They were the words his wife must have feared she would never hear.
Stephen McFaul, one of the oil workers held hostage by Islamic militants at an Algerian gas plant, phoned his wife Angela and told her: ‘I’m free, love, I’m free.’
Just hours earlier, he had made what he thought might be his last phone call, telling his relatives: ‘Al Qaeda have got me.’
Mr McFaul, 36, had also secretly texted his wife to tell her how his captors had herded him and others into a room and that he could hear bullets ‘flying about outside’.
Thirty-five hostages, including at least seven foreigners, were killed when Algerian forces stormed the BP desert gas plant seized by extremists, an Algerian security source said.
Two of the dead were British.
But last night the oil company manager’s family spoke of their elation and relief at the news that the father of five had managed to escape.
His brother Brian, speaking at their parents’ home in west Belfast 15 minutes after they had received news of his safety, told the Daily Mail: ‘He phoned Angela and she phoned us.
‘He told her, “I’m free, love, I’m free”.
‘Right now they’re getting him and other survivors to a safe camp. He is due to phone her later and then he’ll phone here to speak to mummy because she won’t be happy until she hears his voice.’
Brian, 41, said their other brother Mark spoke to Mr McFaul, who hails from the Irish Republic but lives in Belfast, on the phone and he could hear gunfire in the background.
‘We were worrying about the Algerian army because they were constantly opening fire on the base,’
‘I believe the past couple of days have been horrible for him, what with watching others getting killed.’
He described his brother, who has been working in the oil industry in West Africa for at least ten years, as ‘the type of person that would have stayed strong and would have been trying to keep everybody calm’.
He added: ‘I don’t think I’ve ever seen my dad cry until today. He was crying his eyes out – but it was out of joy.’
Mr McFaul’s parents Chris and Marie were joined by his tearful son Dillon, 13, who said he couldn’t wait to give his father ‘a big hug’.
He added: ‘I can’t explain the excitement. I just can’t wait to see him, even to talk to him on the phone.
Mr McFaul’s father said the ‘last 48 hours have been hell . . . but as a family we’ve been strong’. He added: ‘We got a phone call at five o’clock on Wednesday morning to tell us they’d been taken.
‘Then there were reports of helicopter strikes with 35 dead, 15 dead – but it was only an hour after those reports we got a call to say he’d escaped.’
He said he was delighted when he received the call from Mr McFaul’s wife, but felt sorry for the families of other hostages who had not yet received news.
The local MP, Sinn Fein’s Paul Maskey, was at the family’s home to share the good news.
He said: ‘This family has been tremendous over the last two days. What they have been through is beyond belief, yet they are still standing strong.
‘The entire west Belfast community have been thinking about them for the last few days and . . . we are all delighted.’
Mr McFaul barricaded himself into a room with dozens of others as armed militants stormed their compound in the remote African desert.
Islamic extremists had launched an attack on BP’s Saharan oil field in revenge for France’s crackdown on rebels in neighbouring Mali. Algeria is providing support and so became a target.
The assault was made without warning Western allies including David Cameron.
Fighting back tears, Mr McFaul’s brother, Brian, said of his sibling’s earlier frantic phone call: ‘They locked themselves in a room for safety.
‘At that stage they heard gunfire. They kept talking and he gave me a text, but then we lost contact.
‘Than at 9am that morning he phoned saying “al-Qaeda have got me”‘.
Mother Marie said: ‘He phoned to say al-Qaida were holding him, kidnapped, and to contact the Irish government, for they wanted publicity.
‘Nightmare, so it was. Never want to do it again. He’ll not be back! He’ll take a job here in Belfast like the rest of us.’
Dylan, McFaul’s 13-year-old son, started crying as he talked to Ulster Television. ‘I feel over the moon, just really excited. I just can’t wait for him to get home,’ he said.
Stephen McFaul, who is a father of two, works as an supervising electrician at the oil field.
