Japan toll hits 9 … wants answers One assailant former driver

ALGIERS, Jan 23, (Agencies): A senior Japanese official met Algeria’s prime minister on Wednesday to press for an explanation of the gas plant siege, as Tokyo confirmed the deaths of two more nationals, taking its toll to nine.

Senior Vice Foreign Minister Shunichi Suzuki arrived aboard a government jet that is to repatriate the bodies of those known to have been killed in the hostage crisis, along with the seven Japanese who survived.

Tokyo announced late Wednesday that it knew for sure that nine Japanese were killed after Islamist gunmen overran the desert facility. One Japanese citizen remains unaccounted for.
“Unfortunately, we have been able to confirm two more deaths,” said Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga. “The Japanese government expresses sincere condolences to the families and people concerned.”

“The use of violence cannot be tolerated for any reason. We firmly condemn acts of terror,” he said adding the government would do its utmost to confirm the fate of the final missing person.

Seventeen Japanese were at the facility in In Amenas when jihadists struck on January 16 at the start of a four-day siege that left dozens of foreigners dead. Seven of them made it to safety.

Suzuki carried a letter to Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika from Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Suga told reporters in Tokyo earlier.

As well as Prime Minister Abdelmalek Saleki, Suzuki also met Foreign Minister Mourad Medelci, Japan’s Kyodo News reported, citing Tokyo’s foreign ministry.

Japan has asked Algeria to fully investigate events at the gas plant and exactly how individuals died,
Suga said in Tokyo.

“Algeria has promised to cooperate as much as possible,” he said.

Algeria has said 37 foreigners of eight different nationalities and an Algerian were killed in the siege, which ended on Saturday.

Several people are still missing and the bodies of others are so badly charred that they have not been identified.

Wednesday’s visit came as it emerged that Britain, Japan, the United States and other countries whose nationals were caught up in the events at the desert plant issued a joint demarche to Algeria last Friday.
A demarche is a formal diplomatic move in which a country’s stance is conveyed in person — rather than by note — to another government.

In a conference telephone call, vice foreign minister Minoru Kiuchi told foreign minister Medelci that Tokyo wanted Algiers to do all it could to protect captives.

“Japan is strongly concerned about acts that put the lives of the hostages at risk, and it is regrettable that the Algerian government pressed military rescue operations,” he said, according to the foreign ministry.
Japan was among the more forthright of nations as the hostage crisis unfolded, summoning Algiers’s ambassador to demand answers and to push for military restraint as armed forces surrounded the plant.

The Japanese plane’s arrival in Algiers came as Tokyo announced it was shutting its embassy in neighbouring Mali, evacuating staff and urging its nationals there to leave because of the deteriorating security situation.

According to Kyodo news, Suga said the plane’s return home will probably be delayed beyond Thursday as it will now transport the two additional bodies and because it was struck by lightning on arrival.
On Wednesday, Kyodo published the first pictures to emerge from the incident, showing gun-toting kidnappers in camouflage, with their faces covered, guarding hostages at the desert site.

The kidnappers claimed they launched their attack in protest at Algeria’s complicity in a French military campaign against Islamists in Mali.

The Japanese death toll in Algeria — the highest in a terror attack since al-Qaeda crashed airliners into New York’s Twin Towers when 24 Japanese died — has shaken a country not accustomed to its citizens being made targets abroad.

There has been blanket media coverage of events half a world away and anguished demands for more to be done to protect Japanese working in troublespots, including beefing up spy networks.
Kyodo on Wednesday said Suga indicated Tokyo’s willingness to consider increasing the number of defence attaches at Japanese embassies to strengthen the country’s ability to gather information.
“I am aware of the need. We need to think about the most effective (crisis-response) measures,” Suga said.

Meanwhile, an Islamist militant killed by special forces during the siege of Algeria’s In Amenas gas complex used to be a driver at the desert facility, a security source told AFP on Wednesday.

“One of the killed assailants had worked as a driver for one of the companies operating within the complex,” the source said, adding that “he had resigned a year ago.”

The source was unable to specify who the slain militant had worked for, but indicated that his corpse was recognised by employees at the remote facility deep in the Sahara where a four-day siege last week ended in a bloodbath.

Special forces launched two assaults aimed at freeing both foreigners and Algerians taken hostage inside the complex — one on Thursday a day after the deadly drama unfolded and then in a final raid on Saturday.

On Monday, Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal said that 37 foreign hostages and 29 militants were killed. Another three gunmen were found alive.

Five foreigners are still missing and seven burned bodies remain unidentified.

Sellal said that most of the dead hostages were killed execution-style with a single bullet to the head.
A security source said two more of the attackers, known as “the Canadians,” were Arabs with joint nationality.

Official sources in Algeria have said the militant squad included three Algerians and men from six other nationalities. In addition to “the Canadians,” there were men from Egypt, Mali, Niger, Mauritania and 11 from Tunisia.

The group’s head Mohamed Amine Bencheneb, who was killed by the military, was behind the October 2011 kidnapping of two Spaniards in southwest Algeria, the security source said. They were both released in July last year.

Elsewhere, Canada wants to see Algeria’s evidence for saying that last week’s attack and hostage-taking at a desert gas plant was coordinated by a Canadian militant, a government official said on Tuesday.

Canadian foreign ministry officials summoned Algeria’s ambassador late on Monday to make the request directly.

Around 80 people died when Algerian troops attacked the plant and ended the hostage-taking on Sunday. Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal said on Monday that a Canadian gunman, identified only as “Chedad”, had coordinated the four-day siege.

“Here in Ottawa and in Algiers, Canadian diplomats are requesting access to the information the Algerians are using to identify any hostage taker as ‘Canadian’,” the government official said in an email sent to Reuters.

“Canada summoned the Algerian ambassador to Canada to make that point directly,” he added.
One U.S. counter-terrorism expert told Reuters on Monday he had heard the hostage-takers included at least two Canadian nationals, one of whom may have spoke English with a North American accent.
Ottawa says it has not yet received any information from Algiers about supposed involvement by Canadian citizens in the hostage-taking.

No one was immediately available for comment at the Algerian embassy.

Canada’s spy agency and various police forces have expressed concern for years about militant citizens leaving the country to train with radical groups.

Two European security sources said on Tuesday they were skeptical of Algeria’s claim that a Canadian militant had been in command of the hostage-takers.

In the past, small numbers of Canadians or Canadian immigrants from North African and South Asian backgrounds have been linked to operations or factions connected to al Qaeda or its affiliates.

Canadians suspected of ties to North African Islamic militants historically have come from French-speaking Quebec, rather than from English-speaking Canadian provinces.

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