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Algerian Hostage Drama Ends in Military Raid

Aired January 17, 2013 - 15:00:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the program. I'm Christiane Amanpour.

It's been the biggest, most brazen and deadliest attack by Islamic militants in recent memory. The seizure of foreign hostages, including Britons, Americans, Irish and Japanese. Algerian workers also are being held. The unfolding drama is chaotic. What we know is that the Algerian military launched an assault to try to free hostage at that natural gas facility in the Algerian desert.

There were many casualties, we're told, both hostages and hostage- takers. We don't know exactly how many, but British Prime Minister David Cameron seems to be preparing his nation for the worst.


DAVID CAMERON, PRIME MINISTER, GREAT BRITAIN: There were a number of British citizens taken hostage. We know one who, very sadly, died. And we know that this is a very difficult situation as Algerian forces have attacked the compound and it is a fluid situation. It is ongoing. It is very uncertain.

So I don't want to say any more than that now. But I think we should be prepared for the possibility of the bad news, very difficult news, in this extremely difficult situation.


AMANPOUR: During the Algerian military assault, some of the workers escaped. Again, the number's unclear. But we know that one of them was an Irish hostage, Stephen McFaul. He managed to get word to his family as he escaped, and his young son, of course, when he heard his father was safe, was relieved and tearful.


DYLAN MCFAUL, HOSTAGE'S SON: I feel over the moon, just really excited. I just can't wait for him to get home. (Inaudible).


AMANPOUR: A difficult human and family drama, but also a matter of incredible national security importance. And we go straight now to Ireland's deputy prime minister, also minister of foreign affairs. He's spoken to McFaul's wife, and he'll now give us the first official account of the entire dramatic story.


Deputy Prime Minister Eamon Gilmore, welcome to the program.

You spoke to Stephen --

EAMON GILMORE, DEPUTY PM, Ireland: Thank you very much.

AMANPOUR: -- Stephen McFaul's wife debriefed you -- Angela -- on what happened. How did Stephen manage to escape? What were the circumstances?

GILMORE: Well, I understand that what happened is that the kidnappers attempted to move their captives by convoy. I think there were probably about five vehicles involved. The Algerian authorities had put a pair attempted to stop that from happening.

And in the ensuing confusion, Stephen McFaul escaped and was brought to safety. And he's now with the Algerian military, where I understand he's debriefing to them. And we expect that he will be transported back to Ireland tomorrow.

It's unclear exactly what happened and his own sense of what happened is quite unclear, because, obviously, there was a lot of confusion.

As it happened, I spoke earlier today with the Algerian foreign minister that was obviously an attempt to express concern about the well- being of the Irish citizen who was (inaudible), Stephen McFaul, to inquire about what was happening to try and get the captives released and to emphasize to him our concern that everything should be done to protect their safety.


GILMORE: And during that conversation that transpired, that the military operation had started.

AMANPOUR: So I was going to ask you, you were on the phone with him as the military operation was unfolding.

I assume that none of the foreign governments -- yourself, Britain -- knew that this military operation was underway. Why did the Algerian government take those -- that action? And why didn't they inform governments of those nationals who were being held?

GILMORE: Well, what the foreign minister told me was that the kidnappers had asked for some kind of passage. But they wanted to take their captives with them. They wanted to take the hostages with them.

And the view of the Algerian authorities were they were not -- was that they were not prepared to agree to that. They did not -- the Algerian authorities -- did not inform the Irish government in advance and, to my knowledge, did not inform other governments in advance of the action, which they intended to take.

AMANPOUR: Do you support that action?

GILMORE: Well, we're not clear, yes, exactly what has transpired here and we're still assembling the information. I think it is fair to say that in a captive and in a hostage situation, it is certainly our view as a government that the priority has to be given to the protection of the hostages and to their well-being.


GILMORE: It is not possible at this stage to form a view as to what happened in this situation until we have more information about it.

