Up to 20 British citizens are missing and feared dead after a botched rescue attempt in Algeria where they were being held by Al Qaeda terrorists.
Downing Street has admitted it is prepared for ‘more bad news’ and ‘multiple casualties’ after it was plunged into a diplomatic crisis when at least 30 hostages were killed at a BP compound in the Sahara Desert.In a situation now much worse than first feared, at least two Britons were among the dead when Algerian troops attacked their captors, it has been confirmed, after the north African nation ignored demands from David Cameron to inform him first – and not to go in ‘with all guns blazing’.Some of the Britons still unaccounted for may have fled into the Sahara in the chaos and could still be hiding in the desert fearing they are still being hunted.
Three British hostages were said to have been hiding in the ceiling of a storeroom while a Frenchman hid under a bed for 40 hours before being freed.Emma Grant, the wife of missing Scotsman Mark, 31, who was at the site but is now missing, pleaded today: ‘Please, I just want him to come home safe. We’ve got a little girl to think about.’While Dylan, the 13-year-old son of electrician Stephen McFaul, 36, from west Belfast, who texted from the camp: ‘Al Qaeda have got me’ before getting away, has choked back tears as he declared he would his dad a ‘big hug’ as soon as he sees him – and will never let him go overseas again.
The situation is so grave the Prime Minister abandoned a trip to the Netherlands today to give his long-awaited speech on relations with Europe, while the Foreign Office said this morning that the ‘terrorist incident was ongoing’ and the site was not yet secure.It is likely that the current crisis is the worst hostage situation Britain has ever faced in its history. But there was some relief after it emerged two Scottish people were among four hostages reported to have been freed following the military raid.In another worrying development it has emerged one of the terrorists spoke with a ‘perfect English accent’, according to one of the people who escaped.
It raises the possibility that Islamists radicals with links with the UK were involved in the crisis at a BP oil field in the south of the North African country.An Algerian hostage who escaped told French newspaper Le Monde that one of the heavily armed militants spoke English perfectly, and was among a multi-national group who seemed to know the facility well.’They searched the living quarters for foreigners and told Muslims that they were in no danger,’ said the man, explaining that ‘Christians and Infidels’ were the main targets,’ he added.
State news agency the Algerian Press Service (APS) said two other hostages, from France and Kenya, were also released during the raid.But despite APS’s that the crisis had ended last night, civil servants in London denied it in a statement this morning.David Cameron will chair a meeting of the Cobra emergency committee this morning as efforts continue to establish the full scale of the bloodshed.He will then give a statement to the Commons at 11am.Foreign Secretary William Hague has cut short a visit to Australia to return to the UK and there is expected to be a ministerial statement to the Commons.
Speaking in Australia, Mr Hague said this morning: ‘This remains a fluid and evolving situation and many details are still unclear, but the responsibility for the tragic events of the last two days squarely rests with terrorists who chose to attack innocent workers, murdering some and holding others hostage.’Our priority remains at the moment to identify exactly what has happened to each British national caught up in this incident and, indeed, to help other countries determine what has happened to their nationals.’A Foreign Office spokesman added: ‘The terrorist incident in Algeria remains ongoing. The Prime Minister spoke twice to his Algerian counterpart, prime minister Abdelmalek Sellal, on Thursday.
‘He chaired Cobra twice on Thursday, and will chair another meeting on Friday morning; Cobra will continue to meet as long as the crisis lasts.’We are not in a position to give further information at this time. But the Prime Minister has advised we should be prepared for bad news.”Our priority will remain the safety of British nationals and their co-workers. We cannot provide any details that might endanger their lives. But we are working round-the-clock to resolve this crisis.’
There remains a stand-off between the British Government and Algiers as Foreign Office staff are still not allowed anywhere near the gas plant.But local sources say that a U.S. plane has landed in the area to evacuate Americans. The aircraft is said to be at Amenas airport, about 30 miles from the compound.One man from Texas is missing but two other Americans escaped unharmed after the raid. Two others who ran off before the terrorists took control are also en route to London, it is being reported.Mr Cameron is said to be furious with Algiers because he learned of the disastrous assault only when he called his counterpart Abdelmalek Sellal at 11.30am yesterday.
The previous evening, Mr Cameron had told the Algerian prime minister to proceed with caution.In launching its assault, Algeria also ignored offers of help from the SAS and American special forces.’We asked them not to go in with all guns blazing and they just did it anyway,’ said one London official. ‘They insisted this was their sovereign territory and it was their operation.’
French sources said the decision to go in was taken because the terrorists were executing hostages. Last night, after a fierce day of fighting, Algerian officials said the rescue operation was over. They said at least 11 Islamist militants, including Tahar Ben Cheneb, a prominent commander in the region, were among the dead, along with three Egyptians, two Tunisians, two Libyans, a Malian and a French citizen.
