ALGIERS, Algeria • Algerian special forces launched a rescue operation Thursday at a natural gas plant in the Sahara Desert and freed foreign hostages held by al-Qaida-linked militants, but estimates for the number of dead varied wildly from four to dozens.
Militants claiming revenge for France’s intervention against rebels in Mali seized the Ain Amenas natural gas complex on Wednesday, taking dozens of foreign workers hostage.
Hostages from at least 9 countries in Algeria
Islamic militants said they have captured 41 foreign hostages at a natural gas complex in the Algerian desert and said later that 35 of them were killed Thursday in Algerian military helicopter strafing.
There was no way to independently confirm the report. Here’s a summary of the latest information on the hostages:
ALGERIA » Hundreds of Algerians worked at the gas plant, but the Algerian media says most have been released. The Norwegian energy company Statoil says three of its Algerian employees are hostages.
NORWAY » Nine Norwegian employees of Statoil are hostages, the company says.
UNITED STATES » Seven Americans were hostages, the militants said, but they claimed only two survived the Algerian strafing Thursday. The U.S. has confirmed that some of its citizens are hostages but gave no numbers.
BRITAIN » “Several” British nationals are among the hostages, the U.K. government says.
JAPAN » At least three of the hostages are Japanese, according to the Japanese media.
MALAYSIA » Two Malaysians being held, the government says.
IRELAND » A 36-year-old Irish man was among the hostages but is now safe and free, according to Ireland’s government.
FRANCE » President Francois Hollande says there are French hostages but gave no exact number.
ROMANIA » Romania’s Foreign Ministry says Romanians are among hostages.
Algerian state television said Thursday that four captives, two Britons and two Filipinos, had died. But the militants said at least 35 hostages had died in the state’s rescue attempt. There was no way to independently verify the toll in the remote location, 800 miles (1,300 kilometers) from Algiers.
The reports of high casualties have deeply disturbed foreign governments, prompting a number to criticize Algeria’s operation. Britain’s Foreign Office attempted to prepare the British public by saying, "We should be under no illusion that there will be some bad and distressing news to follow from this terrorist attack."
Oil prices rose $1.08 on the news to $95.32 on the New York Mercantile Exchange and prompted energy companies like BP PLC and Spain’s Compania Espanola de Petroleos SA to try to relocate energy workers at other Algerian plants.
The Algerian government said it was forced to intervene due to the militants’ stubbornness and their desire to escape with the hostages.
"An important number of hostages were freed and an important number of terrorists were eliminated, and we regret the few dead and wounded," Algerian Communications Minister Mohand Said Oubelaid told national media, adding that the "terrorists are multinational," coming from several different countries with the goal of "destabilizing Algeria, embroiling it in the Mali conflict and damaging its natural gas infrastructure."
Islamists from the Masked Brigade, a Mali-based al-Qaida offshoot, who have been speaking through a Mauritanian news outlet, said Algerian helicopters opened fire as the militants tried to leave the vast energy complex with their hostages. They claimed that 35 hostages and 15 militants died in the attack and only seven hostages survived.
Algeria’s official news service, meanwhile, earlier claimed that 600 local workers were freed in the raid and half of the foreigners being held were rescued. Many of those locals were reportedly released on Wednesday, however, by the militants themselves.
One Irish hostage was confirmed safe: supervising electrician Stephen McFaul, whose mother said he would not be returning to Algeria.
"He phoned me at 9 o’clock 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," said his mother, Marie.
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.
In Washington, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said the Obama administration was "concerned about reports of loss of life and are seeking clarity from the government of Algeria."
Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe protested the military raid as an act that "threatened the lives of the hostages," according to a spokesman.
Jean-Christophe Gray, a spokesman for British Prime Minister David Cameron, said Britain was not informed in advance of the raid but described the situation as "very grave and serious." French President Francois Hollande called it a "dramatic" situation involving dozens of hostages.
Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg would not criticize the Algerian operation but said he wished the Norwegian government would have been notified before it started. He added that while Algeria has declined medical help, Norway will send a plane with medical equipment and personnel.
An unarmed American surveillance drone soared overhead as the Algerian forces closed in, U.S. officials said. The U.S. offered military assistance Wednesday to help rescue the hostages — whose numbers varied wildly from dozens to hundreds — but the Algerian government refused, a U.S. official said in Washington. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the offer.
Algerian forces who had ringed the Ain Amenas complex in a tense standoff had vowed not to negotiate with the kidnappers, who reportedly were seeking safe passage. Security experts said the end of the two-day standoff was in keeping with the North African country’s tough approach to terrorism.
"I would not be surprised if the death toll was has high as the militants put it, it’s a well-known fact that the Algerians never had problems causing a blood bath to respond to terrorist attacks," said Riccardo Fabiani, North Africa analyst for the Eurasia group, who expressed doubt over Algeria’s claims that mediation was abandoned in the face of the kidnappers’ intransigence. "I wonder whether really in 24 hours you can establish some kind of negotiations with terrorists, I don’t think they really tried."
The kidnapping is one of the largest ever attempted by a militant group in North Africa. The militants phoned a Mauritanian news outlet to demand that France end its intervention in neighboring Mali to ensure the safety of the hostages in the isolated plant, located 800 miles (1,300 kilometers) south of the capital of Algiers.
Phone contacts with the militants were severed as government forces closed in, according to the Mauritanian agency, which often carries reports from al-Qaida-linked extremist groups in North Africa.
A 58-year-old Norwegian engineer who made it to the safety of a nearby Algerian military camp told his wife how militants attacked a bus Wednesday before being fended off by a military escort.
"Bullets were flying over their heads as they hid on the floor of the bus," Vigdis Sletten told The Associated Press in a phone interview from her home in Bokn, on Norway’s west coast.Next Page >
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