One Norwegian rescued, eight missing

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After two full days of chaos and uncertainty, Norwegians woke up Friday to news that one more of their countrymen held hostage at a gas plant in Algeria had been rescued. Eight Norwegians remained missing after the Algerian military struck back at the terrorists who’d attacked the gas plant and captured employees early Wednesday.

The In Amenas gas processing plant, operated by Statoil along with BP of the UK  and Sonatrach of Algeria, is large and not yet believed to be under the full control of the Algerian military following its counterattack on terrorists holding plant employees as hostages. This photo was taken in 2005, when production was starting up. PHOTO: Statoil/Kjetil Alsvik

The In Amenas gas processing plant, operated by Statoil along with BP of the UK and Sonatrach of Algeria, is large and not yet believed to be under the full control of the Algerian military following its counterattack on terrorists holding plant employees as hostages. This photo was taken in 2005, when production was starting up. PHOTO: Statoil/Kjetil Alsvik

Norwegian Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide, still frustrated but slightly relieved after so much drama and conflicting reports from Algeria, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that five other employees of state oil company Statoil (four Norwegians and a Canadian) who had managed to get to safety earlier were being flown back to Norway on Friday.

The fifth rescued Norwegian was brought to a local hospital for treatment. Three Algerian employees were also brought to safety and were flown to the capital of Algiers where they were being provided with follow-up support.

“It’s a bright spot in an otherwise dark morning,” Eide told NRK early on Friday.

The Algerian counterattack that began with no warning to governments of other countries with citizens involved in the hostage crisis wasn’t over yet, according to Eide, so the situation at the In Amenas gas processing plant remained highly unclear Friday morning. Eide, sounding frustrated over the ongoing lack of firm information from the scene of the crisis, admitted that “we just don’t know” where the remaining hostages are, or their status.

He attributed the information vacuum to the plant’s remote desert location in southeastern Algeria and, with a military operation underway, the difficulty or inability to enter the area. Algerian authorities remained in charge of handling the hostage situation and clearly were having trouble keeping all those affected by it informed.

Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg was on the phone with his Algerian counterpart on Thursday when he was told that the counterattack was underway. The Norwegian officials were among those who’d been urging restraint out of fears for the safety of the hostages, so were startled by news that the Algerians had opted for a military response on the second day of the crisis. The Norwegian government, along with the British, the Japanese and several others, was also surprised they hadn’t been consulted.

“It could be that there wasn’t time,” said Eide, who, along with Stoltenberg, has refused to criticize the Algerian authorities but did say that “we would have gladly been told” before the counterattack began.

As of Friday morning, Eide said he believed but couldn’t confirm that Algerian forces had gained control over some portions of the sprawling gas plant but not all of it. It’s believed, he said, that the remaining hostages are still being held in other areas of the plant.

The circumstances leading to the latest Norwegian who escaped his captors were unclear, but Statoil officials could confirm he was in stable condition at a local hospital. His wife was informed during the night and was relieved, but told NRK she couldn’t manage to celebrate because of the uncertainty still surrounding the fate of his colleagues and their families, who remained caught in what Statoil chief executive Helge Lund called “a nightmare. This is indescribably difficult for them.”

Statoil managed to fly around 40 of its other employees in Algeria, mostly from the gas plant at In Salah but also including the five from In Amenas, out of the country Thursday night, with 22 filling one plane heading for London’s Gatwick airport and 18 on another to Palma on Mallorca where they could relax until further transport could be arranged. Most of the 22 had returned to Norway by Friday and were at a crisis center set up by Statoil in Bergen. Norwegian authorities also received landing permission in Algeria on Friday for another aircraft to evacuate more Norwegian citizens.

At least 11 of the terrorists involved in the attack are believed to have been killed during the military operation, which reportedly commenced when the terrorists started trying to drive their hostages out of the plant. Many hostages were believed to have been killed as well, with reports still varying on their numbers and nationalities.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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