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Desert massacre toll mounts as more than 80 bodies found

The death toll from the terrorist siege at a natural gas plant in the Sahara climbed to at least 81 last night as Algerian forces searching the complex for explosives found dozens more bodies, many so badly disfigured they could not immediately be identified.

Algerian special forces stormed the facility on Saturday to end the four-day siege at the remote desert refinery that had transfixed the world.

The radical Islamists came from six countries, they were armed to cause maximum destruction and mined the Ain Amenas refinery, which the Algerian State oil company runs along with BP and Norway's Statoil, said Algerian minister Mohamed Said.

The militants “had decided to succeed in the operation as planned, to blow up the gas complex and kill all the hostages”, he said.

The kidnappers focused on the foreign workers, largely leaving alone the hundreds of Algerian workers who were briefly held hostage before being released or escaping.

“Now, of course, people will ask questions about the Algerian response to these events, but I would just say that the responsibility for these deaths lies squarely with the terrorists who launched a vicious and cowardly attack,” Prime Minister David Cameron said.

With few details emerging from the remote site of the gas plant in eastern Algeria, it was unclear whether anyone was rescued in the final operation, but the number of hostages killed yesterday — seven — was how many the militants had said that morning they were still holding captive.

The Algerian security official said the 25 bodies found by bomb squads yesterday were so badly disfigured that it was difficult to tell whether they were hostages or attackers.

The squads were bombing the plant in the Sahara Desert to defuse mines they said were planted throughout the vast site, not far from the Libyan border.

In addition to the bodies found at the site yesterday, a wounded Romanian who had been evacuated and brought home died, raising the overall death toll to at least 81.

The Masked Brigade, founded by Algerian militant Moktar Belmoktar, claimed responsibility for the attack. Belmoktar claimed the siege in the name of al-Qaida, according to the text from a video the Mauritania-based internet site Sahara Media said it had obtained.

“We at al-Qaida are responsible for this operation that we bless,” Sahara Media quoted the video as saying. The video was dated January 17, a day after the attack began.

A BP spokesman would not comment on reports in the Algerian media that Belmoktar had infiltrated his men as drivers, cooks and guards working on short contracts for BP at the complex.

The American government has warned there are credible threats of more kidnapping attempts on westerners in the North African nation which shares a long border with Mali, where a French intervention is under way to end a threat by Islamist militants holding the country's vast north.

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