AMANPOUR: Well, we're hearing both from yourself now and from Stephen McFaul's brother that, in his recounting of this, there were several vehicles in this convoy that you mentioned, and as the Algerian military took action, most of these vehicles -- maybe four of them -- were bombed, and that's where people were killed.

And Stephen McFaul's vehicle was not bombed, just managed not to have been attacked.

Is that what you understand?

GILMORE: That is broadly what I understand. Now, again, obviously, this was a very confused situation. The information that I have is that there were five vehicles involved, that four of those vehicles were hit. The vehicle in which Stephen McFaul was not hit -- and he managed to get away. But as I said, it is still very early -- very early stage.

And we're still assembling the information and we're trying to assemble that information in cooperation with the consular services of other countries whose citizens were involved in this. And until we have a complete picture as to exactly what happened, I think it's very difficult to pass comment on it.

The only thing that I would say is that when I telephone the Algerian foreign minister today, it was to emphasize to them my concern on behalf of the Irish government, that whatever action was taken, that the safety and the well-being and the safe release of the hostages was something that was to be given priority.

AMANPOUR: Mr. Gilmore, can you confirm that there is one other Irish national being held?

GILMORE: As I understand it, there -- we've had reports that there is a person from Northern Ireland who I understand has British citizenship, who may be involved, but I haven't had firm confirmation of that. I think some confusion arose because the original report was that there was an Irish citizen.

The assumption was made that this was somebody from the Republic of Ireland. But of course, people in Northern Ireland are entitled to Irish citizenship. So it was thought at one stage that this was one and the same person.

But I'm now -- I'm now led to believe that there may be a second person from Northern Ireland but that that person has British citizenship. And obviously the British authorities will have knowledge of that.

AMANPOUR: Let me take you back to the beginning, when this hostage- taking unfolded. What have you learned from Stephen McFaul's wife or from the Algerian foreign minister, the people who you've been talking to, about how these terrorists stormed the facility? What did they do to Stephen McFaul and others like him?

GILMORE: Well, what I was informed by Angela McFaul was that she got a telephone call in early yesterday morning, about 5:00 am, from Stephen, that he told her that the compound was under attack, that he was aware that there was gunfire.

I think at that point he wasn't clear that this was a hostage-taking exercise, simply aware that there was -- that there was a gun attack on the -- on the compound.

Subsequently he contact Angela again, because the hostages were left with their mobile phones and were able to send out text messages and he contacted her again, informing her that he had been taken hostage. And then at a later stage contacted her to say that he understood that the demands of the kidnappers were that the hostages were to be exchanged for Al Qaeda prisoners in Mali.

Now after that contact was disrupted we continued in the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs, our consular people, continued to work with the consular services of the other countries who had citizens involved.

Remember that this compound is out in the middle of a desert. It was difficult to get a lot of first-hand information. But there was a great deal of cooperation between all of the countries involved and the embassies and consular services involved. And we pieced together as best we could what was happening and worked in a cooperative way to try and secure their release.

I think the really sad thing while it -- this is very good news for Stephen McFaul, for his family and Angela was certainly very delighted when I was speaking with her earlier today, but I think our thoughts have to be right now with the families of people who have not yet been contacted, the families of people who have been killed in this awful tragedy.

And I think the immediate effort now has to be to assemble the information, to let families know as soon as possible the whereabouts or the fate of their loved ones. And then I think for us to take a look at what happened here, how it happened and how it was handled.

AMANPOUR: Mr. Gilmore, we understand that the hostages, like Stephen McFaul, were forced to wear Simteks in the early -- in the early stages. Can you confirm that for us?

GILMORE: Yes, I've been told that the -- at the stage where they were being transported, that explosives were strapped to them.

AMANPOUR: And you said just now -- we have to be mindful of all those who are still there, all those whose families have not yet been notified -- Prime Minister Cameron seems to be preparing Britain for the worst, that there would be bad news coming out once all, as you say, the pieces are put together.

Do you know how many people have been killed? Do you know how many people are still being held?

GILMORE: I don't and I think that that is information that's going to have to be put together over time. Remember that this was a very confused, very chaotic situation in a location which is quite remote. So it is going to take some time to put accurate information together.

And I think it's important and I'm hugely conscious that there are people watching this who, you know, who have family members there and who are extremely worried about them. And I think it's important that we wait until we get the full information. I wouldn't want anybody jumping to conclusions about the fate of somebody that they know who is out there.

I know that at an earlier stage today, I was certainly very worried about Stephen McFaul and I was greatly relieved and, indeed, his family were when we got the good news that he was free and that he was safe.

AMANPOUR: Mr. Gilmore, you've, on this program, sent a loud and clear message to the Algerian authorities that the hostages' safety is first and paramount for you and the other governments.

There's a report coming out from Reuters as we speak that this Algerian offensive or assault or rescue mission or whatever you want to call it has ended. Do you -- can you confirm that? And is that what you and other governments ask the Algerians, not to continue with this?

GILMORE: Well, I -- that is news to me now. I was certainly aware that at an earlier stage today that the military operation was continuing. I have not heard that it has -- it has ended. I sincerely hope that it has ended with people being saved, with hostages being brought to safety. But obviously that's something that we're going to have to wait and see over the next number of hours.

AMANPOUR: And Mr. McCall -- sorry -- Mr. Gilmore, as we do wait to see whether others are as fortunate as Mr. McFaul, can I ask you -- you told me a little bit about what the hostages had -- what the hostage-takers were demanding. There seems to be an -- people think that it's because and in retaliation to the French action in Mali.

Was that made clear? I know they asked for the Al Qaeda prisoners and captives in Mali to be released. But were the hostages told this was because of the French action in Mali?

GILMORE: No, we have no direct information that that was -- that that was the case. But again, I think, that is something that will probably be addressed in the course of time.

I think one of the things in relation to this hostage-taking was, in fact, the lack of clarity about what exactly the hostage-taking was about and what the demands of the hostage-takers were. We have the information, which they communicated to the hostages and which were -- which were then released.

We know when the Algerian foreign minister told me this today that they had at some stage made a demand that they be allowed transport, the hostages, out of this compound to somewhere, as beyond that. I don't know what political demands or what other demands they were -- they were making.

But clearly, there is speculation that it may be in some way linked to what is taking place in Mali.

AMANPOUR: And before I let you go, does the government of Ireland support the French action against Al Qaeda in Mali?

GILMORE: Yes, we do. The action that is being taken is in pursuit of United Nations resolutions. We cannot have a situation that Mali becomes a center for terrorist activity. What is happening in Mali and has been happening there for some time is very worrying.

And together with the other member states of the European Union, we have taken a very clear position on this and, indeed, the Foreign Affairs Council of the European Union met today to discuss it and agreed to establish a European Union training mission to support the Malian armed forces, to provide training for them and support for them in their efforts to turn back the advance of terrorists through that country.

AMANPOUR: Deputy Prime Minister Gilmore, thank you so much for coming on and giving us all this first-hand information. We really appreciate it. Thank you.


AMANPOUR: And we will be right back after a break.



AMANPOUR: Welcome back. And now a deeper look at the militants threatening Africa and Western interests there.

This man, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, whose group claims to have conducted the attack in Algeria, issued this warning just last month, saying, "We will respond forcefully to all attackers; we promise we will follow you to your homes and you will feel pain and we will attack your interests."

This, obviously, is important because of what's been going on in Mali and my guest tonight is Robert Fowler, who's the former Canadian diplomat captured and held for 130 days by the same group four years ago.

Mr. Fowler, perhaps nobody can know better than you what is going on and who these people are.

What do you think -- you just heard the deputy prime minister of Ireland telling me that the demands of Mokhtar's group, does this surprise you, what happened?

ROBERT FOWLER, HOSTAGE: No, not in the least, Christiane. What does surprise me is any suggestion either from these spinmeisters on the Al Qaeda side or, indeed, on the Algerian government side, that somehow this action against the LNG facility was a direct result of the situation in Mali. I find that not credible from any number of perspectives.