Algeria is one of a number of African countries he has worked in over an extensive career in the industry. He lives in Antrim and was last home on Boxing Day.
His sister Ms McBride added: ‘He is a very kind person. He would do a lot for anybody, he would do anything for anyone.
‘I can imagine out there he has probably done everything in his power to make sure everybody is safe. It is just a pity that some people have lost their lives.’
Anxiously waiting for news was the young wife and mother of one of the Scots workers – Mark Grant, 31 – who pleaded: ‘Please, I just want him to come home safe.’
Tearful Emma, also 31, added: ‘We’ve got a little girl to think about.”
Speaking on the doorstep of the couple’s £250,000 detached home in Grangemouth, Stirlingshire, she explained that she had spoken to her husband on Wednesday.
Although this was after the attack, she revealed she had heard nothing since.
She said: ‘I haven’t heard from him since yesterday. I just want him to come home safe.
Supported by her father, Emma added: ‘I don’t want to say anything else,’
Mark is employed by BP as a project services contracts administrator, having taken up the role more than two and a half years ago.
He had previously worked as a site quantity surveyor with Shell for more than a year and a half before his switch to the In Amenas project.
Prime Minister David Cameron said tonight the country should be ‘prepared for the possibility of further bad news’ in the hostage crisis in Algeria.
He said: ‘We face a very bad situation at this BP gas compound in Algeria.
‘A number of British citizens have been taken hostage. Already we know of one who has died.
‘The Algerian armed forces have now attacked the compound.’
He said officials in the Government’s Cobra emergency committee, which he has chaired twice today, were ‘working around the clock to do everything we can to keep in contact with the families, to build the fullest possible picture of the information and the intelligence we have’.
The Prime Minister said he would continue to chair the meetings ‘and I will do everything I can to update people about what is a difficult and dangerous and potentially very bad situation’.
Algerian forces strafed the plant this morning hours after the rebels had threatened to blow up the hostages if they intervened.
But amid conflicting reports, a source in the town said just six foreign hostages and eight of their captors were killed, while 25 captives including Americans and Europeans managed to escape.
According to Mauritania’s ANI news agency, seven western hostages were still alive – three Belgians, two Americans, one Japanese and one Briton.
BP, which partly runs the plant, said the Algerian army is now attempting to take control of the site.
Around 25 foreign captives, including Americans and two Japanese, are said to have escaped.
A spokesman for the Masked Brigade, which had earlier claimed responsibility for the assault said Abou El Baraa, the leader of the kidnappers, was killed.
The information came from the Nouakchott Information Agency, which has often carried reports from al-Qaeda-linked extremist groups.
The militant spokesman said the kidnappers were attacked by Algerian helicopters when they attempted to leave the complex.
The helicopter raid by the notoriously uncompromising Algerian authorities came just one day after the drama started, as Al-Qaeda gunmen reinforced their position around a liquid gas installation.
‘Their 4×4 trucks were hit first, and then gunfire was turned on people in the complex,’ said an Algerian diplomatic source. ‘There are numerous casualties but figures cannot yet be confirmed.’
It is thought that many of the hostages died as the terrorists tried to use them as human shields.
The British Foreign Office has not confirmed any details of the air strike, only saying that there was an ‘ongoing operation’ underway.
Prime Minister David Cameron was due to chair another meeting of COBRA, the Government’s emergency response committee, this morning.
It had emerged that the captives, up to 45 other foreign nationals and up to 150 Algerians were forced to wear explosive belts.
Sources claimed that two UK nationals had already been killed in the attack by around 20 al-Qaeda militants.
An Algerian security source said the gunmen, who stormed the gas facility on Wednesday, were also demanding safe passage out with their captives.
One hostage, identified as British, had spoken to Al Jazeera television and called on the Algerian army to withdraw from the area to avoid casualties.
