IN AMENAS, Algeria—Algerian troops captured five suspected kidnappers and found the bodies of 25 captives at a remote gas plant on Sunday, a television network said a day after a major hostage crisis ended.
Governments scrambled to track down their missing citizens as more details emerged a day after the final showdown between special forces and Islamists who took hundreds hostage, demanding an end to French military intervention in Mali.
The mastermind of the brazen hostage-taking, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, said meanwhile in a video posted online that the attack was carried out by 40 fighters from the Muslim world and European countries.
“Five terrorists were found still alive this morning” at the gas field, where special forces launched a final rescue bid on Saturday that left 18 people dead, including seven hostages, the station reported.
But “three others are at large,” the station’s director, Anis Rahmani, told AFP.
Security forces inside the sprawling complex discovered the bodies of 25 hostages as they combed the In Amenas complex deep in the Sahara desert, the private television channel Ennahar said.
An AFP correspondent at the In Amenas hospital was told that 12 of the bodies stored at its morgue were Japanese, after Tokyo said it had no confirmation on the fate of 10 of its nationals who went missing in the 72-hour ordeal.
“In all nine Japanese were killed,” one Algerian witness identified as Brahim said on Sunday.
The first three were killed as they tried to escape from a bus taking them to the airport at the outbreak of the militant attack on the plant run by Britain’s BP, Norway’s Statoil and Sonatrach of Algeria, witnesses said.
“We were all afraid when we heard bursts of gunfire at 5:30 am (0430 GMT) on Wednesday, after we realised that they had just killed our Japanese colleagues who tried to flee from the bus,” said Riad, who works for Japan’s JGC Corp engineering firm.
The gunmen then took the others to the residential compound, where they had seized hundreds of hostages, he said.
“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, he added, choking with emotion.
Popular French-language daily El Watan said, citing security sources, that “30 other bodies,” of foreign and Algerian hostages, as well as soldiers, had been found by the special forces at the gas complex.
But a more definitive toll is only expected at 1330 GMT on Monday when Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal is due to give a news conference.
Communications Minister Mohamed Said told a radio station: “I fear that it (the toll) may be revised upward,” after at least 23 foreigners and Algerians, mostly hostages, were killed since Wednesday.
Thirty-two kidnappers were also killed in the standoff, and the army freed 685 Algerian workers and 107 foreigners, the interior ministry said.
Describing the situation as “tragic,” Prime Minister David Cameron said three Britons were killed and another three were believed to be dead, along with a resident of the United Kingdom.
Relatives of Kenneth Whiteside, 59, from Scotland, were “devastated” after hearing an Algerian co-worker claim to have seen him being shot but dying bravely with a smile, Britain’s Mail on Sunday reported.
And the mother of survivor Stephen McFaul, 36, from Belfast, told the Sunday Mirror her son will “have nightmares for the rest of his life after the things he saw.”
Statoil said the situation remains “unresolved” for five of its employees.
The company said searches were underway inside the complex, in the surrounding desert, hospitals, In Amenas itself, and in other villages and towns.
A security official told AFP it was believed seven foreigners were executed “in retaliation” on Saturday during the final assault that state TV said also killed 11 militants.
The gunmen, whose leader Belmokhtar is a former Al-Qaeda commander, first killed a Briton and an Algerian on a bus before taking hundreds hostage at the plant.
Most hostages were freed on Thursday in the first rescue operation which was initially widely condemned as hasty, before criticism was focussed on the jihadists.
“The blame for this tragedy rests with the terrorists who carried it out, and the United States condemns their actions in the strongest possible terms,” said US President Barack Obama after at least one American had already been confirmed dead.
Among the other hostages killed were at least one Algerian, one Colombian and two Romanians. Those still unaccounted for include five Norwegians, two Americans and two Malaysians.
Monitoring group IntelCenter said the hostage-taking was the largest since the 2008 Mumbai attack, and the biggest by jihadists since hundreds were killed in a Moscow theatre in 2002 and at a school in the Russian town of Beslan in 2004.
Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian of France described the hostage-taking as an “act of war”.
French troops advanced Sunday towards Mali’s Islamist-held north as Russia and Canada offered to help transport French and African soldiers to boost the Paris-led offensive.