Irish hostage in Algeria 'safe and free'

The Department of Foreign Affairs has said the Irish man held captive in Algeria has contacted his family to tell them he is “safe and well” and is no longer a hostage.

The 36-year-old married man, named as Stephen McFaul from west Belfast, made contact with his family at around 3pm.

"The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade wishes to advise that the Irish national held hostage in the Amenas gas-field compound has made contact with his family and is understood to be safe and well and no longer a hostage," said the brief statement.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Eamon Gilmore said he was extremely thankful and relieved to learn Mr McFaul is safe.

“I spoke with his family yesterday, and I know how relieved they will be that he is well after his ordeal,” he said.

“This is the news that we all wanted to hear.”

Minister Gilmore said his thoughts remain with the other oil-field workers still involved and with their families who are waiting for news.

“We continue to liaise with the Algerian authorities and with the authorities of the other countries affected by this incident,” he added.

Fears had been growing for the safety of Mr McFaul as conflicting and contradictory reports emerged about the ongoing terrorist incident at the In Amenas gas field complex in the east of the African country.

The Belfast man had managed to contact his relatives twice before while in captivity.

But after receiving no further contact since yesterday, his family made a plea for him to be released unharmed, earlier today.

In a statement, issued through local MP Paul Maskey, they said they were very concerned about his welfare.

But just two and a half hours later, he made contact with them to say he was free.

Earlier, Minister Eamon Gilmore said he had been told by his Algerian counterpart Mourad Medelci that Mr McFaul was not among a number of foreign captives who escaped the gas field complex.

“To the best of his knowledge, the Irish citizen was not among those who managed to escape, so he is still being held in captivity,” said Mr Gilmore.

He said he had urged the Algerians to treat the situation with great care, caution, subtlety and patience.

In the past few hour, Islamist militants claimed that seven of the remaining hostages are alive, including three Belgians, two Americans, a Briton and a Japanese citizen.

The information came from the Nouakchott Information Agency, which often carries reports from al-Qaida-linked extremist groups.

The militant spokesman said the kidnappers were attacked by Algerian helicopters as they tried to leave the complex.

Algeria’s news agency, citing local police, said four foreign hostages were freed in the operation.

The Algerian government would not immediately comment.

The Brigade claimed responsibility for the original attack on the Algerian gas plant.

The British Foreign Office said the Algerian authorities confirmed that an operation was underway at the gas plant deep in the desert at In Amenas where the hostages were being held.

Reuters reported a local source as saying that six hostages and eight of their captors were killed in an Algerian strike on the complex close to the Libyan border.

The militants contacted a news agency in neighbouring Mauritania earlier today to claim that 35 hostages and 15 militants died when Algerian helicopters began strafing the plant.

Britain is allowing the Algerian government to take the lead in the crisis and has received no requests for support, Downing Street said today.

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