‘We are receiving care and good treatment from the kidnappers. The (Algerian) army did not withdraw and they are firing at the camp,’ the man said.
‘We say to everybody that negotiations is a sign of strength and will spare many any loss of life,’ he said, adding that there were about 150 Algerian hostages in custody.
Another hostage, identified as Irish, told the Qatar-based channel: ‘The situation is deteriorating.
‘We have contacted the embassies and we call the Algerian army to withdraw… we are worried because of the continuation of the firing.
‘Among the hostages are French, American, Japanese, British, Norwegian and Irish.’
In what it said was a phone interview with one of the hostage takers, the Mauritanian news agency ANI said Algerian security forces had tried to approach the facility at dawn.
‘We will kill all the hostages if the Algerian army try to storm the area,’ it quoted the hostage-taker as warning.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague earlier condemned the rebels as ‘cold-blooded murderers’ and said the government had been working ‘around the clock’ to resolve the crisis.
Electricity inside the facility had been cut, but intercepted mobile phone traffic suggests that the attack was planned by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a one-eyed Islamist known as Mr Marlboro and The Uncatchable.
Downing Street said Prime Minister David Cameron ‘expressed his sympathy and support’ when he spoke to his Algerian counterpart Abdelmalek Sellal yesterday evening.
The Algerian interior ministry said the attack began when three vehicles carrying heavily-armed-militants ambushed a bus carrying employees from the gas plant to the nearby airport.
Initially they were driven off, but they then headed for the main complex.
‘After their failed attempt, the terrorist group headed to the complex’s living quarters and took a number of workers with foreign nationalities hostage,’ an interior ministry statement said.
‘The forces of the People’s National Army and security services arrived at the scene and immediately took all necessary measures to make the area secure and seek a rapid resolution of the situation, which is being very closely followed by the national authorities.’
Belmokhtar’s gang uses a number of names including Khaled Abul Abbas Brigade, the Masked Ones and The Blood Battalion, and is linked to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
The militant group Katibat Moulathamine – ‘The Masked Ones’ – yesterday contacted a news agency in the Saharan state of Mauritania to claim that the raid was carried out by an affiliate group, identified as ‘Those who sign their names in blood’.
One of the site owners Statoil said that it had 20 employees in the facility. The Norwegian Newspaper Bergens Tidende reported that a 55-year-old Norwegian working on the site had called his wife to say he was among the hostages.
The Japanese government said Japanese employees working for a company which supplies services to the site may also have been kidnapped.
The attack happened as EU foreign ministers were preparing to meet tomorrow in Brussels to discuss plans to send a 400-strong military training mission to Mali.
Hundreds of Algerians working at the plant and were taken in the attack, but the state news agency reported that they have gradually been released, unharmed and in small groups, by the late afternoon.
Many hostages were believed to have been on their way to In Amenas airport, from where there are regular flights to Gatwick airport.
Gatwick-based company Jet Air is among those who have now suspended their flights from the UK to southern Algeria.
The U.S. embassy in Algiers had issued an emergency message to other U.S. nationals in the country urging them to ‘review their security’.
Countries including France and Britain have been on heightened terrorist alert since French forces went into action in Mali on Friday.
There are fears that the new front in the war against terror could prompt further Islamist revenge attacks on Western targets, especially in Africa, where Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb operates across borders in the Sahara desert.
French President Francois Hollande launched the surprise operation in its former West African colony on Friday, with hopes of stopping al-Qaida-linked and other Islamist extremists he believes pose a danger to the world.
Attacks on oil-rich Algeria’s hydrocarbon facilities are very rare, despite decades of fighting an Islamist insurgency, mostly in the north of the country.
In the last several years, however, al-Qaeda’s influence in the poorly patrolled desert wastes of southern Algeria and northern Mali and Niger has grown and it operates smuggling and kidnapping networks throughout the area.
Militant groups that seized control of northern Mali already hold seven French hostages as well as four Algerian diplomats.