Hundreds of hostages have reportedly escaped from their captors at an Algerian gas factory. Militants claimed infidels and Christians would be killed while Muslims would not be harmed.
NOUAKCHOTT/ALGIERS – Thirty hostages and at least 11 Islamist militants were killed on Thursday when Algerian forces stormed a desert gas plant in a bid to free many dozens of Western and local captives, an Algerian security source said. Algerian state media reported that hundreds of captives were freed during the operation.
Details remained scant – including for Western governments, some of which did little to disguise irritation at being kept in the dark by Algeria before the raid and its bloody outcome.
Two Japanese, two Britons and a French national were among at least seven foreigners killed, according to the source. Eight of the dead hostages were Algerian. The nationalities of the rest, as well as of perhaps dozens more who escaped, were unclear. As one of the biggest international hostage crises in decades continued to unfold, Western leaders expressed anger they had not been consulted before the operation and scrambled for word of their citizens. Americans, Britons, Norwegians, Romanians and an Austrian have also been mentioned by their governments as having been captured.
Underlining the view of African and Western leaders that they face a multinational, al-Qaida-linked insurgency across the Sahara, a conflict that prompted France to send troops to neighboring Mali last week, the official source said only two of the 11 dead militants were Algerian, including their leader.
After an operation that appeared to go on for some eight hours after Algeria refused the kidnappers' demand to leave the country with their hostages, the bodies of three Egyptians, two Tunisians, two Libyans, a Malian and a Frenchman were found.
So too was that of Taher Ben Cheneb, an Algerian whom the security official described as a prominent jihadist commander in the Sahara
Amid reports of casualties, Algeria said its troops had been forced to act to free them due to the "diehard" attitude of their captors.
"When the terrorist group insisted on leaving the facility, taking the foreign hostages with them to neighboring states, the order was issued to special units to attack the position where the terrorists were entrenched," the government spokesman, Communication Minister, Mohamed Said, told the state news agency.
The standoff began when gunmen calling themselves the Battalion of Blood stormed the natural gas facility early on Wednesday morning. They said they were holding 41 foreigners and demanded a halt to a French military operation against fellow al-Qaida-linked Islamist militants in neighboring Mali.
Said said the military operation, which Western officials were told had begun around noon in Algeria on Thursday, resulted in "the liberation of a large number of hostages and the destruction of a large number of terrorists."
The raid increased fears jihadist militants could launch further attacks in Algeria, a vast desert country with large oil and gas reserves that is only just recovering from a protracted conflict with Islamist rebels during the 1990s which cost an estimated 200,000 lives.
A local source told Reuters six foreign hostages were killed along with eight captors when the Algerian military fired on a vehicle being used by the gunmen.He said 40 Algerians and three foreigners were freed by the army as it continued its operation into Thursday evening.
'WE'LL KILL INFIDELS'
The Islamist gunmen who seized hundreds of gas plant workers in the Sahara told Algerian staff they would not harm Muslims but would kill Western hostages they called "Christians and infidels," a local man who escaped said on Thursday.
In a rare eyewitness account of Wednesday's dawn raid deep in the desert, a local man employed at the facility told Reuters the militants appeared to have good inside knowledge of the layout of the complex and used the language of radical Islam.
"The terrorists told us at the very start that they would not hurt Muslims but were only interested in the Christians and infidels," Abdelkader, 53, said by telephone from his home in the nearby town of In Amenas. "We will kill them, they said."
His voice was choking with emotion. "I'm a lucky man," he said over the sound of children playing and a television relaying the latest news. Abdelkader described how he managed to escape along with many of the hundreds of Algerians initially detained.
A local resident said there were many bodies at the site. He did not give firm numbers of the dead or say whether they were kidnappers, hostages or both.
Qatar-based Al Jazeera television carried a similar report. Those details could not be immediately confirmed.
Earlier ANI reports said 25 hostages escaped their captors, including Americans and Europeans. Dozens of foreigners and scores of Algerians were seized by Islamist gunmen demanding a halt to a French military campaign in neighboring Mali. A local source said 180 of the Algerian hostages also escaped.
Governments around the world were holding emergency meetings to respond to one of the biggest international hostage crises in decades, which sharply raises the stakes over the week-old French campaign against al-Qaida-linked rebels in the Sahara.
Algeria's Ennahar television said 15 foreigners, including two French citizens, had escaped the besieged plant deep in the Sahara desert. About 40 Algerians had also been freed, mainly women working as translators, it said.
An Algerian security source told Reuters the captors, encircled by Algerian troops, were demanding safe passage out with their prisoners. Algeria has refused to negotiate with what it says is a band of about 20 fighters.
The captors, who have been speaking regularly to media in neighboring Mauritania, told that country's ANI news agency that Algerian helicopters had fired on the compound, wounding two Japanese hostages. This could not be confirmed.
A group calling itself the "Battalion of Blood" says it seized 41 foreigners, including Americans, Japanese and Europeans, after storming a natural gas pumping station and employee barracks before dawn on Wednesday.
The attackers have demanded an end to the French military campaign in Mali, where hundreds of French paratroopers and marines are launching a ground offensive against rebels a week after Paris began firing on militants from the air.
Algerian Interior Minister Daho Ould Kablia said the raid was led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a veteran Islamist guerrilla fighter who fought Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s and had recently set up his own group in the Sahara after falling out with other local al-Qaida leaders.
