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Death Toll Rising In Aftermath Of Algerian Hostage Drama

Mokhtar Belmokhtar, identified by the Algerian Interior Ministry as the leader of a militant Islamic group thought to be behind the kidnappings
Mokhtar Belmokhtar, identified by the Algerian Interior Ministry as the leader of a militant Islamic group thought to be behind the kidnappings
By RFE/RL
In Algeria, the death toll is rising as cleanup efforts began in the aftermath of a hostage crisis at a natural gas complex in the Sahara desert.

Algerian bomb squads examining the In Amenas complex have reportedly found "numerous" new bodies that have raised the number of hostages and hostage-takers killed to at least 80.

Foreign hostages from Britain, the United States, Japan, Malaysia, and other countries are believed to be among the dead.

The search efforts come a day after Algerian special forces stormed the natural gas complex, forcing a bloody conclusion to the hostage crisis four days after Islamist militants seized the plant.

The militants, all members of an Al-Qaeda splinter group based in the neighboring North African nation of Mali, said their attack was retaliation for French armed intervention against Islamist groups in Mali.

Speaking on a French television and radio talk show, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius defended the decision by Algerian forces to storm the facility, even if it added to the number of people killed.

"Everyone would have wished that all the terrorists had been taken out of action and that all of the hostages had been saved. Everyone, all of us, we have that in our minds," he said. "But at the same time, when we know or think about the difficulties with dozens of terrorists, armed -- armed from head to toes -- who have only one idea and that's to blow everything up, we can well understand the difficulty."

The 32 militants, armed with heavy machine guns, rocket launchers, and grenade-laden suicide belts, attacked the In Amenas plant on January 16, seizing some 800 foreign and Algerian hostages.

A four-day standoff ensued, with the majority of the hostages freed but others dying at the hands of the hostage-takers.

On January 19, the Algerian forces moved after the extremists reportedly lit a fire that threatened to blow up the entire complex. They had also laid mines throughout the territory of the refinery.

At least seven hostages were reported killed by their captors in the final battle. All 32 militants were reported killed by the end of the fighting.

The high death toll has prompted some to criticize Algeria for opting for a military response rather than attempting negotiations.

But Fabius said the Algerian troops had been forced to act as the situation grew increasingly desperate.

"The very many terrorists who attacked this gas plant were killers," he said. "They pillage, rape, plunder, and kill. So the situation was unbearable. And I think now it's very easy to say, 'This should have been done or that should have been done.'"

Individual countries have yet to offer a final toll of the number of citizens killed in the attack on the plant on the Libyan border, which is run by Norway's Statoil along with Britain's BP and Algeria's state oil company.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said that three Britons had been confirmed dead in the crisis and that an additional three are feared dead.

The United States says one American citizen was killed, and other countries, including Japan, Norway, and Malaysia, have reported they still have citizens missing.

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, and dpa

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