eyes."

Others were not so fortunate. One Briton, Garry Barlow, was forced to sit at his desk with plastic explosives strapped to his chest. A friend whom he telephoned in the UK was told by him: "I'm sat here at my desk with Semtex strapped to my chest. The local army have already tried and failed to storm the plant, and they've said that if that happens again they are going to kill us all." His fate is not yet known.

Many of the straggle of survivors simply ran for it. Khaled, an Algerian engineer for Sonatrach, told L'Express that he had been held with several others in a games room. "There was a stampede," he said, and some people forced open the security door. "Then we all started to run."

Algeria's hardman: General Tartag

The bloody Algerian army assault on the BP gas complex on Thursday was led by an uncompromising terrorist hunter known as "the bombardier".

General Arthman "Bachir" Tartag, 60, the deputy head of the security services, has orders to eliminate the remaining Al-Qa'ida activity in Algeria. North African experts in Paris say he would have taken the attack on the gas complex as a personal affront.

"He has a reputation for brutality which goes back to the Algerian civil war in the 1990s," one expert said.

Lazare Beullac, the editor of the French newsletter Maghreb Confidentiel, said General Tartag's instinct would be to destroy Islamist militants rather than to rescue hostages.

"In any case the Algerians never negotiate in these situations," Mr Beullac said. "They regard hostages as people condemned to death."

General Tartag is the head of the Algerian Internal Security Department and the deputy head of the country's overall security apparatus.

His appointment to head the siege operations – conducted mostly by special forces known as "the Ninjas" – suggests that Algiers had contemplated a bloody outcome from the beginning.

John Lichfield

News
Russia Today’s new UK channel began broadcasting yesterday. Discussions so far have included why Britons see Russia as ‘the bad guy’
news

New UK station Russia Today gives a very bizarre view of Britain

News
people
Voices
Left: An illustration of the original Jim Crowe, played by TD Rice Right: A Couple dressed as Ray and Janay Rice
voices

By performing as African Americans or Indians, white people get to play act a kind of 'imaginary liberation', writes Michael Mark Cohen

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch at the premiere of The Imitation Game at the BFI London Film Festival
filmsKeira Knightley tried to miss The Imitation Game premiere to watch Bake Off
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
i100
Life and Style
fashion
Arts and Entertainment
Hand out press photograph/film still from the movie Mad Max Fury Road (Downloaded from the Warner Bro's media site/Jasin Boland/© 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)
films'You have to try everything and it’s all a process of elimination, but ultimately you find your path'
Arts and Entertainment
Imelda Staunton as Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter films
books

New essay by JK Rowling went live on Pottermore site this morning

News
people

Top Gear presenter is no stranger to foot-in-mouth controversy

News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Humanities Teacher - Greater Manchester

£22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: The JobAt ...

Design Technology Teacher

£22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: Calling al...

Foundation Teacher

£100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: EYFS Teachers - East Essex...

English Teacher- Manchester

£19200 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: Are you a ...

Day In a Page

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

Fall of the Berlin Wall

It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

Paul Scholes column

Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

Frank Warren column

Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

Adrian Heath's American dream...

Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

Fall of the Berlin Wall

History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

Turn your mobile phone into easy money

There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes