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Joseph Balmaceda (right), who survived a hostage crisis at a gas plant in Algeria, joins members of his family after speaking to media in Manila, yesterday.
MANILA/tokyo: Six Filipinos were killed in gunfire or explosions during a siege by militants on a gas plant in Algeria, and four others are missing, the Philippine government said yesterday.
Japan’s prime minister yesterday said seven Japanese people were now known to have been killed in the Algerian hostage crisis, the first confirmation from Tokyo that any of its nationals had died.
“I was informed by Vice Foreign Minister (Minoru) Kiuchi that as a result of identifications of bodies at a hospital in In Amenas, seven were confirmed to be Japanese employees of JGC,” Shinzo Abe told his ministers.
The Japanese firm had earlier said it did not know the fate of 17 of its employees, 10 of whom were Japanese.
The prime minister said so far it had not been possible to confirm what had happened to the other Japanese nationals who remain unaccounted for.
“There are still three more Japanese people whose safety has not been confirmed.
“I want all of you to do everything possible to continue gathering information and confirm their fate,” he said.
“Japanese people who work at the world’s frontiers, the innocent people were victimised. It is extremely painful,” Abe said.
A witness at the desert gas plant said he was aware of nine Japanese deaths over the extended siege, which began on Wednesday and ended in a bloodbath on Saturday when the Algerian military moved in.
“The deaths of the six Filipinos were a direct result of the hostage-taking incident in the area and mostly by gunshot wounds and the effects of the explosions,” foreign affairs spokesman Raul Hernandez told reporters.
Hernandez said four others were “still unaccounted for”, while 12 more working at the In Amenas gas plant at the time of the attack were confirmed to be alive.
Hernandez had initially said 16 Filipinos were “confirmed alive”, but later revised the figure, saying four of those were on holidays back home in the Philippines.
The Philippine government had previously said it did not know if any of its nationals had been killed during the 72-hour siege at the gas plant, deep inside the Sahara desert.
Algeria’s Ennahar television reported that the bodies of 25 hostages were found on Sunday by security forces combing the plant, and that five hostage-takers had been captured alive.
But Algeria warned other nations to prepare for a higher body count.
Hernandez said he had few details as to how the Filipinos died, and did not know if the militants had executed them or whether the victims died when security forces raided the facility.
“I cannot say if they were executed because there were no details of what the circumstances are,” he said.
While Algeria has come under criticism for an initial raid on the facility that some foreign governments described as too hasty, Hernandez said the Philippines had not yet taken a stance on the response by security forces.
“We have not had the chance to review that yet,” Hernandez said when asked about the raids by Algerian troops.
However, he emphasised that the Algerian government had informed Philippine authorities that the military action was undertaken to prevent further loss of lives, after the militants had started executing hostages.
Militants used foreign hostages as human shields to stop Algerian troops aboard helicopters from strafing them with gunfire, a Filipino survivor of the four-day bloodbath recounted yesterday.
Father-of-four Joseph Balmaceda said he saw one Japanese hostage draped with explosives, while he and others had their hands bound with cable ties, during the ordeal at the In Amenas gas plant.
“Whenever government troops tried to use a helicopter to shoot at the enemy, we were used as human shields,” a clearly stressed Balmaceda told reporters shortly after arriving back in Manila.
“We were told to raise our hands. The government forces could not shoot at them as long as we were held hostage.”
Balmaceda, nursing abrasions to his face and a loss of hearing, said he was the only survivor out of nine hostages who were aboard a van that exploded, apparently from C-4 explosives that the militants had rigged to the vehicle.
He said two militants were transferring the nine hostages to the central facility of the gas plant, but the bomb went off during a clash with Algerian security forces.
“The only thing left of the car was the back portion of the Land Cruiser,” said Balmaceda, 42.
“I was sandwiched between two spare tyres. That is why I am still here and can talk to you.” Balmaceda said the two militants driving the vehicle were also killed.
“But (other) hostage-takers were firing at me. It meant there were other terrorists,” he said.
“So I crawled about 300 metres to where the government forces were. And when I reached them I fainted. When I woke up I was in the hospital.”
The Al Qaeda-linked “Signatories in Blood” group said it attacked the gas plant in retaliation for a French military operation to evict Islamists from neighbouring Mali.
Balmaceda said the incident in which the vehicle exploded occurred on the second day of the siege, apparently during the first rescue operation.