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

Sport
There were mass celebrations across Argentina as the country's national team reached their first World Cup final for 24 years
transfersOne of the men to suffer cardiac arrest was 16 years old
Life and Style
life“What is it like being a girl?” was the question on the lips of one inquisitive Reddit user this week
News
peopleDave Legeno, the actor who played werewolf Fenrir Greyback in the Harry Potter films, has died
Arts and Entertainment
Armando Iannucci, the creator of 'The Thick of It' says he has
tvArmando Iannucci to concentrate on US show Veep
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Life and Style
beauty
Sport
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
transfers
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

News
Detail of the dress made entirely of loom bands
news
Sport
German supporters (left) and Argentina fans
world cup 2014Final gives England fans a choice between to old enemies
Arts and Entertainment
A still from the worldwide Dawn of the Planet of the Apes trailer debut
film
News
peopleMario Balotelli poses with 'shotgun' in controversial Instagram pic
News
A mugshot of Ian Watkins released by South Wales Police following his guilty pleas
peopleBandmates open up about abuse
Sport
Basketball superstar LeBron James gets into his stride for the Cleveland Cavaliers
sportNBA superstar announces decision to return to Cleveland Cavaliers
Sport
Javier Mascherano of Argentina tackles Arjen Robben of the Netherlands as he attempts a shot
world cup 2014
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight
tv
Sport
Four ski officials in Slovenia have been suspended following allegations of results rigging
sportFour Slovenian officials suspended after allegations they helped violinist get slalom place
News
14 March 2011: George Clooney testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during a hearing titled 'Sudan and South Sudan: Independence and Insecurity.' Clooney is co-founder of the Satellite Sentinel Project which uses private satellites to collect evidence of crimes against civilian populations in Sudan
people
Arts and Entertainment
Balaban is indirectly responsible for the existence of Downton Abbey, having first discovered Julian Fellowes' talents as a screenwriter
tvCast members told to lose weight after snacking on set
Life and Style
More than half of young adults have engaged in 'unwanted but consensual sexting with a committed partner,' according to research
tech
Life and Style
A binge is classed as four or more alcoholic drinks for women and five or more for men, consumed over a roughly two-hour period
tech
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

Trade Desk Specialist (FIX, Linux, Windows, Network Security)

£60000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Trade Desk Specialist (FIX, Linux, Windows...

Service Desk Analyst (Windows, Active Directory, ITIL, Reuter)

£35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst (Windows, Active Dire...

PHP Web Developer (HTML5, CSS3, Jenkins, Vagrant, MySQL)

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: PHP Web Develo...

Network Engineer (CCNA, CCNP, Linux, OSPF, BGP, Multicast, WAN)

£40000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Network Engineer (CCNA, CCNP, Linux, OSPF,...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice