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In Amenas inquest hears of increasing threats to British expats in north Africa

In Amenas inquest hears of increasing threats to British expats in north Africa

Terrorists increasingly threatened and attacked oil assets and government facilities in the politically volatile countries of north Africa in the years before a terrorist siege at an Algerian gas plant in which British hostages were killed, an inquest has heard.

Six Britons and a UK-based Colombian were among 40 hostages killed by al-Qaida-linked Islamist terrorists during a four-day stand-off in January 2013 at the In Amenas complex.

Carson Bilsland and Kenneth Whiteside, both from Scotland; Sebastian John, from the East Midlands; Stephen Green, from Hampshire; Paul Morgan and Garry Barlow, both from Liverpool, and Carlos Estrada, originally from Colombia but who lived in London, were killed during the attack.

At an inquest into their deaths at the Royal Courts of Justice in London, Andrew Ritchie QC, representing Estrada's family, said there was evidence that terrorist groups, many with links to al-Qaida, were highly active in the wider area in the years leading up to the siege.

He cited evidence, including news reports, of terrorists kidnapping expat workers, attacking numerous government facilities and oil assets, setting up terror training camps and being caught with military weapons.

On one occasion, just three months prior to the siege, Ritchie said a report highlighted an incident in which 12 terrorists were arrested after they were caught specifically targeting and photographing energy installations in Hassi Messaoud, to the north of In Amenas.

But Mark Cobb, deputy manager of the In Amenas site – which is jointly run by BP, Norwegian state oil company Statoil and the Algerian government-owned Sonatrach – said BP had not been aware of this report.

Ritchie said there had been 43 expat workers kidnapped by terrorist groups in Algeria in the previous four years, and that there were around two attacks a year on oil facilities or their assets in the wider area.

Under cross-examination by Ritchie, Cobb said he received weekly reports of the security risks in the area. Cobb said he was aware of a BP oil rig being ransacked in neighbouring Libya in February 2011, just 145 miles from his plant. But he had not deemed it particularly relevant to security at the In Amenas site, despite armed men in vehicles demanding to know where the expat workers were.

When questioned about a kidnapping by terrorists in January 2012, Cobb said: "It reinforced what we were doing in terms of any expat movement outside of the safe zone being done with a military convoy."

Ritchie highlighted an arms cache found just 60km south of In Amenas that included shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles, which could have been from groups possibly linked to al-Qaida or the former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

Asked if this was a cause of concern, Cobb said: "This got my attention, yes it did." But, he said, his security teams were told by the British embassy that they did not view it as credible and that it was a "false report". He added: "It was another indicator of the instability in Libya and that we had to maintain security in a very robust manner."

Ritchie also highlighted a report of Algerian forces killing 20 al-Qaida terrorists who had attacked a convoy of fuel tankers in April 2012, and the following month 7,000 soldiers being sent to the south of the country to secure hydrocarbon facilities.

Asked whether he felt this offered better protection so that the In Amenas site did not have to make alterations to its own security, Cobb said: "We talked about each incident and about taking action."

Talking about reactions by the site's management to security threats, he added: "In every one of the cases it was felt we were doing all the right things to protect the facility."

The Guardian
The Guardian
Published on:
September 18, 2014
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