The first British hostages to speak of their ordeal in the al-Qa’ida desert siege today expressed relief at their rescue and warmly praised the Algerian army. One unnamed hostage who appeared on Algerian state television said, extraordinarily: “It was a very exciting episode. I enjoyed it.”
But Stephen McFaul, the Belfast man who was one of the first to escape, gave a hint of the horror of the scene as a terrorist convoy, carrying a number of hostages, attempted to flee from the camp.
He described to his family how explosives were fastened around his neck as five al-Qa’ida jeeps were attacked by Algerian forces as they tried to leave the camp. Mr McFaul’s brother, Brian, said: “They were moving five jeep-loads of hostages from one part of the compound. 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. “The truck my brother was in crashed and at that stage Stephen was able to make a break for his freedom. He presumed everyone else in the other trucks was killed.” He said this version of events was relayed to him by Stephen’s wife, Angela, who had spoken to him by phone.
Algerian television interviewed several British hostages who were on their way back to Britain. One with an English accent said: “I was very impressed with the Algerian army. It was a very exciting episode. I feel sorry for anybody who has been hurt. I enjoyed it.”
Darren Matthews, a freed Briton, said: “I feel safe at the moment but I won’t feel 100 per cent safe until I’m back in the UK. My heart goes out to the guys that are still there and hopefully everyone comes home safe because, at the end of the day, it’s only work.”
Another former hostage said the army had done a good job and kept them safe, adding: “I never really felt any danger, to be honest.” A man with a Scottish accent added: “We’re very, very relieved to be out, obviously. As much as we’re glad to be out, our thoughts are with colleagues who are still there at the moment.”
Describing the Algerians as “fantastic”, he said: “I’ve never been so relieved as when they came and got us off site.”
The Foreign Office has sent a plane carrying consular crisis staff to within 280 miles of the facility amid continued efforts by joint operator BP and the Government to evacuate UK workers. A number of Scottish residents who were held hostage in the attack are now safe and well, according to First Minister Alex Salmond. He said he would not confirm numbers or other details as the situation remained fluid.
Mr McFaul was due to be debriefed by Foreign Office officials in London tonight on his experiences at the desert camp. A family spokesman described his mood as “bright and together and nervously excited”.
His father, Christopher, said: “We feel sorry for the other hostages who are still there – we don’t know what has happened to them – those who have been killed. The last 48 hours has been hell, that’s all I can really say about it.”