While the Algerian government claimed the kidnappers were trying to escape with their hostages, the militants were trying to take the captives from the complex’s living quarters to the more defensible gas works on the other side when the helicopters attacked.
Being the chosen media outlet for high-profile hostage-takers has not been easy on ANI. At one point, its director was summoned by Mauritanian authorities to defend charges that it was a propaganda outlet for terrorists.
The site was also hacked twice with bogus articles posted blaming the Algerian military for planning the attack and was also savaged in the Algerian press.
Of course, there were important elements of the hostages’ accounts that didn’t make it into ANI’s reports. Algerians evacuated from the site described how the militants searched for foreign workers room by room, killing some outright and booby-trapping others with explosives.
Still, late Thursday after the strafing by its helicopters, the Algerian government claimed its special forces had taken control of the gas plant and insisted that only four hostages were dead.
The next morning it turned out that the standoff was still ongoing. Gradually over the next few days, the official toll rose to meet the one first set out by the militants.
In the absence of official information, including at one point Friday when the Algerian Press Service website shut down for 45 minutes and returned with no stories whatsoever on the standoff, quotes from anonymous officials proliferated. Even material carried by that official news service was often sourced to anonymous officials as the military and police kept up a veil of secrecy.
The local press was filled with assertions from anonymous officials, some of which were wildly untrue.
At one point, an anonymous official confirmed Sunday that 25 burnt bodies had been discovered. That meant, when added to the official toll, more than 80 people were dead in the attack. Yet the final amount the next day was just 66 — and it was not clear where the extra bodies had disappeared to.
One area in which there was a zone of silence was the question of any possible Algerian army casualties in the chaotic, four-day fight against an enemy armed with heavy machine guns, missiles and mortars.
It wasn’t until Wednesday, four days after the fighting had ended, that Algeria’s Ministry of Defense issued a curt statement saying that ‘‘contrary to insinuations’’ regarding casualties, only eight soldiers had minor wounds.
‘‘Algeria has nothing to hide and we opted for total transparency in communicating all information on this matter as soon as it was available,’’ a member of the prime minister’s office told the AP on Tuesday.
He insisted, however, on speaking on condition of anonymity, because he said he wasn’t authorized to talk to the press.