Negotiations are continuing with the al-Qaida-linked group that kidnapped hundreds at an Algerian gas plant. Their fate is still unclear as the Algerian forces' rescue mission, which resulted in dozens of deaths, is still ongoing.
This is a breaking news situation. Please check back for updates. The main story is below.
Update: 7:40 p.m. ET
More than 20 foreigners were captive or missing inside a desert gas plant on Saturday, according to a Reuters report, nearly two days after the Algerian army launched an assault to free them that saw many hostages killed.
The standoff between the Algerian army and al-Qaida-linked gunmen — one of the biggest international hostage crises in decades — entered its fourth day, having thrust Saharan militancy to the top of the global agenda.
The exact number and fate of victims has yet to be confirmed, with the Algerian government keeping officials from Western countries far from the site where their countrymen were in peril. U.S. media reports say one American, Frederick Buttaccio, of Texas, has been killed.
Reports put the number of hostages killed at between 12 to 30, with possibly dozens of foreigners still unaccounted for — among them Norwegians, Japanese, Britons, Americans and others.
By nightfall on Friday, the Algerian military was holding the vast residential barracks at the Ain Amenas gas processing plant, while gunmen were holed up in the industrial plant itself with an undisclosed number of hostages.
Update: 6:06 p.m. ET
U.S. officials confirmed that one American has died in the hostage standoff at an Algerian gas complex. The officials said the deceased American is a Texas resident, Frederick Buttaccio. It is unclear how he died.
The officials added that Buttaccio's remains have been recovered and his family has been notified. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
NBC is also reporting that two Americans escaped from the complex unharmed. The fate of two additional Americans known to be at the eastern Algerian plant remained uncertain.
Update: 3:52 p.m. ET
AP sources report that one American is among the dead in the Algerian hostage standoff. The French foreign minister has said that one French man was also killed during the rescue operation to free the hostages, while three French citizens were saved.
AP Photo: Digital Globe. Rescue mission: The Ain Amenas gas plant in eastern Algeria, where Islamist militants took hostages on Wednesday. IMAGE
Update: 2:17 p.m. ET
Algeria's state news agency says 12 hostages have been killed since the start of the operation to free workers kidnapped by Islamic militants at a natural gas plant in the Sahara.
The APS news agency quotes an unidentified security source for the new death toll and says the fatalities include both Algerian and foreign workers at the remote desert facility.
APS also said Friday that 18 of the hostage takers have been killed.
Update: 1:36 p.m. ET
The U.S. State Department confirms Americans are still being held hostage in Algeria.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland says the U.S. is working with Algeria and other governments to try to secure their release. But she would not say how many Americans were still being held. Her confirmation came as some Americans were being ferried out of Algeria.
BP, which operates the remote Algerian gas plant where the hostages were captured, evacuated one American, along with other foreign workers, to Mallorca and then to London.
An American official said a U.S. military C-130 flew a group of people, including some lightly wounded or injured, from Algiers to a U.S. facility in Europe on Friday. The official wasn't authorized to speak publicly on the matter and requested anonymity.
Update: 11:58 a.m. ET
More than 20 foreigners were still being held hostage or missing, an Algerian security force told Reuters.
Earlier he said 60 were still missing with some believed still held hostage, but it was unclear how many, and how many might be in hiding elsewhere in the sprawling compound.
"We are still dealing with a fluid and dangerous situation where a part of the terrorist threat has been eliminated in one part of the site, but there still remains a threat in another part," British Prime Minister David Cameron told his parliament.
Update: 11:15 a.m. ET
A source from the Algerian security forces said around 100 of the foreign hostages have been freed, according to Reuters. The fate of other foreign hostages is unclear as the situation is changing rapidly, the source reported.
Update: 11:06 a.m. ET
President Barack Obama is receiving regular updates on the situation at an Algerian gas plant, where about 60 foreigners were unaccounted for, a White House spokesman told Reuters Friday.
"We are in constant contact with the government of Algeria and have been clear that our first priority is the safety and security of the hostages," Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council, said in a statement.
Vietor said Obama discussed the situation with British Prime Minister David Cameron Thursday.
"We are in close touch with our other international partners, as well as BP's security office in London," said Vietor.
An administration official described the situation as "ongoing and sensitive."
Update: 9:23 a.m. ET
The Algerian kidnappers' spokesman says they are willing to swap American hostages for two Islamic militants, the Mauritanian news agency ANI says, according to Reuters. The militants — Pakistani Aafia Siddiqui and Egyptian Omar Abdel-Rahman, known as "The Blind Sheikh" — are currently jailed in the United States.
