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Canadian Islamists helped on attack in Algeria

An attack on a remote natural gas complex in the Sahara desert was conducted by an international band of Islamist militants, apparently including two Canadians, who wore Algerian army uniforms and had help from the inside, Algeria’s prime minister said Monday, in his government’s first official accounting of the bloody four-day siege.

Three Americans died in the violence and seven U.S. citizens survived, the State Department said Monday.

The Algerian government captured three of the militants alive, Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal told reporters in Algiers, in remarks carried by the state-run news agency. The carefully planned attack, which he said was two months in the making, targeted foreign workers at the complex and included assistance by a militant from Niger who formerly worked at the site as a driver. The attackers appeared to know the layout of the sprawling facility by heart, Sellal said.

The prime minister said 38 hostages and 29 militants died during the takeover and subsequent recapture of the complex at Tiguentourine near Algeria’s eastern border with Libya. Only one of the dead hostages was Algerian; the rest were foreigners from at least seven countries, he said. Five other foreign workers remain unaccounted for, Sellal said.

The State Department confirmed last week that one American, Frederick Buttaccio, a Texas resident who worked for the British energy giant BP, had died at the complex.

Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Monday that two other Americans – Victor Lynn Lovelady and Gordon Lee Rowan – also died in the attack. The Associated Press, which first reported the deaths, said the FBI had recovered the two men’s bodies and notified their families. More details were not available.

“The blame for this tragedy rests with the terrorists who carried it out, and the United States condemns their actions in the strongest possible terms,” Nuland said. “We will continue to work closely with the government of Algeria to gain a fuller understanding of the terrorist attack of last week and how we can work together moving forward to combat such threats in the future.”

The Algerian prime minister’s account failed to resolve some of the confusion still surrounding the hostage crisis, and the final death toll – as well as when and how the hostages died – remained unclear.

Sellal said that the heavily armed militants first attempted to seize workers from a bus being driven away from the residential area of the complex but that guards repelled them. The attackers appeared to be trying to escape with hostages Thursday when Algerian military helicopters bombarded a number of vehicles with missiles to prevent them from speeding away, he said.

The militants denied that they were trying to flee with hostages and said they were transporting the captives to a safer area, a Mauritanian news agency that made contact with the group reported last week.

Other statements attributed to the militants suggested that they were interested in negotiating. But Sellal defended his country’s swift and harsh response to the situation. He said the group had been making increasingly unreasonable demands and was preparing to blow up the gas plant when government forces stormed the complex Saturday, bringing the hostage crisis to a decisive and violent end.

Sellal said the militants came from Algeria, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Egypt, Tunisia and Canada. He said they initially gathered in northern Mali, where Islamist rebels have captured a vast swath of territory, then entered Algeria from Libya.

The attack was coordinated by one of the Canadians, Sellal said. It was not clear whether the Canadians were among those who were killed or captured.

“Their goal was to kidnap foreigners,” he said.