Amenas, Algeria - “You are Algerians and Muslims, you have nothing to fear. We're looking for Christians, who kill our brothers in Mali and Afghanistan,” the Islamists shouted to their Algerian hostages, as chilling accounts emerged of the siege.
The gunmen, numbering more than 30 and belonging the “Signatories in Blood” group of former al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar, launched their brazen hostage attack at the In Amenas gas plant at dawn on Wednesday.
Riad, an Algerian employee of Japan's JGC engineering firm, described how three of his Japanese colleagues were executed after the Islamists attacked the bus that was taking them to the airport.
“We were all terrified when we heard bursts of gunfire at 5.30am (04.30 GMT) on Wednesday, after we realised that they had just killed our Japanese colleagues who tried to flee,” he said.
The gunmen then took the passengers to the plant's residential compound, where they had seized hundreds of foreign and Algerian hostages.
“A terrorist shouted 'open the door!' with a strong North American accent, and opened fire. Two other Japanese died then and we found four other Japanese bodies” in the compound, said Riad, choking with emotion.
No official images of the attack have been released. But survivors took photos, seen by AFP, showing bodies riddled with bullets, some with their heads half blown away by the impact.
“They were brutally executed,” said Brahim, another Algerian who escaped the ordeal, with a shudder, referring to the some of the Japanese victims.
In the past few days, survivors have told how they were strapped to explosives, and the apparent leader of the militants, Abdul Rahman al-Nigeri, confirmed he was ready at any time to blow up the hostages.
A British man was threatened into calling out to his colleagues in English: “Come out, they're not going to kill you,” according to an Algerian worker named Chabene who heard the exchange before he escaped.
He said they ordered the man to yell, “'They're not going to kill you. They're looking for the Americans'. A few minutes later they blew him away.”
Abdelkader, an employee of the British oil firm BP that jointly operates the In Amenas plant, was at a security post with some colleagues when he saw a jeep with seven people inside smashing through the barrier and screeching to a halt.
Getting out of the vehicle, one of the militants demanded their mobile phones and ordered them to not to move, before disabling the security cameras.
“He said: 'You are Algerians and Muslims, you have nothing to fear. We're looking for Christians, who kill our brothers in Mali and Afghanistan and plunder our resources'.”
The assailants then shot a security guard in the foot and led the group to the plant, said Abdelkader, in his 40s, adding he was freed after telling the gunmen he was a father of four.
The hostage crisis was brought to a bloody end on Saturday by the Algerian military, with at least 25 foreigners and Algerians killed, as well as 32 kidnappers, and a government minister warning the toll could rise.
The witnesses agreed the hostage-takers were “very well informed” about the sprawling In Amenas gas complex, deep in the Algerian Sahara and close to the Libyan border, that they occupied for four days.
They knew the internal procedures, the room numbers of the foreign workers, and they attacked the bases of BP and JGC, the only ones where there were foreigners, said Riad, the JGC employee.
“They had accomplices on the inside.”
He and his companions escaped on Thursday during an exchange of gunfire between the kidnappers and the Algerian special forces, who managed to free most of the hostages at the residential compound in their first assault on the complex.
The Algerians fled to the buildings of the Italian firm Sarpi, which had been spared the attack, and when the BP living quarters were liberated they went to the JGC base to gather their belongings.
There they discovered the bodies of seven Islamists, and a Malaysian colleague in a state of shock, hiding under the bed. - Sapa-AFP