Algeria defends its tough response to hostage crisis

The prime minister of Algeria offered an unapologetic defence on Monday of the country's tough actions to end the Sahara hostage crisis, saying the militants who had carried out the kidnappings intended to kill all their captives and that the army saved many from death by attacking.

But the assertion came as the toll of foreign hostages rose sharply, to 37, and as American officials said they had offered sophisticated surveillance help that could minimize casualties, both before and during the military operation to retake a seized gas field complex in the Algerian desert.

At least some of the assistance was accepted, they said, but there were still questions about whether Algeria had taken all available steps to avert such a bloody outcome.

American counter-terrorism officials and experts said they would have taken a more cautious approach, using detailed surveillance to gain an information advantage and hopefully outmaneouver the militants. But others declined to second-guess the Algerians, saying events had unfolded so rapidly that the government might have felt it had no choice but to kill the kidnappers, even if hostages died in the process.

The debate over how the Algerians handled one of the worst hostage-taking episodes in recent memory reflects conflicting ideas over how to manage mass abductions in a post-9/11 world.

The Algerians — and some Western supporters — argue that the loss of innocent lives is unavoidable when confronting fanatics who will kill their captives anyway, while others say modern technology provides some means of minimizing the deaths.

At a news conference in Algiers, PM Abdelmalek Sellal, portrayed the military's deadly assaults on the Islamist militants who had stormed and occupied an internationally run gas-producing complex last Wednesday in remote eastern Algeria as a matter of national character and pride.

"The whole world has understood that the reaction was courageous," Sellal said. "Algerians do not sell themselves," he said. "When the security of the country is at stake, there is no possible discussion."

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