By Lamine Chikhi
TIGUENTOURINE, Algeria (Reuters) - Algerian engineers at the In Amenas natural gas plant are working to get at least some of the desert facility back to work in the coming days, two weeks after three dozen foreign workers were killed in an Islamist hostage siege.
Lying deep in the Sahara, the site was surrounded by troops with armored vehicles when Algerian officials gave journalists a first view of the area since gunmen attacked on January 15 and seized hundreds of hostages before the army stormed in four days later.
Outside the dusty and sprawling residential compound where dozens of foreigners were held, an electronic information board recorded the passage of time since normal work ended - it was 16 days, it said, since the last entry in the employee absence log.
The marks of hundreds of bullets and several grenade blasts scarred the concrete walls of some of the single-storey villas where foreign employees - about one in six of a total labor force of 700 - had lived, and where some had died.
Local workers in anti-contamination suits were still laboring on the clean-up operation in 20-degree (50-degree Fahrenheit) midday winter temperatures and ranged along a perimeter fence were shattered wrecks of half a dozen pickup trucks and jeeps.
In one of the most violent moments, one British man recalled seeing several trucks carrying fellow hostages and their captors blasted in an apparent helicopter gunship strike. In all, 37 foreigners and an Algerian were reported killed in the siege, along with all but three of 32 Islamist militants.
Among the dead were Japanese, Americans, British, French, Norwegians, Filipinos and Romanians - as well as at least one gunman whom Algerian officials described as a Canadian citizen.
Some 3 km (two miles) from the residential compound, the natural gas plant itself also showed signs of damage. One of its main units, masses of steel piping and containers, was blackened by smoke - the result, officials said, of an attempt by the militants to set fire to the facility and blow it up.
Two other units were less affected, engineers said, and at least one could be operating again in a few days.
"Partial production is to resume in the coming days," local engineer Abdelaziz Hafsi said, though quite when was unclear. The energy minister said on Tuesday that no date had been set.
"There is not a single foreigner at the gas facility, but we can manage to repair and resume production on our own," Hafsi added. "Foreign workers will be back in three months."
Many survivors said they would not wish to venture back. But the government has pledged to review security against a renewed Islamist threat which has been exacerbated by French military intervention across the border in Mali. And the lure of high wages for foreigners in the desert is expected to remain strong.
On Tuesday, Algeria's energy minister promised a secure working environment. He said officials were still assessing damage at the site, known as Tiguentourine, 50 km from the town of In Amenas near the Libyan border.
There was, he said, no date fixed at that time for restarting a plant that produces about 11 percent of the country's annual gas output, a vital export for the nation.
For journalists visiting the normally tightly restricted area of the gas field for the first time, the sense of isolation was evident, as was the military presence along the roads. Only fences protected the perimeters of the plant and villa compound.
Lotfi Benadouda, general manager at the site, told reporters: "The terrorists used us as shields.
"I'm very lucky to be still alive and very sad about my foreign colleagues who died."
An army officer said his men were proud of the way they dealt with a situation which prompted international concern about the level of security in the gas field and about the number of casualties among the foreign hostages: "Our moral is high," he said. "We did our job which is to defend our country."
Algerian officials who organized the visit for the media were keen to emphasize a national consensus on security.
Mansouri Belal, the head of In Amenas municipal council, said: "This is something that has not just affected us, but has affected the entire world. We all condemn this criminal and cowardly act at the gas facility in Tiguentourine. We praise the members of the national army for intervening so quickly and saving the hostages, the Algerian and the foreign hostages."
(Writing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Jason Webb)