(MENAFN - Arab Times) Algerian soldiers will start protecting sensitive hydrocarbon sites and electrical plants in this energy-rich country, officials told journalists touring a gas complex where a recent standoff between militants and the army left dozens of foreign hostages dead.
The military also is investigating if an insider helped the militants whose attack led to the four-day hostage crisis at the Ain Amenas complex, the officials said. That probe comes amid unconfirmed reports that BP energy executives were holding a meeting at the site when the attackers arrived, and that the militants sought them out.
The al-Qaeda-affiliated militants stormed the desert gas complex near the Libyan border on Jan. 16, taking hundreds of people - most of them Algerians - hostage. The resulting fight with the Algerian army ended with at least 37 hostages and 29 militants killed. At least 36 of the dead hostages were foreigners.
The Algerian army has largely neutralized al-Qaeda's branch in the populated north of the country. But the Ain Amenas attack was carried out by a group based far to the south in northern Mali, where Islamist extremists have flourished but are now under attack from French-led forces.
Army Chief of State El-Gadid Salah consulted regional military chiefs and the decision was made to deploy the army around oil and gas sites in the south as well as electrical plants in the north, officials told journalists on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.
Whether the militants had inside help remains unclear.
Algeria's prime minister has said that a former driver who worked at the gas complex was involved with the attackers. Separately, executives with the state oil company Sonatrach, which manages the site along with BP and Norway's Statoil, said that a meeting of BP executives was going on the day the plant was assaulted.
"We are convinced that there was complicity on the inside because when the terrorists arrived at the site, they asked for the VIPs," deputy plant director Salim Hadjersi told reporters visiting the site Thursday. "How could the terrorists know there was going to be an important meeting of BP executives, including some coming from London?"
BP spokesman Toby Odone would not discuss the possibility of an insider attack or confirm that high-level executives were meeting at Ain Amenas on Jan 16.
The Algerian gas facility attacked by Islamists on January 16 is set to reopen within a month, but foreign workers will not return for another three, a plant official said on Thursday.
"The plant will reopen in less than a month, but only for Algerians," Lotfi Benadouda, director of the Tigantourine site, told Algerian and foreign journalists during a brief visit to the facility.
"Foreign partners will not return for another three months" but would provide assistance in running the facility "from a distance," he said.
The site, jointly run by British BP, Norwegian Statoil and Algeria's Sonatrach near In Amenas in the southern Algerian Sahara desert, was attacked more than two weeks ago by Islamist gunmen who took hundreds of hostages.
A four-day siege and two rescue attempts by the Algerian army resulted in the deaths of 38 hostages, 37 foreigners and one Algerian. The military assault also left 29 of the Islamists dead and resulted in the capture of three of them. Among the reporters were journalists from Japan and Algeria.
Ten Japanese and five Norwegians were killed in the hostage crisis, as were six Britons. British Prime Minister David Cameron visited Algiers on Wednesday amd Thursday, accompanied by his national security adviser, in the first visit to Algeria by a British premier since independence from France in 1962.
Cameron and President Abdelaziz Bouteflika agreed a new strategic partnership bringing together senior security, military and intelligence advisers to help each other respond to emerging threats. Benadouda spoke on Thursday just a few yards from where some of the attackers killed their remaining hostages during the army's final assault on January 19.
Damage from the violence was clearly visible. Bullet holes, a room blackened by an explosion in one of the plant's buildings, and burnt-out Jeeps outside still littered the site. The site director was unable to hide his emotion, saying the deaths of his colleagues were "a huge loss for us."