52 Filipinos accounted for in gas plant attack

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MANILA, Philippines—The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said on Sunday that 52 Filipinos caught up in the Algerian hostage crisis had been accounted for, but it was still not known whether any Philippine nationals were among the dead.

The Algerian interior ministry said 23 foreigners and Algerians were killed after al-Qaida-linked gunmen began their attack on the In Amenas gas plant deep in the Sahara desert on Wednesday.

DFA spokesperson Raul Hernandez said the department had not confirmed how many Filipinos were working in the plant but that 52 had been accounted for. At least 39 Filipinos arrived in Manila from Algeria on Sunday afternoon. The workers had been evacuated via London and Dubai and flew to Manila at 3:46 p.m.

Filipino diplomats in Algeria were continuing to coordinate with authorities and employers to determine the “whereabouts and conditions of other Filipinos working in the gas plant,” Hernandez said, although it was unclear how many there might be.

It was also not clear whether there were any Filipinos among the dead, he said. Initial news reports said that two Filipinos were killed.

The Algerian interior ministry said 32 kidnappers were also killed during the siege, and special forces were able to free 685 Algerian workers and 107 foreigners.

Bomb necklace

Saturday, the wife of Filipino hostage Ruben Andrada said he told her the militants hung a bomb on his neck “like a necklace,” but he and others were saved when the device aboard their hijacked vehicle failed to explode.

Another Filipino survivor, Jojo Balmaceda, employed by oil giant British Petroleum, told local television in the Philippines how he escaped after an explosion.

He said he and three other Filipino workers were taken at gunpoint as they arrived for work, tied up and thrown into a truck along with Japanese and Malaysian hostages, the GMA network reported.

Balmaceda escaped when the truck was hit by an explosion but suffered a bullet wound in the head that affected his hearing, the report said.

In a dispatch from In Amenas, Agence France-Presse said governments were attempting to track down on Sunday missing nationals after the bloody end to the gas plant siege in the heart of the Algerian Sahara.

Japanese engineering firm JGC Corp. said, 10 of its Japanese and seven of its foreign workers remained unaccounted for. Five Britons and one UK resident are also either dead or still missing.

JGC confirmed the safety of 61 of its 78 workers at the In Amenas facility in the desert that was stormed at dawn on Wednesday by militants from “Signatories in Blood,” a group demanding an end to French military intervention in Mali.

“But the safety of the remaining 10 Japanese and seven foreign workers is yet to be confirmed,” a JGC spokesperson said in Tokyo.

Kuala Lumpur said JGC had told it one of two Malaysians still unaccounted for is dead while the fate of the other was unknown.

Preemptive evacuation

The 39 Filipinos who arrived on Sunday on Emirates Airlines Flight EK332  were repatriated by their Algerian-based company, Petrofac, a client of British Petroleum, as a “preemptive” measure.

Most of the arrivals refused to talk to reporters.

Alejandro Aguja, an electrical engineer supervisor working for Petrofac for the past five years, said that although their location, about 400 kilometers away from where the hostage crisis took place, was secure, he and his coworkers were repatriated for their security. He acknowledged the situation in the country was “precarious.”

“The militants and the military are equally situated in the countryside, so you really can’t tell where and when you will be safe,” Aguja said. “We were not in danger, but we still were vulnerable,” he added.

Aguja said  he was relieved to be home but nevertheless he was willing to go back there. Reports from  AFP, Noli Ermitanio, Christine O. Avendaño and TJ Burgonio

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