Algerian Attack Was 'Well-Coordinated And Heavily Armed Assault'

The news blackout that Algeria has imposed on the hostage crisis at a gas plant was agonizing for some families with loved ones in danger.

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One big reason news of this crisis has been hard to come by is that the media's access to the remote facility has been limited, both by the Algerian government and by the desert itself. The resulting blackout has been agonizing for families with loved ones in danger.

NPR's Philip Reeves says that it is beginning to change.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Piece by piece, a picture of what happened in the distant heart of the Sahara Desert is taking shape. Alexandre Berceaux from France worked at the giant gas plant for a catering company. He told Europe 1 radio that when the jihadists attacked, he hid under his bed.

ALEXANDRE BERCEAUX: (Through translator) I stayed hidden for almost 40 hours in my room, under the bed. I put boards everywhere.

REEVES: Berceaux says when Algerian soldiers finally arrived to rescue him, he wasn't sure what to do.

BERCEAUX: (Through translator) When the military arrived yesterday, I didn't even know that it was over. They were with some of my colleagues. Otherwise, I would never have opened the door.

PRIME MINISTER DAVID CAMERON: The terrorists first attacked two buses en route to the Aminas airfield before attacking the residential compound and the gas facility at the installation. It appears to have been a large, well-coordinated and heavily armed assault.

REEVES: Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron is also piecing together the story. Around 10 Britons, I believe, still unaccounted for.

Speaking to parliament, Cameron said that when the crisis began Wednesday, he urged Algeria's prime minister, Abdelmalek Sellal, to consult him and other nations involved before taking any military action. Yesterday, Algerian forces launched an assault.

CAMERON: Mr. Speaker, we were not informed of this in advance. I was told by the Algerian prime minister while it was taking place. He said that the terrorists had tried to flee, that they judged there to be an immediate threat to the lives of the hostages and had felt obliged to respond.

REEVES: That lack of consultation also seems to have caused frustration among other nations caught up in the crisis, that includes Japan that has 10 workers still unaccounted for, and Norway, which is anxiously awaiting news of eight missing nationals. Norway's foreign minister, Espen Barth Eide, was clearly irked.

ESPEN BARTH EIDE: We have also been very clear in pointing out that we would like to be informed before the operation started, which we clearly we're not.

REEVES: Algeria is widely being criticized for launching the assault and for declining offers of technical and intelligence support from other nations. Some analysts, though, argue that Algeria's military had little choice other than to act swiftly.

As they were driven away in buses, several British workers freed from the plant were interviewed by Algerian state TV, which did not get their names. The Britons spoke approvingly of the part played by the Algerian military.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I think they did a fantastic job. I was very impressed with the Algerian army. I feel sorry for anybody who's been hurt.

REEVES: Another man was clearly still piecing together events.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: We still don't really know what's happened.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I couldn't say. So as much as we're glad to be out and our thoughts are with colleagues that are still there at the moment.

REEVES: This incident has underscored for Western powers the threat presented by Islamists sympathetic to al-Qaida's ideology in the vast, remote sweep of Africa.

Western intelligence services, including America's, will now channel more attention and resources in that direction. Philip Reeves, NPR News, London.

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