‘They did a bloody good job’ – Durham Sahara survivor’s praise for Algerian troops

Peter Hunter, 53, from Durham, who was reunited with wife Kerry (left) after he spent days in hiding at a secret location during the terror siege at the In Amenas natural gas plant desert complex in Algeria, talks to the media in Durham, after he arrived back in the UK.
Peter Hunter, 53, from Durham, who was reunited with wife Kerry (left) after he spent days in hiding at a secret location during the terror siege at the In Amenas natural gas plant desert complex in Algeria, talks to the media in Durham, after he arrived back in the UK.
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THE Algerian military did a “bloody good job”, the Durham survivor of the Sahara hostage crisis has said.

Peter Hunter, 53, from Durham, was reunited with wife Kerry in the early hours today after he spent days in hiding at a secret location at the sprawling plant.

Speaking at his local pub where he sipped a cup of coffee, the BP construction supervisor said: “The Algerian authorities and military did a bloody good job.

“You have a bunch of raving lunatics killing people randomly.

“People laid down their lives for this.

“Everybody will have a different opinion about the army and the special forces but what they did for me - I have no complaints.”

He was struck dumb when he was finally able to ring his wife on a satellite phone to tell her he was safe on Saturday.

“Nothing came out when I opened my mouth,” he said.

“As soon as I heard Kerry’s voice, my words were garbled.

“I told her I was OK, that I was safe and I was using a satellite phone.”

Mrs Hunter, 41, was warned by UK police that the phone call may have been staged, and that the terrorists had forced him to tell her he was all right.

It was only in a follow-up call five hours later that Mr Hunter seemed his cheerful self again, that she was convinced he was safe.

They were finally reunited at a snowy Newcastle Airport after a long journey back from Algeria, via Gatwick and a three-hour debrief in this country.

Mr Hunter, who worked four weeks on and four weeks off at the plant, never saw any terrorists during the crisis, nor any casualties.

He followed company procedure and hid in a secret location, having stocked up with water.

He first knew of any incident when he saw red tracer fire come over the top of one of the buildings within the site before dawn on Wednesday.

“I stood stationary and heard some small arms fire in the distance,” he said.

“An incident alarm sounded and we had a procedure in place which we implemented which was to go to our safe haven.”

Around 10 minutes after the initial fire, Mr Hunter said all the lights went out, pitching the site into darkness.

“Things went quiet, then there was more gunfire,” he recalled.

Mr Hunter, a father-of-four who has worked extensively in the Middle East and since August 2011 in Algeria, hid with his Norwegian co-worker Oddvar Birkadel.

Mr Hunter said he stayed calm in his hiding place, dressed in local garb, dozing, trying to conserve water and mobile phone battery.

Local workers knew his general location and would occasionally come with updates on what was happening.

He said: “It was mid to late afternoon on Wednesday before we got information off some people that it was a terrorist attack.

“We were told they were looking for expatriates and to stay well covered and not to do anything crazy and not to make a run for it.”

He said his reaction when he was told the terrorists were looking for foreigners was: “Oh shit.”

He texted his wife on Wednesday, but did not tell her the full picture of what was happening to avoid worrying her. Soon afterwards the mobile network went down, leaving him unable to contact home until his rescue.

He said: “Thursday was probably the noisiest day. Friday was their equivalent of our Sunday out there.

“There might have been the odd pop shot during the night, but nothing in the light hours.”

Mr Hunter felt confident enough on Saturday to change his clothes for the first time in four days.

There was no dramatic rescue, just the sound of voices from local liaison workers who were with Algerian soldiers who swiftly convinced the expats they were safe.

He shared wine gums his wife had packed with his saviours - even though they were joking that as Muslims they should not eat the sweets in case they had alcohol in them.

Mr Hunter was taken to a military camp nearby.

“They were concerned we would be overcome by shock,” he said.

“They assured us they were the real thing and not someone in disguise.

“We were greeted by every kind of major, colonel and general. They were all very helpful, nice people and very apologetic.”

Mr Hunter paid tribute to the colleagues who died.

“I believe I was fortunate,” he said. “I guess you could say I was not in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“I used to see Carson (Bilsland) every morning and every lunchtime and we always had a bit of banter. He was a lovely guy, they all were.

“Paul Morgan was a jovial guy, just happy.

“Kenny Whiteside used to play the bagpipes. Occasionally he would have his kilt on. I used to sit on the step there and he used to say, ‘I do requests’. He was a lovely, lovely man.

“It’s just very sad.”

The family thanked the Foreign Office, embassy staff in Algeria and BP for their help in London. They also praised Durham Police for their assistance.

“Our thoughts are with the families of our British, Norwegian and other nationality colleagues who lost loved ones.”

Mr Bilsland, from Perthshire, had reportedly worked in Algeria for around two years as a testing technician.

He was a former member of the British speed ski team. A spokesman for the organisation described it as “a very sad day”.

He said: “Carson Bilsland, an intermittent speed skier from the late 80s until mid 2000s, was killed in the Algerian hostage crisis.

“Carson was one of life’s indomitable characters. He will be sorely missed but very fondly remembered.”

The statement was also posted on the British speed ski team’s Facebook page but was later taken down at the request of Mr Bilsland’s family, it said.