ALGIERS: The death toll from the bloody terrorist siege at a natural gas plant in the Sahara climbed to at least 81 on Sunday as Algerian forces searching the complex for explosives found dozens more bodies, many so badly disfigured they could not immediately be identified, a security official said.
The Algerian special forces stormed the facility on Saturday to end the four-day siege of the remote desert refinery, and the government said then that 32 militants and 23 hostages were killed, but that the death toll was likely to rise.
The militants came from six countries, were armed to cause maximum destruction and mined the Ain Amenas refinery, which the Algerian state oil company runs along with BP and Norway's Statoil, said Algerian Communications Minister Mohamed Said.
The militants ''had decided to succeed in the operation as planned, to blow up the gas complex and kill all the hostages,'' he said in a state radio interview.
With few details emerging from the remote site of the gas plant in eastern Algeria, it was unclear whether anyone was rescued in the final operation, but the number of hostages killed Saturday – seven – was how many the militants had said that morning they still had.
The Algerian security official said the 25 bodies found by bombs squads on Sunday were so badly disfigured that it was difficult to tell whether they were hostages or attackers.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation and said those casualties were not official yet.
The squads were bombing the plant in the Sahara Desert to defuse mines they said were planted throughout the vast site, not far from the Libyan border.
In addition to the bodies found at the site Sunday, a wounded Romanian who had been evacuated and brought home died, raised the overall death toll to at least 81.
One American, a Texan – Frederick Buttaccio from the Houston suburb of Katy – was among the dead. US officials told The Associated Press that Buttaccio's remains were recovered Friday.
The Masked Brigade, founded by Algerian militant Moktar Belmoktar, has claimed responsibility for the attack.
Belmoktar claimed the attack in the name of Al Qaeda, according to the text from a video the Mauritania-based Internet site, Sahara Media, said it had obtained.
The site sometimes carries messages of jihadists.
''We at Al Qaeda are responsible for this operation that we bless,'' Sahara Media quoted the video as saying.
The video was dated Jan 17, a day after the attack began. Belmoktar recently created his own group in a schism with associated in Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, but his statement appears to show his link with the terror group's motherhouse and put the stamp of global jihad on the action by a special commando unit, ''Those Who Sign in Blood.''
The American government has warned that there are credible threats of more kidnapping attempts on Westerners in this North African nation which shares a long border with Mali where a French intervention is underway to end a threat by Islamist militants holding the country's vast north.
The kidnappers focused on the foreign workers, largely leaving alone the hundreds of Algerian workers who were briefly held hostage before being released or escaping.
''Now, of course, people will ask questions about the Algerian response to these events, but I would just say that the responsibility for these deaths lies squarely with the terrorists who launched a vicious and cowardly attack,'' British Prime Minister David Cameron said Sunday.
Three Britons were killed and another three believed dead, along with a foreign resident of Britain.
The siege at Ain Amenas transfixed the world after radical Islamists linked to Al Qaeda stormed the complex where hundreds of people from around the world work, on Wednesday, then held them hostage surrounded by the Algerian military and its attack helicopters for four tense days that were punctuated with gun battles and dramatic tales of escape.
Algeria's response to the crisis was typical of its history in confronting terrorists, favouring military action over negotiation, which caused an international outcry from countries worried about their citizens.
Algerian military forces twice assaulted the two areas where the hostages were being held with minimal apparent mediation – first on Thursday, then on Saturday.
''To avoid a bloody turn of events in response to the extreme danger of the situation, the army's special forces launched an intervention with efficiency and professionalism to neutralise the terrorist groups that were first trying to flee with the hostages and then blow up the gas facilities,'' Algeria's Interior Ministry said in a statement about the standoff.
An audio recording of Algerian security forces speaking with the head of the kidnappers, Abdel Rahman al-Nigiri, indicates that the hostage-takers were trying to organize a prisoner swap with authorities.
You see our demands are so easy, so easy if you want to negotiate with us,” Mr. al-Nigiri said in the recording broadcast by Algerian television. “We want the prisoners you have, the comrades who were arrested and imprisoned 15 years ago. We want 100 of them.”
In another phone call, Mr. al-Nigiri said that half the militants had been killed by the Algerian army on Thursday and that he was ready to blow up the remaining hostages if security forces attacked again.
An organisation that monitors videos from radicals posted one showing Mr. al-Nigiri with what appeared to be an explosive belt around his waist.
The Algerians’ use of force raised an international outcry from some countries worried about their citizens.
But French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Sunday on French television- “The terrorists...they’re the ones to blame.”
David Plouffe, a senior adviser to President Barack Obama, said that Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda-affiliated groups remain a threat in North Africa and other parts of the world, and that the US is determined to help other countries destroy those networks.
Speaking on “Fox News Sunday,” Mr. Plouffe said the tragedy in Algeria shows once again “that all across the globe countries are threatened by terrorists who will use civilians to try and advance their twisted and sick agenda.”