Facts Buried In Hostage Crisis In Algeria

The hostage-taking drama at an Algerian gas and oil plant in the Sahara desert is in its fourth day. The Algerian army has reportedly laid siege to the facility and is fighting a remaining group of entrenched jihadists who have hostages. Host Scott Simon gets the latest from NPR's Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News, I'm Scott Simon. The hostage-taking ordeal at an Algerian gas and oil plant in the Saharan Desert maybe over. The Algerian state news agency report that the army launched a final assault on the facility earlier and they report that seven hostages and 11 kidnappers have been killed. The Algerian government has not yet issued an official statement.

U.S. secretary of Defense Leon Panetta spoke about the incident at a news conference in London.

SECRETARY LEON PANETTA: There were Americans there and we do know that they were held hostage. As to what has happened, that's something, frankly, we just need to get better information on.

SIMON: NPR's Eleanor Beardsley joins us from Paris. Eleanor, thanks for being with us.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: Bring us up to date on what we know so far about today's events.

BEARDSLEY: Well, I think it is over. It looks like, and I'm watching the news here, and it looks like the last entrenched, apparently the hard-core 11 jihadis - they killed their last seven hostages before being blown away themselves by the Algerian army. This happened today at the site. Apparently, 16 hostages got away today.

So, the official tally so far is that 19 foreign hostages died out of approximately 41 taken. But some fear that that number is likely to be a lot higher. This is one of the bloodiest international hostage dramas in years, and it's been shrouded the whole time in secrecy and confusion.

What are we hearing from the hostages who were able to get out?

Well, I've been listening to their reports. You know, it's very, very chilling. You know, one Algerian engineer described how they came in, you know, cut all the power, plunged the site into darkness at 5 A.M., then just, you know, busted into all the dorm rooms where people sleep and took the foreigners away.

Another Irish hostage said they had to wear explosive necklaces. And when the jihadis tried to get them out, because they wanted to take them to maybe Mali or Libya so that they could negotiate ransom - the Algerian army - that's when they came in and set siege to the plant. They just bombed the trucks full of foreign hostages. So, apparently, a lot of them died like that.

And I heard just now, a witness report, an Algerian at the airport; he'd gotten out and he said, the Islamist said, we don't want any problem with you, you're Muslim. We want to exterminate these godless Americans and show them what Islam is. And he was kind of shaking when he talked about it.

So, those are some of the things the hostages are saying.

SIMON: Eleanor, can you give us any insight as to why the Algerian army apparently refused any assistance from let's say the U.S., which has Special Forces, or other countries, that not only had some experience in incidents along these lines, but also hostages inside?

BEARDSLEY: Right, Scott. Well, there's one doctrine that the Algerians state happened, it's that they never negotiate with terrorists. Why? Because in the 1990s the country fought a brutal and bloody civil war that latest an entire decade with Islamist insurgents, basically these same people. Some estimates say as many as 200,000 Algerians may have lost their lives; innocent civilians.

So, they think they know terrorism. They know how to deal with it. It doesn't (unintelligible), you know, thing of national pride. They don't need outside advice on how to deal with something they've already dealt with. It's a huge blow because this is a very - this is an energy facility. Never even in the worst years was an energy facility taken hostage like this. So, they wanted to get in there and deal with it.

SIMON: And President Hollande of France apparently spoke out in support of the way the Algerian government handled the crisis. Help us read why that's seen as being significant.

BEARDSLEY: Yes. He actually called the Algerian approach appropriate because there was no negotiation possible with such determined and heavily armed terrorists. And everyone's here already asking is France being too indulgent towards Algeria? But France has to be very careful because it's the former colonizer of Algeria, and, you know, astonishing change in diplomacy, Algeria let France use its airspace to carry out its war against Islamists in Mali. So, that was a big thing, and France doesn't want to rock the boat.

SIMON: NPR's Eleanor Beardsley in Paris. Thanks so much.

BEARDSLEY: Thank you, Scott.

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