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Originally published Saturday, February 2, 2013 at 9:00 PM

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Former captives share details about deadly standoff in the Sahara

A more complete view of the hostage disaster at the natural-gas plant in the Sahara that began Jan. 16 has emerged as some of the captives provided detailed accounts of the four-day standoff.

The New York Times

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TIGANTOURINE, Algeria — The goal of the heavily armed militants who seized the Ain Amenas natural-gas complex is becoming increasingly clear: Turn the forest of pipes and tubes into a giant bomb and to blow up everything and anyone around. What none of them knew was exactly how, in the endless maze of metal, to do it.

The hundreds of workers at the plant when it was taken over last month got caught between the militants on the inside and an Algerian army ringing the perimeter that was bent on showing no weakness.

As the realization dawned on the captors that they, too, were essentially captives, they grew agitated and more aggressive, witnesses say. Moreover, the plant’s operations had shut down during the initial assault, thwarting militants’ plans.

Bristling with weapons, the militants made their demands known to the remaining employees: Restart the plant, get the compressors working again and turn the power back on.

“They pushed me very hard to restart the plant,” said Lotfi Benadouda, the Algerian plant executive whom the militants singled out as the man in charge. “Their objective was to move the hostages to the plant. They wanted to get to the factory with the hostages, and explode it.”

A more complete view of the hostage disaster in the Sahara that began Jan. 16, and of the militants’ motives in carrying it out, has emerged as some of the captives provided detailed accounts of the four-day standoff, which left at least 37 foreign hostages, including at least three Americans, and 29 kidnappers dead.

Their accounts contradicted some of the Algerian government’s public assertions about the crisis and supported others. At times, the government said the militants planned to destroy the gas complex, jointly operated by BP, Statoil and state energy company Sonatrach, and kill the hostages en masse.

At other times, government officials, defending a military raid on the facility, said the militants sought to flee and take captives into the desert as hostages, an assertion some of the captives contradicted.

It seems clear the siege was about more than disabling the plant, and holding hostages for ransom was not part of the plan. Instead, the militants sought to orchestrate a spectacular fireball that could have killed everyone in the vicinity. While that plot could offer more justification for the Algerian government’s take-no-prisoners response, questions remain about whether the standoff could have ended with fewer deaths.

Isolated facility

To visit the plant is to appreciate its vulnerability and the opportunity it afforded the militants, who traveled 30 miles through the Sahara’s sands, across the border from Libya, to attack it.

The plant’s production towers rise suddenly and starkly out of the nearly featureless desert landscape at Tigantourine after a 45-minute drive from the nearest Algerian settlement, the dusty town of Ain Amenas. The isolation appears total; there is nothing around it but a sea of sand.

The fierceness of the fight to retake the complex by Algerian security services over four days in mid-January is still evident. Bullet holes pockmark the low, sand-color living quarters; deep gashes in one wall are a testament to the artillery fired on both sides. Between the living quarters and the plant, a 10-minute drive, a jumble of shredded, carbonized vehicle remnants stick out from the sand.

Still unclear is whether some of the carnage was avoidable, as officials in foreign capitals have suggested. The Algerians remain convinced their doctrine of no negotiations and maximum force was the right course of action.

What appears increasingly certain is that the attackers benefited from inside help. They used a map to guide them around the facility, and at least one had once worked at the plant as a driver, officials said.

What the militants lacked was the technical expertise to execute the dramatic ending that some captives say the militants envisioned.

The Algerian authorities credit one of the facility’s security agents at an outer guard post with sounding a crucial alarm before being shot in the head. The guard, Lahmar Amine, has since been hailed as a national hero in the Algerian news media, and Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal credited him with allowing workers at the plant to shut down gas production.

Others said the militants might have inadvertently cut the power during their assault, thus preventing the plant from operating.

“The plant was shut down because the terrorists blew up the generators,” said an employee at the facility who asked not to be named to avoid repercussions from his employer. The valves needed power to function, he said, and restarting the facility was a much more involved process than taking it down. “It wasn’t going to be started for a long time,” the employee said.

Siege’s beginnings

Outside experts said that even with rocket-propelled grenades and high-grade explosives, a natural-gas plant would have been harder to destroy than the militants may have realized.

“Natural gas does not explode unless it is in a confined area,” said E. Darron Granger, senior vice president for engineering and construction at Cheniere Energy, a liquefied-natural-gas-terminal company.

Benadouda, the plant’s director general and the militants’ main interlocutor for the first two days of the crisis, remains visibly affected by what he experienced. He recalled seeing colleagues blown apart and militants’ corpses severed in half, as he spoke Thursday from a central courtyard where, two weeks earlier, hostages had been assembled.

“I saw many bad things, terrible things,” he said, turning away.

The hostage siege began before dawn Wednesday, Jan. 16, with the bright muzzle flashes of automatic rifles. A busload of expatriate workers was leaving the facility in an armed convoy when the attackers opened fire.

The militants split into two groups, one taking over the living quarters, and the other headed for the gas-production facility, which it mined with explosives, witnesses said. Once inside the living quarters, “they were firing everywhere,” said an engineer, Djamel Bourkaib, who stood in the shadow of the giant Ain Amenas towers, which are still blackened by a siege explosion. “If it moved, they shot at it.”

Quickly, the militants began to separate foreign workers — American, British, Japanese and Norwegian — from the Algerians, who were told they would not be harmed.

“The terrorists tried to restart the plant in order to get maximum pressure,” Bourkaib said. “They were looking for engineers to restart the plant.”

Militants’ leader killed

Hours into the siege, the gunmen recognized Benadouda as a man who could be useful to them. That was when the pressure started on him to restart the plant.

“We gave them vehicles and food, but we didn’t restart the plant,” Benadouda said.

By the first evening, the tension was building inside the living quarters. The power was still shut down, everything was dark and the militants were starting to run out of battery charge on their communications equipment. With military force building up outside the plant, even the militants “thought they were going to be attacked,” Benadouda said.

On Thursday, Jan. 17, some of the militants, who had communicated that they were protesting the French military intervention in Mali, gathered hostages laden with explosives in five vehicles. The army started firing inside the compound, wounding the militants’ leader. The militants panicked, Benadouda said, and hundreds of Algerian workers fled.

The militants assembled a convoy carrying foreign hostages. What happened next is still unclear and the source of debate.

Some reports in the Algerian news media speak of army helicopters firing missiles at the procession of vehicles, causing several to explode. Prime Minister Sellal, at a Jan. 21 news conference, said, “there was a strong response from the army, and three cars exploded.” Among the dead, he said, was Taher Bechneb, the militants’ leader, and some of the hostages.

A senior official who requested anonymity maintained in an interview that militants in three of the vehicles, realizing they were immobilized, simply blew up themselves and the cars. A recently retired senior officer, who has ties with his former military colleagues, also said no missiles were fired at the cars.

The hostage crisis dragged on for two more days, but Jan. 17’s events were crucial. The core of the militant operation, including its leadership, had been devastated. The remnants were now at the gas-producing section of the complex, but they did not know how to destroy it.

On Saturday, Jan. 19, the militants parked a car packed with explosives under two central gas-producing towers and then placed five handcuffed hostages — three Norwegians and two Americans, executives at the plant — above the car, workers said. All of the foreigners died in the resulting explosion, workers said.

In the military’s final assault, army snipers killed many of the militants, Sellal said as at the news conference he defended the government’s approach toward militants.

“If you don’t terrorize the terrorists, they will terrorize you,” the senior Algerian official said in the interview.

Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.

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