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Earlier on Saturday, Algerian special forces found 15 unidentified burned bodies at the plant, a source told Reuters.
The field commander of the group that attacked the plant is a fighter from Niger called Abdul Rahman al-Nigeri, according to Mauritanian news agencies. His boss, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a veteran of fighting in Afghanistan and Algeria’s civil war of the 1990s, appears not to have joined the raid.
Britain, Japan and other countries have expressed irritation that the army assault was ordered without consultation and officials grumbled at the lack of information.
But French President Francois Hollande said the Algerian military’s response seemed to have been the best option given that negotiation was not possible.
“When you have people taken hostage in such large number by terrorists with such cold determination and ready to kill those hostages - as they did - Algeria has an approach which to me, as I see it, is the most appropriate because there could be no negotiation,” Hollande said.
The apparent ease with which the fighters swooped in from the dunes to take control of an important energy facility, which produces some 10 percent of the natural gas on which Algeria depends for its export income, has raised questions over the value of outwardly tough Algerian security measures.
Algerian officials said the attackers may have had inside help from among the hundreds of Algerians employed at the site.
Security in the half-dozen countries around the Sahara desert has long been a preoccupation of the West. Smugglers and militants have earned millions in ransom from kidnappings.
The most powerful Islamist groups operating in the Sahara were severely weakened by Algeria’s secularist military in the civil war in the 1990s. But in the past two years the regional wing of al Qaeda gained fighters and arms as a result of the civil war in Libya, when arsenals were looted from Muammar Gaddafi’s army.
France says the hostage incident proves its decision to fight Islamists in neighbouring Mali was necessary. Al Qaeda-linked fighters, many with roots in Algeria and Libya, took control of northern Mali last year.