A hardline but effective operation by Algerian special forces brought to an end the four-day hostage crisis in the desert yesterday, as they swept into the gas refinery at In Amenas, killing 11 terrorists and discovering that seven of the foreign hostages had been shot, possibly executed by their captors. Amid the confusion over the identities of the victims, the British government said that at least five Britons were either dead or unaccounted for.
Yet, as the immediate crisis ended, albeit in the bloodshed with which it began, there were rising fears that the episode might just be the beginning of a far wider Western involvement in the region to try to quell the spread into Africa of Islamic extremism and terror.
Officials in Europe and Washington are to increase assistance, including intelligence-sharing, military aid and training, to states identified as at risk from the march of al-Qa'ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). So, a suicidal terror mission, an energy-rich region, talk of action to deal with countries that are havens and training grounds for extremists – there is an unsettling familiarity about it all.
There was, however, relief that the immediate crisis was brought to an end yesterday. The special forces operation was triggered by a fire in the complex and a suspicion, later confirmed, that the terrorists had mined and booby-trapped the plant.
As it began, there were believed to be about a dozen terrorists still holding at least 30 foreign hostages inside the refinery part of the complex. First, came word that the Algerian troops had discovered 15 charred bodies – identities unknown – then news that 16 hostages, none of them Britons, had been released.
Algerian government sources declared mid-afternoon yesterday that the siege was over, with a total of 32 terrorists and 23 hostages killed in the entire attack. A total of 685 Algerian and 107 foreigner workers were freed.
But the number of Britons who have lost their lives is still unknown. Two were known to have died on Wednesday and Thursday, and there are now palpable fears for others still unaccounted for. The group chief executive of BP, Bob Dudley, said the company is "unable to confirm the location or situation" of four employees at In Amenas, and the firm has "grave fears" that the workers are likely to have suffered fatalities.
Releasing the latest figures of those feared dead last night, David Cameron said: "Let me be clear. There is no justification for taking innocent life in this way. Our determination is stronger than ever to work with allies right around the world to root out and defeat this terrorist scourge and those who encourage it."
The Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond, who held a joint news conference with the US Defence Secretary, Leon Panetta, said: "The loss of life as a result of these attacks is appalling and unacceptable. We must be clear that it is the terrorists who bear sole responsibility for it."
Scotland's First Minister, Alex Salmond, said eight Scottish residents are confirmed safe and secure, but said some of the workers still unaccounted for have family in Scotland or other connections to the country. BP said that 25 of its 56 workers in Algeria at the time of the attack have now left in a "staged process" of withdrawing all non-essential staff from the country.
Foreign Secretary William Hague said that a British consular team is now on the ground at In Amenas, providing assistance to those Britons who escaped, while Britain's ambassador to Algeria, Martyn Roper, is travelling to the area.
"This whole incident underlines the scale and ruthlessness of the terrorist threat that we and other nations face," said Mr Hague. "We underline our resolve to deal with that and to defeat terrorism and murder, working with allies across the world, including in North Africa."
Despite the casualties among the hostages, an Algerian government source quoted yesterday by the Algerian Press Service strongly defended the military operation, saying it prevented a "true disaster" which would have caused "immeasurable" human and material damage. The rescue mission was carried out in "extremely complex circumstances" against terrorists armed with a huge arsenal of missiles, rocket launchers, grenades and assault rifles, the source said.
The French President, François Hollande, backed Algeria's handling of the crisis, saying that "no negotiation was possible". He added: "We don't have all the details, but when there's a hostage situation concerning so many people, with terrorists so coldly determined, ready to kill... a country like Algeria responds in a way which, to my eyes, is the most suitable." Mr Hammond was more ambiguous, saying: "Different countries have different approaches to dealing with these things. But the nature of collaboration in confronting a global threat is that we work with people sometimes who do things somewhat different, slightly differently, from the way we do them ourselves."
Government sources confirmed last night that the UK will extend offers to improve funding, military co-operation and police training to African states, after it was decided that "diplomacy is not enough" to head off the advance of Islamist radicalism across the continent. "We have spent years using diplomacy, and improving relations, to argue for greater recognition of the threat posed by al-Qa'ida in this region, and greater resistance to it," a senior government source said last night. "It has worked, to a degree, but we need more direct engagement."
US Defence Secretary Panetta yesterday made clear that Washington believed the 12-year "war on terror" was still going and had renewed its focus in North Africa. Washington, London and EU governments will increase intelligence sharing, military aid and training to states within the "corridor of terror" at risk from al-Qa'ida in the Islamic Maghreb. Mr Panetta told Radio 4's Today programme yesterday: "This is a war. It is the war on terrorism."
Standing alongside Mr Hammond at the London press conference, Mr Panetta said: "Terrorists should be on notice that they will find no sanctuary, no refuge, not in Algeria, not in North Africa, not anywhere... Those who would wantonly attack our country and our people will have no place to hide."
As the final assault on the In Amenas plant was launched, Mr Hague chaired a meeting of the Government's Cobra committee, declaring that dealing with the crisis and ensuring the safety of all Britons remained his "top priority".
By yesterday afternoon, Britain's ambassador was finally allowed to visit the scene of the hostage-taking after two days of attempts to get consular assistance to Britons involved in the crisis.
At 5pm yesterday, Mr Cameron spoke to the Algerian Prime Minister, Abdelmalek Sellal, who confirmed the crisis was over. No 10 said there would be a fresh Cobra meeting to discuss the endgame.
With the four-day hostage crisis over, energy industry sources suggested BP and other companies with interests in North Africa would have to reconsider its gas exploration for fear of copycat attacks on their workers. It is understood that BP had been granted new exploration licences in Libya days before the hostage-taking and, although the company is unlikely to be forced out of Algeria, would have to scale back its ambitions in the wider region. Drilling by Total of France, Norway's Statoil and Italy's Eni SpA might also be affected by the hostage crisis.
Days of terror
* Algerian special forces storm In Amenas gas complex to end four-day hostage crisis.
* Thirty-two terrorists and 23 hostages dead at the plant.
* Operation triggered by fears attackers would blow up refinery.
* At least five Britons and one UK resident dead or unaccounted for.
* French President François Hollande backs Algerian action.
* US and Britain vow to step up activities to combat new African "corridor of terror".