UPDATED: Norwegian state oil company Statoil reported Saturday that two more of their eight Norwegian employees being held hostage at a gas plant in Algeria had been brought to safety, and another was later found and freed as well. The fate of the remaining five Norwegian employees working at the plant when it was attacked by terrorists on Wednesday was unclear.
Details of the three Norwegians’ escape from the radical Islamists who attacked the plant at In Amenas were sketchy, with both Statoil and Norwegian government officials refusing to reveal how they eluded their captors. Oddvar Birkeland of Asker, just west of Oslo, told news bureau Reuters in Algeria, though, that he had been hiding in his room in the residential portion of the plant since the attack began.
He told Reuters that when he woke up early Wednesday morning, he heard shooting. In accordance with security routines, he said he and his colleagues stayed in their rooms. He was physically unharmed and hopes were rising that other Norwegians were rescued with him.
Algerian military forces who launched a counterattack against the terrorists on Thursday had gained control over portions of the sprawling facility in the desert of southeastern Algeria, and scores of other hostages were rescued on Friday. Algerian authorities announced Saturday afternoon that their military operation was over and that 32 of the militant Islamist terrorists had been killed, along with 23 hostages. They also claimed 685 Algerians working at the plant had been rescued along with 107 foreigners.
The nationalities of the foreigners who survived or were killed weren’t immediately revealed and Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg had warned the nation Friday night to be prepared for bad news heading into the weekend. At that point there had been no information on the remaining eight of 17 Statoil employees at the gas plant it’s operated with BP of the UK and Sonatrach of Algeria.
Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide said Saturday morning that it was therefore a “joy” to get confirmation that 11 of the 17 were safe, a number that rose to at least 12 by Saturday night, but the news was dampened by the uncertainty over the remaining five.
Not giving up hope
“We won’t give up hope for those still missing, but we must be prepared that Norwegian lives may have been lost,” Stoltenberg said Saturday at the latest of the televised nightly press conferences he has held since the crisis began.
The government has specially equipped aircraft ready to help evacuate Norwegians and others from the remote area where the plant is located, and Eide said one of them had received landing permission at In Amenas. One of the two rescued by Saturday morning had already been transported to a military base in Germany while the other was being cared for at a local hospital near the plant.
Statoil chief executive Helge Lund said at a press conference Saturday morning that both had been through “an enormous ordeal.” He said he intended to travel from Statoil’s headquarters in Stavanger back to Bergen, where the company has set up a crisis center for those closest to the hostages and the returning hostages themselves.
Stoltenberg also visited the center in Bergen on Saturday, to express sympathy and support “from the entire nation.” Investigators from state crime agency Kripos were also at the center to question returning hostages, to immediately compile their versions of the attack and the hostage drama that ensued.
Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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