By Lamine Chikhi
ALGIERS, Jan 17 (Reuters) - Twenty-five foreign hostages escaped and six were killed on Thursday when Algerian forces launched an operation to free them at a remote desert gas plant, Algerian sources said, as one of the biggest international hostage crises in decades unfolded.
In the first official word from Algeria after hours of fast-moving events, government spokesman Mohamed Said was quoted on Thursday evening as saying the operation to free the hostages was still going on and many "terrorists" had been killed.
There had been "several deaths and injuries" among the hostages, he said, without elaborating. The reported loss of hostages' lives raised a chorus of concern from Western leaders, scrambling for word on the fate of their nationals.
A local source told Reuters three foreign hostages were freed by the army as it continued its operation after dark.
The standoff began when gunmen calling themselves the Battalion of Blood stormed the gas facility on Wednesday morning. They said they were holding 41 foreigners and demanded a halt to a French military operation against fellow al Qaeda-linked Islamist militants in neighbouring Mali.
SCROLL DOWN FOR LIVE UPDATES
The raid increased fears that 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. An Algerian security source said earlier 25 foreign hostages had escaped.
Mauritania's ANI news agency, which has been in constant contact with the kidnappers, had earlier said seven hostages were still being held: two Americans, three Belgians, one Japanese and one British citizen.
It quoted one of the kidnappers as saying that Algerian ground forces were trying to fight their way into the complex.
The reports were difficult to confirm. Algeria's official APS news agency said about half the foreign hostages had been freed and about 600 Algerian workers at the site had fled.
In a rare eyewitness account of Wednesday's raid, a local man who had escaped from 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."
ANI and Qatar-based Al Jazeera reported that 34 of the captives and 15 of their captors had been killed when government forces fired from helicopters at a vehicle.
Those death tolls, far higher than confirmed by the local source, would contradict the reports that large numbers of foreigners escaped alive. On Thursday evening, ANI said it had lost contact with the kidnappers.
Britain and Norway, whose oil firms BP and Statoil run the plant jointly with the Algerian state oil company, said they had been informed by the Algerian authorities that a military operation was under way.
British Prime Minister David Cameron said people should prepare for bad news about the hostages. He earlier called his Algerian counterpart to express his concern at what he called a "very grave and serious" situation, Cameron's spokesman said.
"The Algerians are aware that we would have preferred to have been consulted in advance," the spokesman said.
RAISING THE STAKES
The incident dramatically raises the stakes in the French military campaign in neighbouring Mali, where hundreds of French paratroopers and marines are launching a ground offensive against rebels after air strikes began last week.
"What is happening in Algeria justifies all the more the decision I made in the name of France to intervene in Mali in line with the U.N. charter," French President Francois Hollande said, adding that things seemed to have taken a "dramatic" turn and he was still seeking details.
He said earlier that an unspecified number of French nationals were among the hostages. A French national was also among the hostage takers, a local source told Reuters. A large number of people from the former French colony live in France.
Algerian Interior Minister Daho Ould Kablia said the kidnappers were led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a veteran Islamist guerrilla who fought Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s and had set up his own group in the Sahara after falling out with other local al Qaeda leaders.
A holy warrior-cum-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 earlier allowed some prisoners to speak to the media, apparently to put pressure on Algerian forces not to storm the compound. An unidentified hostage who spoke to France 24 television said prisoners were forced to wear explosive belts and captors had threatened to blow up the plant.
A local source told Reuters the hostage takers had blown up a petrol filling station at the plant.
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 any loss of life."
Ireland said later that the Irish hostage was among those freed.
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.
Britain said one of its citizens was killed in the initial storming on Wednesday and "a number" of others were held.
The militants said seven Americans were among their hostages. The White House said it believed Americans were among those held but U.S. officials could not confirm the number. "This is an ongoing situation and we are seeking clarity," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters, expressing concern about the reported loss of lives.
Norwegian oil company Statoil said it had no word on nine of its Norwegian staff who had been held but that three Algerian employees were now free. 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. Vienna said one hostage was Austrian, Dublin said one was Irish and Bucharest said an unspecified number were Romanian.
BP, Statoil and Spanish oil company Cepsa all said they had begun to evacuate personnel from elsewhere in Algeria, an OPEC member.
Hollande has received public backing from Western and African allies who fear that al Qaeda, flush with men and arms from the defeated forces of Libya's Muammar Gaddafi, is building a desert haven in Mali, a poor country helpless to combat fighters who seized its north last year.
However, there is also 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 neighbouring 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.
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 underway against the rebels that it first began targeting from the air last week.
The French action last week came as a surprise but received widespread international support in public. Neighbouring African countries planning to provide ground troops for a U.N. force by September have said they will move faster to deploy them.
Nigeria, the strongest regional power, sent 162 soldiers on Thursday, the first of an anticipated 906.
"The whole world clearly needs to unite and do much more than is presently being done to contain terrorism, with its very negative impact on global peace and security," President Goodluck Jonathan said.
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.
A day after launching the campaign in Mali, Hollande also ordered a failed rescue in Somalia on Saturday to free a French hostage held by al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab militants since 2009. Al Shabaab said on Thursday it had executed hostage Denis Allex. France said it believed he died in the rescue.
