UK

In Amenas siege: Survivor 'waited for killers to come'

Iain Strachan
Image caption Speaking directly after he was rescued, Mr Strachan told Algerian reporters he had "never been so relieved"

On 16 January last year, Islamist militants linked to al-Qaeda attacked an Algerian gas plant, targeting foreign workers. Six Britons were among 40 workers killed, and as the inquest begins one survivor tells his story for the first time.

"As I came down the steps from my room at about 05:40 all hell was let loose," says Iain Strachan, an electrical and instrument inspector, who was up early for work at the In Amenas plant.

"I could hear automatic gunfire... I saw a lot of the local guys running about.

"I ran to my mate's room in the next block and shouted at him to open the door.

"The gunfire was horrendous. It was terrifying."

It was dark, but the sky was lit up with flares, possibly fired from the security post between the gas plant and the accommodation where he was staying.

The militants, led by Algerian extremist Mokhtar Belmokhtar, had attacked two buses carrying workers and were seizing control of the site.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The attack in January 2013 left 40 gas plant workers and at least 29 militants dead

In his friend's room, Mr Strachan, now 40, from Howwood in Renfrewshire, could hear an Algerian shout from next door: "Terrorist, terrorist - you have to hide."

Saved by key?

"The alarm went off and the power was cut and we sat in the dark," he says.

"The gunfire got louder and louder and we just sat there for two hours.

"We heard footsteps coming towards the door. It was locked."

At one point someone tried a key, but by chance it was blocked by the one that had been left in the lock on the inside.

Whoever was trying to get in then left - they never found out if they were militants or not.

"We heard stories a couple of days later that people had been killed in their rooms," he remembers.

"I hate to think what would've happened if we didn't have a key in the door."

"We were just sitting, waiting for it [to be killed] to happen."


Timeline

Image copyright AFP

16 January 2013 Militants attack two buses carrying In Amenas workers, killing two. They then go on to the living quarters and main installation, seizing hostages. Some workers manage to escape

17 January Algerian forces attack after the militants try to move their hostages in five 4x4s. Four of the vehicles are destroyed in an air strike and an unknown number of hostages are killed

18 January Stalemate as Algerian forces surround the gas plant where the remaining hostages are held

19 January Algerian forces launch a final assault after reports that the hostage-takers are killing their captives


Western workers were "hiding everywhere" - both in the accommodation and at the plant two miles away - and many were exchanging text messages.

"I heard that Paul Morgan [one of the British workers] had been killed and some of the boys had been killed on the bus," he says.

"We heard some of the terrorists were speaking English and trying to coax the boys out, saying 'come out, come out'."

Secret knock

During this time they were "scared to move", living in fear that any sound could attract the attackers. But at about noon on the first day of the siege he got up and looked through a small gap in the window covering.

He saw Algerian workers leaving the plant with their bags. State media later said about 700 Algerian workers had got out.

Meanwhile, there were about 130 foreign workers, including 28 Britons, at the plant - and these were the people the militants wanted.

Four or five Algerian safety wardens "took it upon themselves" to stay, unknown to the extremists.

"They brought us a bottle of water and a packet of biscuits," he says.

"We arranged a secret knock."

Mr Strachan, who started working at the plant in April 2012, took the decision not call his wife - he did not want her to know what was happening - but she phoned him anyway.

He tried "to be strong" and asked her not to tell their two young children.

The conversation was "quite upsetting", and it was when he tried to text his wife afterwards the phones "went dead".

Gunfire continued throughout the first night, Mr Strachan recalls, during which he and the other man in the room stayed fully clothed, covered by two blankets as temperatures dropped below freezing.

By noon on day two, 17 January, Algerian helicopters were launching attacks on the militants (four vehicles carrying an unknown number of hostages were destroyed by an Algerian airstrike).

'Low moment'

"We just sat it out," Mr Strachan says.

"I know some of the boys [elsewhere on the site] made a run for it but we never considered that because we never knew where the terrorists were."

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the Algerian leader of the terrorists who attacked the In Amenas plant

At 16:00 on the second day the Algerian wardens who had stayed told Mr Strachan they were leaving - and said "because of your skin colour, we can't take you".

"We felt completely abandoned," he says.

Image copyright Iain Strachan
Image caption Mr Strachan left Algeria on a US Air Force plane with other freed workers

"They said 'if we get out we will tell the troops where you are'. That was a low moment."

They spent time placing provisions on a table - so they could find things during the night without having to move about.

But then, at about 18:30 "we heard footsteps coming closer and closer and someone knocked so hard they nearly took the door off its hinges".

"We knew it wasn't the secret knock.

"We heard a voice in broken English saying 'open up'."

'Eerie' atmosphere

They were persistent, so he decided he had no choice but to open the door - and found a dozen Algerian soldiers "pointing guns at us".

"To my complete astonishment it was one of the little Algerians [who had promised to come back] with the troops," he says.

By this time it was dark and the atmosphere in the battle-damaged compound was "eerie" as he and other rescued workers edged to safety, surrounded by a ring of Algerian soldiers.

The soldiers feared militants were still there, and creeping through the darkness was a "horrible experience". Mr Strachan has often lost sleep thinking of the body bags he saw before he and several others were taken away from the site.

It was two more days before Algerian forces took full control.

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