Diplomats bite tongues over Algerian operation

No 10 source: 'At least they haven't done anything silly for 24 hours'

For the moment, most nations with citizens seized by the Islamist kidnappers in Algeria are choosing their words diplomatically about the ill-fated attempt to rescue the hostages. But when the smoke clears, and the full extent of the casualties is known, they will be blunter in their criticism of the tactics adopted by the Algerians in their rescue mission – not least because they shunned offers of help and advice on how to handle a siege.

There was dismay and horror within the British Government on Thursday night when it emerged that the Algerians had deployed helicopter gunships to attack vehicles packed with passengers, including hostages. According to one account, the instinctive reaction of one senior figure was: "Please, God, what are they doing?"

One fear will be that the Algerians were so determined to strike at the terrorists that they placed too little emphasis on the need to protect the lives of hostages. The episode will also bring home to the Government its lack of contacts in a part of the world with few historic links to Britain.

The mood in No 10 was slightly more positive last night. One Government source said: "At least they haven't done silly in the past 24 hours."

In the Commons earlier today, David Cameron trod carefully as he spelled out his frustration at the unilateral action taken by the Algerians. The Prime Minister told MPs: "We have had very good contact over the past few days but I will not hide the fact that we were disappointed not to be informed of the assault in advance."

He repeated the message in several telephone conversations with his Algerian counterpart, Abdelmalek Sellal. The US also said it wished it had been alerted to the attack, and made little secret of its frustration at the lack of information it was receiving from the vast In Amenas gas complex.

Jay Carney, a spokesman for the White House, said pointedly: "We are certainly concerned about reports of loss of life and we are seeking clarity from the government of Algeria."

The Americans even deployed an unmanned surveillance drone to the area in an attempt to glean more details of the siege's progress.

Jens Stoltenberg, the Norwegian Prime Minister, said his government would have preferred to know in advance of the rescue mission. Several Norwegian nationals are still unaccounted for, but he stopped short of criticising the Algerian authorities. "Here in Norway, and in other affected countries, we don't have a full and complete picture," he explained.

The strongest public reaction came from Japan, which also has people at the plant. The Tokyo government summoned the Algerian ambassador to explain the decision to launch the rescue attempt. It bluntly told Algeria that it should place "the highest priority on people's lives". Yoshihide Suga, the Chief Cabinet Secretary, said: "There is still much confusion in the information, but we are receiving reports of casualties … We deeply regret the actions taken by the Algerian military."

Rapid deployment team who are they?

When the Costa Concordia cruise ship ran aground and left Britons stranded in Italy, when Iceland's volcanic ash-cloud disrupted air travel, and when an emergency in Israel called for extra resources for UK diplomatic staff, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) in London dispatched a rapid deployment team.

Up to 10 specialist FCO staff are on standby in case of overseas emergencies, with an expected maximum response time of 24 hours. In the US, William Hague's statement that an RDT had been sent to "reinforce embassy and consular staff in Algeria" would be interpreted as a plane-load of heavily armed special forces troops, ready to abseil from a helicopter into a trouble zone. But the FCO's version of a deployment team is more Whitehall prosaic than Hollywood thriller.

The RDT team sent to Algeria comprises 15 people, including a six-person Red Cross psychosocial support team. As well as dealing with the situation on the ground, they will help with efforts to repatriate and evacuate British hostages. The FCO said the RDT sent from London would also work closely with BP.

Simon Lewis, head of emergency planning at the Red Cross, said: "Our psychosocial support team will be providing emotional support and practical help to Britons as part of the FCO's response to the Algerian hostage crisis."

In previous deployments, similar support teams have assisted Britons after fighting in Libya and after the events in Egypt in 2011, Haiti's earthquake, flooding in Madeira and the terror attacks in Mumbai in 2008.

Other FCO personnel on the flight will boost the UK diplomatic presence already in Algeria, identify what the local diplomatic mission there needs, and work with local authorities and emergency services. If other British agencies have been called to the region, the RDT aims to boost the co-ordination of the whole emergency operation.

James Cusick

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