01/18/2013 6:43 PM EST
2 American Hostages Still Unaccounted For
According to NBC News, U.S. officials have confirmed that the total number of Americans taken hostage on Wednesday was five. Of those, one was confirmed dead: Frederick Buttaccio of Texas. Two others managed to escape during Thursday's raid, while the remaining two are believed to be still in captivity. The militants had extended an offer to the U.S. to exchange two hostages for two jailed jihadists, which would account for the missing Americans.
The AP reported earlier that U.S. officials were refusing to disclose the exact number of remaining captives for fear that it might compromise their safety.
Read more at NBC News.
--Kavitha A. Davidson
01/18/2013 5:44 PM EST
Who Is Mokhtar Belmokhtar?
The Huffington Post's Hunter Stuart has written a profile on the man known as "Mr. Marlboro," believed to be behind the attack in Algeria.
Called "The Uncatchable" by French intelligence, Belmokhtar is known to locals as more of a businessman than a terrorist, having consolidated his power by being a benefactor to the region's poor desert people.
Until recently, Belmokhtar was a senior commander for al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) but split from the group last year to form his own militia, called Those Who Sign With Blood.
The group's ability to take over such a high-profile target as the In Amenas gas plant, and to hold captive such a large number of hostages, illustrates its power and dexterity in the region.
To read the entire profile, click here.
--Kavitha A. Davidson
01/18/2013 5:32 PM EST
17-year-old Abdullah Abdallah Ould Hmeïda has been identified by Mauritanian news agency Sahara as one of the al Qaeda-affiliated militants who laid siege on the gas plant in the Algerian desert. Ould Hmeïda, who joined the group at age 14, was killed in the Algerian military's rescue operation yesterday.
01/18/2013 4:48 PM EST
American Hostage Was Shot By Militant
The Guardian spoke to an Algerian oil worker who has since been freed from the gas plant. He provided harrowing details of the terrorists' actions and the subsequent raid by Algerian forces.
At 10am on Thursday, when the Algerian army assault began, he said he heard "explosions, shots, bombing and women's screams". Then the hostage-takers told local workers: "Algerian brothers, don't be afraid, go in peace, you're going to go home, we're your brothers, we're all Muslim." One American hostage who had been with his Algerian colleagues was wounded after a fall, another was shot by a militant. "I don't know if they'd seen he was American or if they were afraid when he moved," he said. The American did not die immediately, he said, but he understood the man had since died.
The State Department has confirmed the death of one American, reported by the AP to be Frederick Buttaccio from Texas. It is unclear whether Buttacio is the hostage described above.
To read the rest of the first-hand account, visit the Guardian.
--Kavitha A. Davidson
01/18/2013 4:38 PM EST
Gallup: Algerians' Disapproval Of U.S. Leadership Among Highest In The World
A new Gallup poll reveals that Algerian approval of U.S. leadership has sunk to its lowest level since 2009, when Obama took office. In 2012, 68% of Algerians disapproved of U.S. leadership, rivaling the 71% rating received by the government under the Bush administration in 2008.
Algerians' disapproval of U.S. leadership is now among the highest in the world, behind only Pakistan and the Palestinian Territories. As news of the hostage crisis in Algeria -- involving Americans among other foreigners -- continues to unfold, the data show that the U.S. may need to tread carefully in its handling of the situation. While it is unclear at this point how Algerians feel about the terrorists' actions, it is clear that the large majority of Algerians were disgruntled with U.S. leadership before this crisis and thus may be leery of any action the U.S. might take.
To see the full report, visit Gallup.
--Kavitha A. Davidson
01/18/2013 4:30 PM EST
Fire At The Gas Plant
Al Arabiya English is reporting a massive fire at the In Amenas oil facility.
@ AlArabiya_Eng :
#BreakingNews: Reports of massive blaze in Algeria gas plant where hostages were held http://t.co/XxyjLaX6
01/18/2013 4:27 PM EST
Dead French Hostage Identified
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius announced on Friday that at least one Frenchman was killed during the hostage crisis in Algeria. "The Algerian authorities have just informed us that one of our compatriots, Mr. Yann Desjeux, unfortunately lost his life during the operation to free hostages," Fabius said in a statement, according to Reuters. "The lives of three others of our compatriots who were on the site during the terrorist attack have been saved," he added.
01/18/2013 4:18 PM EST
Name Of Dead American Hostage Released
Per the AP, the American hostage who has died in Algeria is Frederick Buttaccio from Texas. How he died remains unclear.
To read more, click here.
01/18/2013 4:05 PM EST
Number Of Americans Still Being Held Unclear
The AP reports that Americans are still being held hostage, though the exact number remains unclear. After receiving an update from Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal, Secretary Clinton stressed that the "utmost care must be taken to preserve innocent life."
Read more from the AP.
--Kavitha A. Davidson
01/18/2013 3:38 PM EST
'Without The Ouster Of Gaddafi, There's No Mali'
In the Jan. 11 episode of The World This Week on France 24, Paris Match's Régis Le Sommier connected the dots between Mali and Libya, stating that the toppling of Muammar Gaddafi paved the way for the militant resistance in Mali.
"Libya has given these people a number of weapons, there's been an outflow of weapons toward these people. They have gathered in central Mali, they've created the conditions for a new tribal zone over there, bringing back some threats directly toward Europe from this region," Le Sommier said. "What have we left in Libya? What is the state of Libya now? Not that I worship Gaddafi, but weren't we much better off when Gaddafi was there?"
A number of the kidnappers and arms used in the Algeria attack are believed to have come from Libya.
Watch the clip below:
For the full episode of The World This Week, click here.
--Kavitha A. Davidson