A holy warrior-turned-smuggler, dubbed "The Uncatchable" by French intelligence and "Mister Marlboro" by some locals for his illicit cigarette-running business, Belmokhtar's links to those who seized towns across northern Mali last year are unclear.
The hostage-takers appear to have allowed some prisoners to speak to the media to put pressure on Algerian forces, not to storm the compound. An unidentified hostage who spoke to France 24 television said prisoners were being forced to wear explosive belts. Their captors were heavily armed and had threatened to blow up the plant if the Algerian army tried to storm it.
Two hostages, identified as British and Irish, spoke 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 British man said. "There are around 150 Algerian hostages. We say to everybody that negotiations is a sign of strength and will spare many loss of life."
The hostage identified as Irish told the Qatar-based channel the captives included French, American, Japanese, British, Irish and Norwegian citizens.
"The situation is deteriorating. We have contacted the embassies and we call on the Algerian army to withdraw. ... We are worried because of the continuation of the firing."
After 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 saying. Algeria has not commented on reports its troops tried to approach. The militants earlier said they repelled an assault after dark.
The precise number and nationalities of foreign hostages could not be confirmed, with some countries reluctant to release information that could be useful to the captors.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague confirmed one British citizen had been killed and "a number" of others were among those held. Algerian media said an Algerian was killed in the assault. Another local report said a Frenchman had died.
The militants said seven Americans were among their hostages, a figure U.S. officials said they could not confirm.
Norwegian oil company Statoil said nine of its Norwegian staff and three Algerian employees were captive. Britain's BP, which operates the plant with Statoil and Algerian state oil company Sonatrach, said some of its staff were held but would not say how many or their nationalities.
Japanese media said five workers from Japanese engineering firm JGC Corp. were held, a number the company did not confirm. France has not confirmed whether any French citizens were held. Vienna has said one hostage is Austrian.
So far, Western countries seem reluctant to intervene on the ground in the Algerian standoff directly. French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Paris had confidence in the Algerian government to handle it.
British Prime Minister David Cameron's spokesman said Cameron had spoken to the leaders of Japan and Norway, and all had concluded that the best course was to work through the Algerian authorities.
Paris said the Algeria attack demonstrated it was right to intervene in Mali: "We have the flagrant proof that this problem goes beyond just the north of Mali," French ambassador to Mali Christian Rouyer told France Inter radio.
"Northern Mali is at heart of the problem, of course, but the dimension is really national and international, which gives even more justification to the French intervention," he said.
Hollande has received public backing from Western and African allies who fear that al-Qaida, flush with men and arms from the defeated forces of Libya's Muammar Gaddafi, is building a desert haven in Mali, a poor country that was helpless to combat fighters who seized its northern cities last year.
However, there is some concern in Washington and other capitals that the French action in Mali could provoke a backlash worse than the initial threat by militants in the remote Sahara.
The militants, communicating through established contacts with media in neighboring Mauritania, said they had dozens of men armed with mortars and anti-aircraft missiles in the compound and had rigged it with explosives.
"We hold the Algerian government and the French government and the countries of the hostages fully responsible if our demands are not met, and it is up to them to stop the brutal aggression against our people in Mali," read one statement carried by Mauritanian media.
They condemned Algeria's secularist government for letting French warplanes fly over its territory to Mali and shutting its border to Malian refugees.
Regis Arnoux, head of CIS, a French catering firm operating at the site, told BFM television he had been in touch with a manager of some 150 Algerian workers there. Foreigners were being kept separate from Algerian hostages, he said.
"They are tied up and are being filmed. Electricity is cut off, and mobile phones have no charge."
The attack in Algeria did not stop France from pressing on with its campaign in Mali. It said on Thursday it now had 1,400 troops on the ground in Mali, and combat was under way against the rebels that it first began targeting from the air last week.
"There was combat yesterday, on the ground and in the air. It happened overnight and is under way now," said Le Drian. Residents said a column of about 30 French Sagaie armored vehicles set off on Wednesday toward rebel positions from the town of Niono, 190 miles from the capital, Bamako.
The French action last week came as a surprise but has received widespread international support. Neighboring African countries expected to provide ground troops for a U.N. force by September have said they will move faster to offer troops.
Germany, Britain and the Netherlands have offered transport aircraft to help ferry in African troops. Washington has said it is considering what support it can offer.
Many inhabitants of northern Mali have welcomed the French action, though some also fear being caught in the cross-fire. The Mali rebels who seized Timbuktu and other oasis towns in northern Mali last year imposed Islamic law, including public amputations and beheadings that angered many locals.
"There is a great hope," one man said from Timbuktu, where he said Islamist fighters were trying to blend into civilian neighborhoods. "We hope that the city will be freed soon."
The rebels include fighters from al-Qaida's mainly Algerian-based North African wing AQIM as well as home-grown Malian groups Ansar Dine and MUJWA. Islamists have warned Hollande that he has "opened the gates of hell" for all French citizens.
A day after launching the campaign in Mali, Hollande also ordered a raid in Somalia Saturday to free a French hostage held there by al-Qaida-linked al-Shabaab militants since 2009. That rescue was a failure, with two French commandos killed.
Al-Shabaab said Thursday it had executed its hostage, Denis Allex. France says it believes Allex died in the rescue attempt.
Reuters contributed to this report.