AMANPOUR: So what do you --

FOWLER: First of all, for the Algerians --


AMANPOUR: I was just going to say, so what do you think it was about?

FOWLER: Well, I think it was about what Al Qaeda does. I think they are on the lookout constantly for targets for this kind of operation, be they individuals like my colleague, Louie (ph) and I, or be they facilities where there are great groups of foreigners who might make valuable and lucrative hostages.

And I doubt strongly that this operation was mounted or could have been mounted in the very short time between the French action in Mali and the launching of this attack. I suspect that Belmokhtar has been scoping this one out for some time.

AMANPOUR: Well, you were kidnapped by the group and you met him. You and your colleague were kidnapped back in 2000. You met him many times. What is he like? What does he want?

FOWLER: Well, forgive me, Christiane, for returning to the previous subject for just a second, but remember that Belmokhtar and all his principal officers are Algerian. They have been fighting this war in Algeria against Algerians for 20 years. Therefore, the Algerians can hardly be surprised that he is conducting operations, as he has been for 20 years, in Algeria.

So what is -- what is Mokhtar Belmokhtar like? My information, of course, is four years out of date. But he is a slight man. He's got a very clear sense of command and presence, at least from my perspective. The group of 30 that held us for almost five months was his group. He had more people than that group but it was part of his group.

They -- whenever he would come by, they would sort of straighten their shoulders and try to behave as professionally as they could. His opinion of them was clearly very important to them. His manner of command was very confident, very quiet and, from my perspective, very effective.

AMANPOUR: So is there any negotiating with this group? I asked you what do they want. Apart from smuggling and money, are they negotiable, these people?

FOWLER: OK, let's begin with smuggling and money for a moment. There is a great debate among securocrats as to whether AQIM are bandits flying a flag of Islamic convenience or on the other hand latter-day Robin Hoods doing some banditry to nourish the cause. Hoods or Robin Hoods? From my perspective, it's the second.

I've never seen a more focused, more selfless group of young men in my life. They were dressed in rags. There was absolutely no suggestion of wealth or interest in wealth. They were young guys. They didn't want cool sunglasses or neat shoes. They didn't have MP3 players.

They tended their weapons carefully and would tell me again and again and again that their only objective was to do God's will, fight God's fight and get to Paradise as soon as possible.

AMANPOUR: So therefore, presumably, you support and approve of the French action to try to push them back in Mali.

FOWLER: (Inaudible). I am a huge supporter of -- and let me say, Christiane, an admirer of the way France stepped up very, very fast, when, I think, all of us were about to lose the entire country to Mali. I think the French acted within a window that was about 24 hours wide. And if they hadn't, Belmokhtar and his uncle-in-law, Omar Hamaha, would be speaking to you from Bamako today --

AMANPOUR: Which is the capital --

FOWLER: -- seven hostages -- yes.

And seven French hostages in their hands, there would be something closer to 6,000.

AMANPOUR: Well, let me ask you, as we look ahead now, obviously the French, to an extent, have blunted the -- what apparently the whole world was surprised by the AQIM surge south from their stronghold in Northern Mali, the French seem to have blunted that.

But let me put to you something I did when the last time you were on the program from Carter Ham, who was the top American military commander for Africa, quote, "We missed an opportunity to deal with AQIM when they were weak. Now the situation is much more difficult."

Your thoughts?

FOWLER: Well, I have put it slightly differently.

AMANPOUR: Well, we were having a very good conversation with Robert Fowler. This is the reality of live television. The satellite went down. But we've done our interview and we'll be right back after a break.


AMANPOUR: And finally tonight, we reported that Reuters was saying the Algerian operation had ended. Now apparently there is news from the Algerian news agencies that it has indeed ended and according to Algeria, 600 workers have been freed. Those are all the details we have right now as we end this program.

Stay tuned for our program tomorrow, where we bring you our exclusive interview with the president of Somalia and how Al Qaeda's franchise in East Africa, Al-Shabaab, has been beaten back. Thanks for watching. I'm Christiane Amanpour in New York.