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Algerian Forces Wanted To Send Firm Message To Militants With Gas Plant Raid

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

I'm Robert Siegel. And we begin this hour with a brazen rescue attempt in Algeria. Government forces launched an assault today on an oil and gas facility in the remote Algerian desert. There, Islamist militants had been holding hundreds of hostages, including 41 Westerners, since yesterday. The Algerian military went in swiftly and decisively, stunning Western governments, who might have handled such a hostage drama more delicately.

The result has largely been confusion, with conflicting reports about hostages escaping and being killed as the assault progressed. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley followed the day's events in Paris and she sent this report.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: It's only this evening that the media is beginning to piece together what happened today. The assault apparently began around 1:30 p.m. Algerian time when Algerian army attack helicopters and soldiers on the ground bombed and opened fire on the site.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking foreign language)

BEARDSLEY: The news all day was coming from the Algerian media and Islamist websites, but was difficult to confirm with other sources because of the remote location of the facility. Most French stations were getting information and reports from phone calls with local journalists hundreds of miles away from the site in the capital of Algiers. Sahid ben Ali(ph) was reporting on the incident for RTE Irish radio.

SAHID BEN ALI: It's not clear at all. It's very confusing because the camp is a huge camp. This camp is the middle of nowhere in the middle of the Algerian desert. It was in extreme desert, 1600 kilometers southeast near the Libyan border.

BEARDSLEY: Around 6:00 p.m., French President Francois Hollande spoke to the nation to confirm that the assault was taking place. France only learned today that it had hostages at the facility.

PRESIDENT FRANCOIS HOLLANDE: (Speaking foreign language)

BEARDSLEY: At this moment, as I speak to you, the end of this hostage is coming to a head in an incredibly dramatic fashion, said Hollande. What's happening in Algeria justifies even more the decision France made to come to the aid of Mali against these extremists. Hollande dispatched his foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, to Brussels today to try to enlist European firepower. Germany, Britain, Denmark and Spain have committed equipment to the mission and European leaders agreed to send trainers for the Malian army, yet no combat role is envisioned for the EU troops.

France is out alone on the front lines, at least so far.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking foreign language)

BEARDSLEY: French TV showed footage of French soldiers being welcomed with open arms by the Malian people, but French officials say the opposition they've encountered has been fiercer and more heavily armed than they had expected. As the Algerian situation raged on throughout the day, Britain expressed consternation that it was not given prior notice of the assault. Prime Minister David Cameron said he was extremely concerned about the very grave and serious situation.

Interviewed on French television today, Algeria expert Jean Pierre Filiu said Algeria has its own way of handling terrorists.

JEAN PIERRE FILIU: (Through translator) The Algerian authorities wanted to get a firm message across during the decade of the '90s when they were confronted with the terrorist jihadists. They never negotiated a single thing. They want to remain completely inflexible so as not to encourage these types of situations in the future. So we can truly fear the worst.

BEARDSLEY: Towards the end of the day, some of the hostages, both Algerian and foreign, began to make it out. The Irish government said one its citizens, Steven McFall(ph), had contacted his wife and Irish diplomats to say that he was safe. McFall's brother, Connor, expressed his relief.

CONNOR MCFALL: In the past 48 hours, it's been the toughest in my life. I'm so sorry for all the families involved. There is (unintelligible).

BEARDSLEY: At around 9:00 p.m. this evening, the Algerian government announced that the assault had come to an end. They said they killed dozens of Islamists, including key leaders. The number of dead and freed hostages remains to be established. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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