Algeria claims 600 hostages freed while rebels say 35 dead: USA Today
An Algerian news service is saying 600 hostages have been released after being kidnapped in the country's south on Wednesday, according to USA Today, even as militants claim the deaths of as many as 35 foreign captives.
The Algerian agency, ANP, said the military launched a ground and air operation to save the hostages, reported USA Today. The account has not been indepentently verified.
Meanwhile, the Associated Press cited Islamist terrorists as telling Mauritanian press today that 35 foreign hostages and 15 miliants have been killed, said USA Today.
In other words, confusion reigns.
UPDATE 10:20 a.m.
Number of hostages killed in Algeria remains unclear amid rebel claims
Rebels are claiming at least 34 hostages have been killed in Algeria after militants stormed an oil facility in the country's south and took an unknown number captive, according to Mauritania’s ANI news agency, which Eurasia says "has close ties to the militant group" believed responsible for the Jan. 16 attack.
Reuters also notes that the ANI news agency has been in "constant contact" with the kidnappers.
The figures have not been verified, however, with Reuters earlier today citing "Algerian sources" as saying only six hostages were killed.
Haaretz cautions that while rebels put the death toll at 34 hostages and 15 captors, other Algerian news outlets have claimed a far lower number. "Either way, the true nature of the situation on the ground in Algeria is still unclear," Haaretz writes.
Meanwhile, Radio France International is reporting that the Algerian army bombarded a column of kidnappers who tried to flee with their hostages. "The only thing we are sure of is that the Algerians broke off negotiations with the kidnappers," Radio France's correspondent said.
UPDATE 9:45 a.m.
From Brussels: growing anxiety over fate of hostages
Algeria's armed forces might be trying to end the hostage situation--but that doesn't mean the hostages' lives will be saved.
GlobalPost's Brussels correspondent Paul Ames has heard some reports claiming that Algerian aircraft are bombarding the the plant, "with casualties among the hostages."
Algeria's military has a long experience of dealing with Islamist insurgency, Ames notes, and has responded "ruthlessly" in the past.
But there continue to be conflicting reports about the situation. Ames has also heard reports indicating that the Islamists have set up explosives around the plant, with threats to blow it up if there is a rescue attempt.
UPDATE 9:30 a.m.
Former Algeria army officer to NYT: 'there will be more attacks'
A former Algerian army officer told The New York Times today the oil facility attack in the country's south on Wednesday, in which as many as 40 people are believed to have been kidnapped by militants, could be a portent for further violence. Americans are among those reported captured, and militants have claimed it as a revenge attack against the French ground invasion in neighboring Mali.
“The setting in motion of a military machine in north Mali was going to have definite repercussions in Algeria,” Mohamed Chafik Mesbah, who is also a politial scientist, told NYT today, adding: “There are going to be much worse consequences. There will be more attacks.”
Along those lines, FOX News' congressional correspondent Chad Pergram just tweeted:
Homeland Security Committee Chair McCaul warns hostage takers in Algeria could use region as launching pad for other terrorist strikes.
Also today, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta described Wednesday's assault in Algeria as a terrorist attack, according to a NYT report that did not directly quote him using the term.
“I want to assure the American people that the United States will take all necessary and proper steps that are required to deal with this situation,” Panetta said, reported NYT.
ORIGINAL STORY 9 a.m.
As many as 34 hostages and 15 hostage-takers have reportedly been killed in Algeria after Algerian forces launched an air strike on a BP facility that has been held by radical Islamists since Wednesday.
The figures come from a Mauritanian news agency that has been "in constant contact" with the kidnappers, Reuters said, but added that it was not possible to verify the report at this time.
Algerian troops had the complex surrounded and began firing on it from helicopters, according to a report from Mauritania's ANI news agency cited by Reuters.
Earlier, around 25 foreign hostages reportedly escaped from the In Amenas gas field in southeast Algeria, where the gunmen have been holding dozens of people captive.
The report of an escape is also unverified. Algerian television said that 40 Algerian hostages had been freed and 15 foreigners had escaped, according to Reuters, though an Algerian security source told the news agency that 25 people had fled.
Another Algerian official told the Associated Press that there were 20 foreign escapees, Americans and Europeans among them.
The captors are demanding safe passage out of Algeria and into Libya, writes CNN, while Algeria states that it will not negotiate with terrorists.
A group calling itself the "Battalion of Blood" claims to have kidnapped 41 foreigners, including American, Japanese, British, French and Norwegian citizens. They are also holding an unknown number of Algerians at the gas plant, which is run jointly by British, Algerian and Norwegian firms.
Algerian Interior Minister Daho Ould Kablia has said that the kidnappers are led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a former commander with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, who left the armed group to set up his own faction late last year, the BBC reported.
The captors have demanded an end to France's campaign against Islamist insurgents in Mali, as well as the release of 100 Islamist prisoners.
The governments whose nationals are among the hostages have been holding emergency meetings throughout the night. According to the AP's information, Algeria was in talks with the United States and France about the possibility of sending in an international force to rescue the captives.