Al-Qaeda-linked militants, who kidnapped hundreds of workers at a gas plant in the Algerian desert, said they were after “crusaders” and not Algerian nationals, one of the released hostages told Al Arabiya in an interview on Saturday.
The freed Algerian hostage also said that Algerians were treated better than foreigners as they were allowed to use their phones and were promised that they will be released shortly.
“We [Algerians] did what we wanted, they did not tell us to switch off our cellphones, or interrogated us. They told us to sit down and that they were not after Algerians but after what they called crusaders,” the former hostage said.
The Qaeda-linked militants, who were angry at French intervention in Mali, wanted to send a clear message: they could strike anywhere in the Sahara including terrorizing hundreds of foreigners from different backgrounds in Algeria.
“We saw the foreigners who were tied… we [Algerians] asked them that we wanted to leave, they [militants] told us to sit down a bit with them, maybe 1.5 hours till we are released.”
Al-Taher bin Shanab was leading the group who kidnapped the hostages.
According to the former captive, the group members called Shanab: “Emir Taha” or “Prince Taha;” a title commonly used by al-Qaeda members to denote to their superiors.
“This Emir Taha told us, we came here to die and to be martyrs, and that they wanted to talk to officials and generals that are ruling the country.”
According to freed captive, the militants were “happy” with their operation, as they held “13 foreigners hailing from different backgrounds such as Norway, U.S. and Britain. They were all tied with one suicide bomber watching them.”
Veteran commander from Niger
Meanwhile, according to Reuters, the field commander of the Islamist group that attacked the gas plant is a veteran fighter from Niger and was called Abdul Rahman al-Nigeri, Mauritanian news agencies reported.
Nigeri is said to be close to the overall commander of the kidnappers, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a veteran of fighting in Afghanistan in the 1980s and Algeria’s civil war of the 1990s who now has links with al Qaeda in the region.
Belmokhtar appears not to have been present during the raid, which led to the deaths of an unspecified number of hostages. More than 20 foreigners were still missing or being held captive in the industrial gas plant on Saturday.
Nigeri was reported to be holed up in the plant near the town of In Amenas and holding seven hostages, according to the Mauritanian reports carried by the SITE monitoring service.
Another of the group’s leaders, Abu al-Bara’a al-Jaza’iri, had been killed at the gas field’s residential complex, which has been retaken by the Algerian army, according to the ANI news agency.
Mauritanian news agencies have maintained contacts with Islamist groups in the region.
Nigeri joined the hardline Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) in 2005 and participated in several of its “major” missions in Mali, Mauritania and Niger, including a June 2005 attack on a barracks in Mauritania where 17 soldiers were killed, the reports said.
15 burned bodies found
Algerian Special Forces on Saturday found 15 burned bodies at the desert gas plant attacked by al Qaeda-linked fighters, a source familiar with the unfolding hostage crisis there said.
An investigation was in progress to try and identify the bodies, which were found after the Algerian army launched an operation to free dozens of foreign and Algerian workers at the gas plant. There was no immediate indication of the circumstances in which those found on Saturday had died.