Algeria: Army rescues hostages, toll unclear
BY AOMAR OUALI & PAUL SCHEMM Associated Press
Friday, January 18, 2013
1/18/13 at 5:35 AM
Algerian helicopters and special forces stormed a natural gas plant in the stony plains of the Sahara on Thursday to wipe out Islamist militants and free hostages from at least 10 countries. Bloody chaos ensued, leaving the fate of the fighters and many of the captives uncertain.
Dueling claims from the military and the militants muddied the world's understanding of an event that angered Western leaders, raised world oil prices and complicated the international military operation in Mali.
At least six people, and perhaps many more, were killed - Britons, Filipinos and Algerians. Terrorized hostages from Ireland and Norway trickled out of the Ain Amenas plant. Dozens more remained unaccounted for: Americans, Britons, French, Norwegians, Romanians, Malaysians, Japanese, Algerians and the fighters themselves.
A U.S. official said late Thursday that while some Americans escaped, others remain either held or unaccounted for. The official spoke on condition of anonymity.
The U.S. government sent an unmanned surveillance drone to the BP-operated site, near the border with Libya and 800 miles from the Algerian capital, but it could do little more than watch Thursday's intervention.
With the hostage drama entering its second day Thursday, Algerian security forces moved in, first with helicopter fire and then special forces, according to diplomats, a website close to the militants, and an Algerian security official. The government said it was forced to intervene because the militants wanted to flee with the hostages.
The militants - led by a Mali-based al-Qaida offshoot known as the Masked Brigade - suffered losses in Thursday's military assault.
Casualty figures varied widely. "An important number of hostages were freed and an important number of terrorists were eliminated, and we regret the few dead and wounded," Algeria's communications minister, Mohand Said Oubelaid, said.
The official news agency said four hostages were killed in Thursday's operation, two Britons and two Filipinos. Two others, a Briton and an Algerian, died Wednesday in an ambush on a bus ferrying foreign workers to an airport. Citing hospital officials, the APS news agency said six Algerians and seven foreigners were injured.
The militants, via a Mauritanian news website, claimed that 35 hostages and 15 militants died in the helicopter strafing. A spokesman for the Masked Brigade told the Nouakchott Information Agency in Mauritania that only seven hostages survived.
By nightfall, Algeria's government said the raid was over. But the whereabouts of the rest of the workers was unclear.
President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron spoke on the phone to share their confusion. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said the Obama administration was "seeking clarity from the government of Algeria."
Militants earlier said they were holding seven Americans, but the administration confirmed only that Americans were among those taken.
Original Print Headline: Hostage rescue ends in deaths