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Standoff Over Hostages Continues In Algeria


It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. An international hostage drama has come to an end in Algeria. After four days, the Algerian army ended the bloody siege of a remote oil and gas facility where Islamist militants were holding dozens of Western hostages. The brutal assault was launched Thursday morning. Many people are dead, up to 23 captives and at least 30 Islamists, according to the Algerian state media.

The real numbers could be far higher, analysts say. The Algerian operation was chaotic, confusing and shrouded in secrecy. We go now to NPR correspondent Eleanor Beardsley who's been following the drama from Paris. Hello, Eleanor.


LYDEN: So the world has been waiting for this to end. How did it end today?

BEARDSLEY: Well, it ended in a final siege. We got word of - midmorning that the Algerian army was, you know, bearing down on a last 10 to 12 Islamists, hardcore Islamist militants who were at the center of this gas facility with their hostages. Apparently, they were holding seven - last hostages on the site. And, you know, they killed every one of those hostages before being blown up themselves by the Algerian forces. So it ended in a huge battle at the center of the oil and gas facility.

LYDEN: So we'll be sorting the consequences of that out, I'm sure, for days to come. Remind us why the Islamists attacked the facility in the first place.

BEARDSLEY: Right. Well, they attacked, and the first thing they said was they wanted France out of Mali. Because remember, just a week ago, France intervened to help the Malian army defeat Islamists that had taken over the north of that country, which borders Algeria. So the first thing they said was they want France out of Mali, and they also said they were angry at Algeria for letting France use its airspace for French planes to bomb Mali. Why, because France is also a former colonizer of Algeria.

And apparently, it did divide public opinion. But, of course, Islamists in Algeria were furious. They said that the country had betrayed the blood of the martyrs who had fought the French colonizers in the 1950s and '60s. So that's what they were saying. But you know what, these Islamists, they're described as roving bandits. They traffic, they smuggle. The leader of the group was called Mr. Marlboro because of his illicit cigarette trading.

So they're also looking for opportunities, and they found this gas and oil site in the middle of the Saharan Desert, literally a thousand miles from the Algerian capital and from anywhere else, with dozens - hundreds of people and dozens and dozens of foreigners there. It was a perfect opportunity for them.

LYDEN: A big target. And now, as you just mentioned, we know that a number of these hostages were killed along with their captors. Why did the Algerian army do this? It's already received criticism for not alerting other countries.

BEARDSLEY: Right. Everyone was kind of shocked by the brutality and the rapidity. They just went in. And no one knew what was going on. They didn't tell France, Britain or the U.S. or Japan. They told no one what was going on because the Algerian army, they - this is a thing - this is an issue of national pride and survival for Algeria. These terrorists struck the heart of the country, the economic heart, oil and gas.

And Algeria fought a 10-year civil war with these same people, these Islamists. It was a brutal war. Up to 200,000 Algerian citizens died. Their doctrine of the Algerian state is to never negotiate with terrorists. For the Algerian state, this was an absolute catastrophe. Even in the worst days of the civil war in the '90s, no Jihadist ever seized an energy facility. So they had to strike back. They had to end it fast. And this is the way they react against their terrorists.

LYDEN: That's NPR's Eleanor Beardsley. Eleanor, thank you for following this for us.

BEARDSLEY: It was great to be with you, Jacki. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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