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Algeria hostage crisis over after further casualties

Until Saturday morning, few outside the specialised world of those who track north African jihadist groups affiliated with al-Qaida had heard of Abdul Rahman al-Nigeri: a photograph of him depicts a slim and bearded Arab fighter in his 30s from Niger.

Within a few hours of being identified as the leader of the Islamists who seized the In Amenas gas-production plant, Nigeri was presumed to have died, shot down in the final assault launched by Algerian special forces to try to secure the last seven foreign hostages being held in a workshop by him and his group.

The Algerian authorities were working on Saturday night to dismantle explosives left by the terrorists who booby-trapped the sprawling plant before the final shootout. The interior ministry strongly defended the rescue operation, despite criticism of the high death toll. "To avoid a bloody turn of events in response to the extreme danger of the situation, the army's special forces launched an intervention with efficiency and professionalism to neutralise the terrorist groups that were first trying to flee with the hostages and then blow up the gas facilities," it said in a statement.

The death of the remaining hostages was confirmed by the French president, François Hollande, adding to the already grim toll. The Algerian government said that 55 people were killed in the four-day siege: 32 militants and 23 captives. A total of 685 Algerian and 107 foreigner workers were freed over the course of the standoff, a statement from the interior ministry added.

The militants, who included three Algerians, were made up of men from several countries. Further details emerged from the freed hostages of their horrific treatment. One Algerian worker, who gave his name only as Chabane, described how from a hiding place he heard the militants speaking among themselves with Libyan, Egyptian and Tunisian accents. At one point, he said, they caught a Briton.

"They threatened him until he called out in English to his friends, telling them 'come out, come out. They're not going to kill you. They're looking for the Americans'," he said. "A few minutes later they blew him away."

The family of British survivor Darren Matthews, from Saltburn-by-the-Sea in Cleveland, expressed their relief that he had escaped unhurt, and appealed for privacy.

"We have been extremely worried about Darren and we are pleased and relieved to learn that he is safe and well," they said in a statement released through the Foreign Office. "We look forward to having him home soon."

Foreign secretary William Hague said a plane was on standby to bring home survivors. He insisted that it was too early to come to any judgment about the Algerian operation. "I don't want to at this stage enter into criticism or judgment because there will be a lot to be learned yet about this operation," he said. In contrast, Hollande gave his immediate backing to Algeria's tough tactics, saying they were "the most adapted response to the crisis".

Algerian troops recovered six machine guns, 21 rifles, two shotguns, two 60mm mortars with shells, six 60mm missiles with launchers, two rocket-propelled grenades with eight rockets and 10 grenades in explosive belts during the raid.

In an apparent confirmation of Nigeri's death, the Algerian newspaper El Watan listed him as one of four terrorist leaders killed during the assault. It named the other "terrorist emirs" as Lamine Moucheneb, Abou al-Bara'a al-Jaza'iri and Abdallahi Ould Hmeida, a Mauritanian.

The bloody denouement of the crisis, however, has left many questions unanswered, not least over the real motive for the group's attack on the plant. Claims have emerged that it had almost certainly been planned long in advance of the French military assault on Islamist groups in neighbouring Mali just over a week ago.

As Algerian special forces moved through the gas facility jointly run by BP, Norway's Statoil and Algeria's state-owned oil company Sonatrach, witnesses nearby reported sporadic bursts of gunfire.

The final intervention was launched, according to Algerian security sources, when it became clear that the hostage-takers were trying to sabotage the plant, perhaps to set the complex on fire. Sixteen other hostages were reported freed during the final operation.

As the first confused accounts of the assault on the terrorists' last hiding places began to emerge, Algerian media outlets were reporting that troops had come across 15 badly burned bodies as they began to search the compound.

What little is known about Nigeri and the militants with whom he died suggests that the early identification of Mokhtar Belmokhtar, an Algerian one-eyed fanatic with a $100,000 bounty on his head, as the mastermind behind the audacious bid to seize the plant was correct.

Nigeri has long been a close associate of Belmokhtar, a former leader of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, who broke away late last year to form his own group, the Those Who Sign in Blood Brigade. This was its first major attack. According to reports from the region, Nigeri's role was to undertake "hard tasks" for Belmokhtar, in this case leading the two groups of fighters who infiltrated the sprawling Saharan gas plant.

The Libyan government denied as "baseless" claims that the attackers had crossed into Algeria from south-west Libya. Other claims have suggested that the group started from Niger.

Although the reason for the attack was initially linked to the continuing French assault in Mali - where Belmokhtar and his group have also been active - a new motive emerged in claims that the group was seeking the release of two jailed jihadi figures in the US.

The group was demanding the release of Omar Abdel Rahman - an Egyptian known as the "Blind Sheikh" - and Aafia Siddiqui, a US-Pakistani neuroscientist who was sentenced to 86 years in jail for attempting to shoot her interrogators after being arrested in Afghanistan.

According to the few details known about him, Nigeri joined the Algerian Salafist Group for Call and Combat in 2005 (GSPC, which was later renamed AQIM). It is in this group that Nigeri first encountered Belmokhtar, a prominent smuggler and jihadi. But Belmokhtar appears not to have been present during the raid, despite being reported to have planned it.

Reports also suggested that Abu al-Bara'a al-Jaza'iri had been killed earlier at the gas field's residential complex when it was retaken by the army.

Algerian security sources appeared anxious to insist that the raid on the gas field had probably been months in preparation, rather than in connection with the French military operation in Mali. Several former Algerian security officials, quoted in the French newspaper Le Figaro, suggested that the raid was of such sophistication that it would have been impossible to "improvise in a few days".

Among evidence to support this theory were claims that the members of Nigeri's group seemed to be very familiar with the layout of the plant and appeared to have had contacts inside who helped them. Some were reported to have dressed in Algerian military uniforms they had acquired in advance. Other sources speculated that the group may have spent a considerable period in the desert en route to the gas plant.

[Source: Peter Beaumont, foreign affairs editor and Paul Gallagher, The Observer, London, 20Jan13]

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