Algerian authorities are grilling two Algerian kitchen workers who had been serving food to employees of the Japanese company JGC Corp. at a natural gas complex in the Sahara, suspecting the pair provided inside information to the Islamic militants who took scores of foreign workers hostage at the plant, sources said.
Word of the questioning by security authorities surfaced as Tokyo confirmed the deaths of seven of 10 missing JGC workers late Monday. The fate of the remaining three remains unknown.
Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal also announced Monday in Algiers that 37 foreigners of eight nationalities were killed during the hostage crisis.
Algerian authorities believe the militant group, who wore army uniforms and knew the plant layout well, had collaborators among the plant workers.
According to the sources, the two Algerians were working at a kitchen of the facility serving JGC workers. JGC denied any link between the two and its own employees, saying the pair were employed by a local caterer.
JGC spokesman Takeshi Endo told reporters Monday at the company’s head office in Yokohama that he does not believe there were conspirators in JGC.
The authorities are also investigating four workers of British oil major BP PLC and five workers of Algerian state-run oil and natural gas company Sonatrach, the sources said.
JGC workers were among the hostages at the facility in Ain Amenas, which was attacked by the armed group last Wednesday. The Algerian military launched an operation to rescue the hostages later last week.
The hostage-taking was carried out by 30 militants from across northern Africa and two from Canada, authorities said. The militants, who wore military uniforms and knew the layout, included explosives experts who rigged the complex with bombs and a leader whose final order was to kill all the captives.
One of the survivors of the hostage crisis reportedly said the hostage-takers knew the room numbers of foreign workers at the facility’s housing area.
According to a local newspaper report, the mobile phone records of some workers show they made calls to Libya and Mali.
Sellal told his news conference the Islamists “knew the facility’s layout by heart.”
Those insiders include a former driver at the plant from Niger, he added.
The militants had said during the standoff that their band included people from Canada, and hostages who escaped recalled hearing at least one of the militants speaking English with a North American accent.
The Algerian prime minister said the Canadians were of Arab descent. He further said the militant cell also included men from Egypt, Mali, Niger, Mauritania and Tunisia, as well as three Algerians.
In an emergency meeting late Monday in Tokyo, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced that the government had confirmed the deaths of seven JGC workers.
According to government officials, Parliamentary Vice Foreign Minister Minoru Kiuchi saw and identified the bodies of the seven at a local hospital. The remaining three JGC workers were still missing as of late Tuesday afternoon.
Facing reporters late Monday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga offered condolences for the “people who worked far away from their homes” fulfilling their duties on the gas project in the Sahara Desert.
Suga also said the government, after consulting with JGC, decided not to disclose the names of the seven victims, in consideration of the feelings of the next of kin.
Immediately after the announcement, Abe also posted a message on his official Facebook page in which he mentions experiencing “heartbreaking grief” over the news of innocent Japanese citizens losing their lives in the hostage crisis.
“Japanese citizens working on the front line in a foreign country became victims. . . . I have no words to say when I think of the bereaved families,” Abe said. “Despicable acts of terrorism that involve innocent citizens can never be tolerated, and we firmly denounce them. Our country is determined to keep fighting terrorism in cooperation with the international community.”
Meanwhile, JGC confirmed late Monday that the bodies of three non-Japanese JGC workers had been found. Four other foreign workers for JGC remain missing.
“We lost many of our excellent staffers. It’s just agonizing,” JGC spokesman Takeshi Endo said Tuesday morning.
A government airplane carrying Parliamentary Senior Vice Minister Shunichi Suzuki departed Haneda airport Tuesday night to bring home seven Japanese workers who survived the hostage crisis and the bodies of the seven victims.
The local delegation led by Kiuchi will continue its search for the missing three Japanese around the Ain Amenas gas complex, Suga said.
According to Suga, Tokyo confirmed the identities of the seven dead by checking photos of the bodies and belongings at the hospital.
The hostage crisis has exposed weaknesses in Japan’s intelligence-gathering capability in Africa and the risks for Japanese companies trying to advance into the region.
Over the past 40 years, JGC has undertaken engineering projects in more than 70 countries and has boasted a strong presence in Algeria. The hostage crisis has proved even a company with rich experience like JGC is not immune to unstable political conditions in developing countries.
On Tuesday, Suga told reporters that through the hostage crisis, he has keenly felt that the government should push for creating the likes of the U.S. National Security Council, an idea that has been long advocated by Abe to bolster Japan’s crisis management.
Meanwhile, many ruling party lawmakers have started calling for a revision of the Self-Defense Forces Law to ease conditions for dispatching SDF ships or aircraft to transport Japanese nationals involved in overseas crises.
Suga said the government and ruling parties will first conduct a study of Japan’s responses to the Algerian hostage crisis before deciding whether the law needs revising.
“We’d like to keep actively helping (Japanese) companies to advance overseas. We need to strengthen our efforts to ensure safety for those companies, in particular those going to dangerous areas,” Suga said.