A source said 30 hostages were killed, of whom the nationalities of 15 had been established. Of these, eight were Algerian and seven were foreigners, including two British, two Japanese and a French national. One Briton was killed when the terrorists seized the gas compound on Wednesday.Fierce gun battles erupted as troops moved in on the Islamists and there were claims that hostages had been used as human shields.An eyewitness described a scene of carnage, saying: ‘There were bodies all over the ground.’ Another spoke of Algerian forces firing at ‘anything that moved’.
A worker at the gas facility told the French newspaper Le Monde that one of the terrorists spoke English with a perfect accent. He said the militants knew the complex well.When the assault was launched other hostages and people hiding out at the compound fled to safety. Foreign Office officials are investigating claims that two Scots were among the four known to have been rescued yesterday.Emma Grant, 31, whose husband Mark, also 31, from Scotland, was at the site but is now missing pleaded: ‘Please, I just want him to come home safe. We’ve got a little girl to think about.’
Speaking on the doorstep of the couple’s £250,000 detached home in Grangemouth, Stirlingshire, explained that she had spoken to her husband on Wednesday but has heard nothing since.She said: ‘I haven’t heard from him since yesterday. I just want him to come home safe.’Mr Grant is employed by BP as a project services contracts administrator, having taken up the role more than two and a half years ago. He had previously worked as a site quantity surveyor with Shell for more than a year and a half before his switch to the In Amenas project.Stephen McFaul, 36, from west Belfast, who had been held captive made contact with his wife Angela around 3pm to say he was safe and well.Just hours earlier, he had made what he thought might be his last phone call, telling his relatives: ‘Al Qaeda have got me.’
Mr McFaul, 36, had also secretly texted his wife to tell her how his captors had herded him and others into a room and that he could hear bullets ‘flying about outside’.Last night the oil company manager’s family spoke of their elation and relief at the news that the father of five had managed to escape.His brother Brian, speaking at their parents’ home in west Belfast 15 minutes after they had received news of his safety, told the Daily Mail: ‘He phoned Angela and she phoned us.’He told her, “I’m free, love, I’m free”. Right now they’re getting him and other survivors to a safe camp. He is due to phone her later and then he’ll phone here to speak to mummy because she won’t be happy until she hears his voice.’
His 13-year-old son Dylan choked back tears as he declared he would give the electrician a ‘big hug’ as soon as he sees him and never let him go overseas again.’I am very happy, I just cannot wait for him to come home,’ he said.Mr McFaul’s sister Donna McBride said: ‘We are absolutely delighted that he is free and is unharmed.’I feel so sorry for the rest of the families who have lost loved ones and others who are missing.’She said her brother was currently with officials in Algeria in a debriefing exercise.
The Belfast man made contact with his family at around 3pm yesterday, Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs said.The married man said he was ‘safe and well’ and was no longer a hostage.Mr McFaul’s father Christopher said his son was an easy-going, happy-go-lucky person who took everything in his stride, but that he was worried for him and delighted that he had come through the ordeal at the gasfield complex in Amenas.’I never doubted it but it is hard to say in those situations,’ he said.
Diplomats privately described the fiasco as the most serious hostage crisis since Iran seized 52 American officials in 1979. Mr Cameron said last night he faced ‘a very bad situation’.’We should be prepared for the possibility of further bad news, very difficult news, in this extremely difficult situation,’ he added.He said officials in the Government’s Cobra emergency committee, which he chaired twice yesterday, were ‘working around the clock to do everything we can to keep in contact with the families, to build the fullest possible picture of the information and the intelligence we have’.
The PM made the decision to abandon his Europe speech after speaking to Mr Sellal yesterday afternoon.In the wake of the bloodbath in Algeria, the Prime Minister abandoned a planned trip to the Netherlands, where he had been due to deliver the landmark address on Britain’s future in Europe.Mr Cameron had initially been expected to make the speech at last autumn’s Conservative Party conference, but it has been repeatedly delayed. It is now not clear when it will happen.
He and British officials had repeatedly offered the Algerians intelligence and military assistance, including the services of the SAS, but were told the Algerians wanted to go it alone. When Mr Cameron called Mr Sellal yesterday morning he was told ‘a military operation is under way’.’The Algerian prime minister explained that the situation was extremely fast moving that in the Algeria government’s judgment they needed to act immediately,’ Mr Cameron’s official spokesman said.
A No 10 spokesman said: ‘We were very clear that we would have preferred to be consulted.’ Mr Cameron was ‘very businesslike’ with Mr Sellal when informed of the attack, diplomatic speak for curt with anger.In March last year Mr Cameron authorised a Special Boat Service raid to rescue a British and Italian hostage in Nigeria without informing Italian officials.Both hostages were executed before the special forces were able to locate them.