Jihadist claims Algeria siege for al-Qaeda

Hostage death toll could rise to 25, say officials in Algiers

Jihadist claims Algeria siege for al-Qaeda

A veteran Islamist fighter claimed responsibility on behalf of al Qaeda for the Algerian hostage crisis, a regional website reported on Sunday, tying the bloody desert siege to France's intervention across the Sahara in Mali.

Algeria said it expected to raise its preliminary death tolls of 25 hostages and 32 militants killed in the four-day siege at a gas plant deep in the Sahara.

Western governments whose citizens died nevertheless held back from criticizing tactics used by their ally in the struggle with Islamists across the vast desert. “We in al-Qaeda announce this blessed operation,” Mokhtar Belmokhtar said in a video, according to the Sahara Media website, which quoted from the recording but did not immediately show it.

“We are ready to negotiate with the West and the Algerian government provided they stop their bombing of Mali’s Muslims,” said Belmokhtar, a one-eyed veteran guerrilla who fought in Afghanistan in 1980s and in Algeria's civil war in the 1990s.

Belmokhtar’s fighters launched their attack on the In Amenas gas plant before dawn on Wednesday, just five days after French warplanes began strikes in neighbouring Mali.

European and US officials say the raid was almost certainly too elaborate to have been planned in so short a time, although the French campaign could have been one trigger for fighters to launch an assault they had already prepared.

Some Western governments have expressed frustration at not being informed in advance of the Algerian authorities’ plans to storm the complex. However, Britain and France both defended the Algerian action in public.

“It’s easy to say that this or that should have been done. The Algerian authorities took a decision and the toll is very high but I am a bit bothered ... They had to deal with terrorists,”French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said: “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 this vicious and cowardly attack.”

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