Photo: ABC News
The Amenas gas plant in Algeria was guarded by around 100 armed gendarmes but they failed to fend off an attack by less than half the number of terrorists, it can be disclosed.A base for the gendarmes was built between the residential compound and the drilling area which are several miles apart in the desert, sources told the Daily Telegraph.
But they failed to react in time when a convoy of around 14 vehicles arrived at the base at 5.40am on January 16 with heavy machine guns mounted on the back and carrying at least 32 terrorists.
Gendarmes accompanying a bus heading for the airport managed to beat off the first attack and Huw Edwards, a British gas worker on the bus, said he owed his life to them.
However the al-Qaeda-backed militants were able to get into the residential compound and take dozens of Westerners hostage.
The army arrived to provide back up from a base around 30km (18.5m) away but their two attempts to launch a rescue ended in a bloodbath and the death of at least 37 foreign workers.
Questions are now likely to be asked about how the terrorist convoy was able to cross the border from Libya 30km away without being detected and why the security failed to respond.
The gendarmes were said to have done a “very good job in a passive environment” but a security source admitted they appear to have “come up short” when tested.
“BP is going to have to ensure there is adequate safety and security if they reopen the plant because no one is going to want to go back there otherwise,” one worker said.
The gas drilling operation in the remote region of southern Algeria, close to the border with Libya, was identified as a dangerous spot when work began in 2006, sources said.
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which operates in the Saharan area known as the Sahel, has earned at least £13m in ransoms for kidnapping Westerners and executed captives where no money was paid.
Initially the site at In Amenas was secured by British ex-military guards but around 2007 the Algerian government asked them to hand in their weapons so that they could take over the security operation.
The drilling takes placed in a militarized zone with check points on major roads and an army base around 30km (18.5miles) away
BP largely ran the security operation on behalf of the joint venture with Statoil of Norway and Sonatrach of Algeria.
BP prefers to use local law enforcement to guard their bases in order to avoid the appearance of hiring a private army but they used a private security firm called Stirling Group to liaise with the Algerians.
However the private guards – made up largely of former British military and French Foreign Legion soldiers – were not allowed to carry weapons, or train the local gendarmes and were responsible only for liaising with the local officials.
Paul Morgan, a former French legionnaire from Liverpool who worked for Stirling, died on the bus in the early stages of the attack.
A source at BP said: “The host government was responsible for security and there were several layers, including a military presence in the vicinity.
“What happened was unprecedented and the question of why it happened is crucial but we are not at the stage of looking at the yet.”
Stirling is run by Mike Lord, a former sergeant in the Royal Military Police, who has been working in Algeria for 20 years.
His company has a turn-over of £10m in the country and contracts with the US company Hess, the Australian company Oil Search Ltd and the British company Petrofac as well as BP.
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