January 17, 2013 10:09 pm

Algeria forces PM to rethink

It was soon after 6pm that David Cameron took the decision to remain in London to deal with the bloody events in Algeria.

The prime minister ripped up his plan to travel to Holland after sounding out his inner circle inside Downing Street following a warning by the Algerian government that some kidnappers were still at large with their hostages.

Last night he was preparing a statement to make to the House of Commons on Friday. In a sombre televised statement, Mr Cameron warned people to “prepare ourselves for the possibility of bad news ahead”.

The prime minister had been due to travel to The Hague on Thursday night before making his long-awaited speech on Britain’s relationship with Europe in Amsterdam on Friday morning.

Those plans unravelled after he spoke to his Algerian counterpart, Abdelmalek Sellal, at about 5.45pm.

Even late on Thursday evening the London government was still trying to piece together a clearer picture of the situation in Algeria.

About a dozen British citizens were among the hostages taken by al-Qaeda, although two Scots are understood to be free. Another former hostage, Stephen McFaul from Northern Ireland, contacted his family at 3pm to say he was safe.

It appears that as the Algerian forces attacked the compound, some people were injured, some went into hiding and others were held hostage.

Officials from the Foreign Office grew increasingly frustrated by the lack of concrete information from the Algerian government. Even in the evening there was still uncertainty as to whether the fighting was continuing.

The government was in touch with British companies in the region but did not issue a blanket advice to avoid Algeria.

The prime minister had sought to try to stay on top of the hostage situation from Holland, even setting up a system to chair an emergency “Cobra” meeting remotely. He discussed Algeria with both President Barack Obama of the US and President François Hollande of France on Thursday afternoon.

However, Mr Cameron later decided that he needed to deal with the “very uncertain and very fluid” situation in north Africa. He will chair Cobra from Downing Street on Friday morning.

The government admitted on Thursday afternoon that it had not known in advance that the Algerian gas facility was about to be raided, despite having asked for advance notice of any such action.

Downing Street said it had told the Algerian government the UK “would have preferred to have been consulted in advance”. Instead David Cameron was told about the action at 11.30am in his first conversation of the day with Mr Sellal.

“The Algerian prime minister explained that it was not possible [to give advance warning] because of the extremely fast-moving nature of the situation,” said the Downing Street spokesman. “They judged operationally that there was a reason to move urgently when they did.”

The Algerians had previously turned down an offer of assistance from the UK which could have involved special forces and intelligence experts.

William Hague, the foreign secretary, is cutting short his visit to Australia, and is due to board a flight for the UK on Friday morning British time.

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