Survivors of one of the largest hostage crises in recent memory recounted harrowing tales of their ordeal, as Algerian security forces attempted late Friday to negotiate an end to the standoff at a natural gas facility in the Sahara Desert.
Some workers described being forced to strap on explosives-filled belts when Islamist militants stormed the site Wednesday. Others were shot on the spot.
An unknown number of captives, including Americans, remain trapped at the complex. At least some militants and hostages were killed, including at least one American, with the unverified toll potentially in the dozens.
Survivors on Friday narrated close escapes, even as Algerian military forces continued to sweep the sprawling compound for remaining captives.
One escaped worker, Stephen McFaul, said through a family spokesman that he initially avoided capture. McFaul, who is from Northern Ireland, locked himself in a room at the compound in the hopes of avoiding detection, said John Morrisey, a family spokesman briefed about the ordeal.
Over the course of the day, however, he was discovered and taken hostage, a fact he revealed to his worried wife and mother through brief telephone calls back home in West Belfast on Thursday morning.
As the militants prepared to move hostages to a more secure area later Thursday, McFaul was loaded on to one of four Jeeps, according to the family spokesman. But as the vehicles moved away, Algerian helicopters closed in on the convoy, raining down a barrage of heavy artillery that directly hit and severely damaged three of the vehicles, causing the one McFaul was traveling in to overturn.
McFaul, Morrisey said, then scrambled away from the wreckage through the window, and managed to escape. He was scheduled to land Friday evening in London.
He is still very worried about those still back in Algeria, but as you can imagine, he is looking forward to getting home, Morrisey said.
Hundreds of captives appear to have been released, with the first of the British survivors landing late Friday at London’s Gatwick Airport via a transport flight chartered by energy giant BP.
Algerian TV broadcast images of survivors on Friday, with some Turkish and Filipino workers at a hospital bandaged and burned and others jubilantly hugging their compatriots. Weary-looking British workers boarded a bus, where they expressed relief that they were going home.
The Algerian news service said that the military had used missiles, rocket launchers, grenades, machine guns and assault rifles to free virtually all of the 573 Algerian hostages, along with 100 of 132 foreign nationals from eight different countries, including the United States.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Friday called the militant attack an act of terror, saying that she had spoken with Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal and emphasized that the utmost care must be taken to preserve innocent life. But she did not criticize Sellal for his handling of the crisis. The State Department said that Americans were among the remaining hostages.