An Austrian hostage has been freed, the Austrian Foreign Ministry says, according to Reuters. Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger "has been informed by the Algerian foreign minister that the Austrian who was in this situation is safe and sound," a ministry spokesman said. "We have no further details as to how he got out."
The total number of hostages freed so far is 650, including 573 Algerians, according to Reuters report from APS, the Algerian news agency.
Update: 8:41 a.m. ET
Algerian state news says about 60 hostages are still unaccounted for. Negotiations have resumed with the al-Qaida-linked kidnappers, according to AP reports. The captors have threatened to attack other energy installations, Reuters says.
ALGIERS, Algeria —Algerian helicopters and special forces stormed a gas plant in the stony plains of the Sahara 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 neighboring Mali.
British Prime Minister David Cameron said Friday that Algerian forces are "still pursuing terrorists" and are continuing to look for hostages at a "large and complex site."
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, families urging them never to return.
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, other Americans remain either held or unaccounted for. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
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. Algeria's army-dominated government, hardened by decades of fighting Islamist militants, shrugged aside foreign offers of help and drove ahead alone.
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 were being stubborn and 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, but succeeded in garnering a global audience.
Even violence-scarred Algerians were stunned by the brazen hostage-taking Wednesday, the biggest in northern Africa in years and the first to include Americans as targets. Mass fighting in the 1990s had largely spared the lucrative oil and gas industry that gives Algeria its economic independence and regional weight.
The hostage-taking raised questions about security for sites run by multinationals that are dotted across Africa's largest country. It also raised the prospect of similar attacks on other countries allied against the extremist warlords and drug traffickers who rule a vast patch of desert across several countries in northwest Africa. Even the heavy-handed Algerian response may not deter groups looking for martyrdom and attention.
Casualty figures in the Algerian standoff varied widely. The remote location is extremely hard to reach and was surrounded by Algerian security forces — who, like the militants, are inclined to advertise their successes and minimize their failures.
"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, 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."
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.
APS said some 600 local workers were safely freed in the raid — but many of those were reportedly released the day before by the militants themselves.
The militants, via a Mauritanian news website, claimed that 35 hostages and 15 militants died in the helicopter strafing.
President Barack Obama and 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."
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 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.
Militants earlier said they were holding seven Americans, but the administration confirmed only that Americans were among those taken. The U.S. government was in contact with American businesses across North Africa and the Middle East to help them guard against the possibility of copycat attacks.
BP, the Norwegian company Statoil and the Algerian state oil company Sonatrach operate the gas field, and a Japanese company, JGC Corp., provides services for the facility.
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 Cameron, said Britain was not informed in advance of the raid.
One Irish hostage managed to escape: electrician Stephen McFaul, who'd worked in North Africa's oil and natural gas fields off and on for 15 years. His family said the militants let hostages call their families to press the kidnappers' demands.
"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.
At least one Filipino managed to escape and was slightly injured, the Philippine Foreign Affairs Department said. Spokesman Raul Hernandez said he had no information about any fatalities.
Algerian forces who had ringed the Ain Amenas complex had vowed not to negotiate with the militants, 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.
"Algerians clearly were not willing to compromise with the terrorists and not willing to accept the idea of coping with the situation for days and days," said Riccardo Fabiani of Eurasia Group. "Algerians never had problems causing a blood bath to respond to terrorist attacks."
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.
Her husband and the other bus passengers climbed out of a window and were transported to a nearby military camp, she said, declining to give his name for security reasons.
News of the bloody Algerian operation caused oil prices to rise $1.25 to close at $95.49 a barrel 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.
Algerian Interior Minister Daho Ould Kabila said the 20-odd militants entered the country from nearby Libya in three vehicles, in an operation commanded by extremist mastermind Moktar Belmoktar, who is normally based in Mali.
"The Algerian authorities have expressed, many times, to the Libyan authorities, its fears and asked it a dozen times to be careful and secure borders with Algeria," Kabila was quoted as saying on the website of the newspaper Echourouk.
The militants made it clear that their attack was fallout from the intervention in Mali. One commander, Oumar Ould Hamaha, said they were now "globalizing the conflict" in revenge for the military assault on Malian soil.
France has encountered fierce resistance from the extremist groups in Mali and failed to persuade many allies to join in the actual combat. The Algeria raid could push other partners to act more decisively in Mali — but could also scare away those who are wary of inviting terrorist attacks back home.
Associated Press writers contributing to this report are Karim Kabir in Algiers; Bradley Klapper, Kimberly Dozier and Robert Burns in Washington, D.C.; Lori Hinnant and Elaine Ganley in Paris; Shawn Pogatchnik in Dublin; Bjoern H. Amland in Oslo, Norway; Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo; and Cassie Vinograd and Jill Lawless in London.
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