ALGIERS, Algeria — The militants had filled five jeeps with hostages and begun to move when Algerian government attack helicopters opened up on them, leaving four in smoking ruins. The fifth vehicle crashed, allowing an Irish hostage inside to clamber out to safety with an explosive belt still strapped around his neck.

Three days into the crisis at a natural gas plant deep in the Sahara, it remained unclear how many had perished in the faceoff between Africa's most uncompromising militant group and the region's most ruthless military.

By Friday, around 100 of the 135 foreign workers on the site had been freed and 18 of an estimated 30 kidnappers had been slain, according to the Algerian government, still leaving a major hostage situation centered on the plant's main refinery.

The government said 12 workers, both foreign and Algerian, were confirmed dead. But the extremists have put the number at 35. And the government attack Thursday on the convoy – as pieced together from official, witness and news media accounts – suggested the death toll could go higher.

In Washington, U.S. officials said one American – a Texan – was known to have died.

Meanwhile, the al-Qaida-linked Masked Brigade behind the operation offered to trade two American hostages for two terrorists behind bars in the U.S., including the mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. The U.S. rejected the deal out of hand.

"The United States does not negotiate with terrorists," declared State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.

The Algerian government released few details about the continuing siege at the Ain Amenas plant, which is jointly run by BP, Norway's Statoil and Algeria's state-owned oil company. By Friday, however, the outlines of the takeover by Islamic militants were coming into focus.

The attack had been in the works for two months, a member of the Masked Brigade told an online Mauritanian news outlet that often carries al-Qaida-related announcements. The band of attackers included militants from Algeria, Mali, Egypt, Niger, Mauritania and Canada, he said.

He said militants targeted Algeria because they expected the country to support the international effort to root out extremists in neighboring Mali.

Instead of passing through Algeria's relatively well-patrolled deserts, the attackers came in from southern Libya, where there is little central government and smugglers have long reigned supreme, according to Algeria's Interior Minister Daho Ould Kabila.

He said the attackers consisted of about 30 men armed with rocket launchers and machine guns and under the direct supervision of the Masked Brigade's founder himself, Moktar Belmoktar, a hardened, one-eyed Algerian militant who has battled the Algerian government for years and has built a Saharan smuggling and kidnapping empire linked to al-Qaida.

Early Wednesday morning, they crept across the border, 60 miles (100 kilometers) from the natural gas plant, and fell on a pair of buses taking foreign workers to the airport. The buses' military escort drove off the attackers in a blaze of gunfire that sent bullets zinging over the heads of the crouching workers. A Briton and an Algerian, probably a security guard, were killed.

Frustrated, the militants turned to the vast gas complex, divided between the workers' living quarters and the refinery itself, and seized hostages, the Algerian government said.

Several of the former hostages, who arrived haggard-looking on a late-night flight into Algiers on Friday, said that the gunfire began around 5 a.m. and that the militants who stormed the living quarters almost immediately separated out the foreigners. (None of those interviewed would allow their last names to be used, fearing trouble for themselves or their families.)

Mohamed, a 37-year-old nurse, said at least five people were shot to death, their bodies still in front of the infirmary when he left Thursday night.

Chabane, who worked in the food service, said he bolted out the window and was hiding when heard the militants speaking among themselves with Libyan, Egyptian and Tunisian accents. At one point, he said, they caught a Briton.

"They threatened him until he called out in English to his friends, telling them, `Come out, come out. They're not going to kill you. They're looking for the Americans.' A few minutes later, they blew him away," Chabane said.

The militants declared that the takeover was prompted by France's attacks on al-Qaida-linked rebels in Mali, and they demanded that the intervention end or the hostages would pay for it.

The takeover soon turned into a standoff as military units from a nearby base surrounded the complex.

On Wednesday night, Kabila, Algeria's top security official, announced that in accordance to Algeria's longstanding policy, "we reject all negotiations with the group." Despite regular elections, Algeria is run by a coterie of generals and ruling party leaders who got the country through a bloody, decade-long Islamist rebellion with brutal tactics that earned them the nickname "the eradicators."

On Thursday afternoon, Algerian military forces saw a five-jeep convoy moving from one part of the complex to another. Fearing the kidnappers were trying to make a break for it, they sent attack helicopters into action.

Irish electrician Stephen McFaul was in that convoy and made it out alive as the world exploded around him.

"Four of the jeeps were taken out and everybody in them was killed," McFaul's brother, Brian, told the Irish Times. "The jeep my brother was in crashed and my brother made break for it," with a belt of explosives strapped around his neck.

The kidnappers called the Mauritanian news service ANI to say that 35 hostages and 15 of their fighters had been killed in the bloodbath – a figure that was impossible to confirm. The kidnappers told ANI that they were just trying to consolidate hostages into a single location when the Algerians attacked.

On Friday, it became clear the Algerian forces had retaken only the living quarters. Hostages and their kidnappers remained ensconced in the refinery.

An international outcry mounted over the Algerians' handling of the crisis. Experts noted that this is how they have always dealt with terrorists.

"It's the Russian training for dealing with terrorism," said Matieu Guidere, a longtime expert on al-Qaida and Algeria. "The message is: We will terrorize the terrorists. ... This is clear. The life of hostages is nothing in the balance."

The Algerian government insisted it had to intervene to prevent a catastrophe.

"As European counterterrorism experts have emphasized, no operation to liberate hostages carried out in such exceptionally complex conditions can succeed 100 percent without some damage," a security official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the sensitive operation, told the state news agency.

In Washington, the Obama administration said it was trying to secure the release of Americans held by the militants. It would not say how many there were.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton defended Algeria.

"Let's not forget: This is an act of terror," she said. "The perpetrators are the terrorists. They are the ones who have assaulted this facility, have taken hostage Algerians and others from around the world as they were going about their daily business."

___

Schemm reported from Rabat. Associated Press writers Sarah DiLorenzo and Elaine Ganley in Paris and Shawn Pogatchnik in Dublin, Ireland, contributed to this report.

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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

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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.

Stuart writes:

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

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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.

--Shirin Barghi

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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

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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

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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

--Eline Gordts

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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.

--Eline Gordts

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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.

--Eline Gordts

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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

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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

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Le Figaro reports that Secretary Clinton stated that the hostages are "still in danger" and that the situation is "extremely difficult."

--Cosima Ungaro

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The AP writes:

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is telling Algeria to do everything possible to protect hostages as it seeks to free them from militants at a natural gas complex in the Sahara.

Clinton says that in her conversation Friday with Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal, she underscored that "the utmost care must be taken to preserve innocent life."

The State Department says Americans are still being held hostage, and world leaders have criticized Algeria for its handling of the attack.

Clinton did not criticize the North African country.

The attack, she says, was an "act of terror." She also vows greater U.S.-Algerian counterterrorism cooperation in future.

--Eline Gordts

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According to French newspaper Le Figaro, Laurent Fabius, France interior minister was informed by Algerian authorities that a French citizen had been killed during the rescue operation in In Amemas. Three others who were present during the hostage crisis are safe.

--Cosima Ungaro

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The Telegraph's Richard Spencer writes that the continued relationship between Algeria and Russia explains why the Algerian government was willing to conduct a raid that may have put the captives in danger.

The Algerian assault on the In Amenas gas facility appears to have followed the Russian model. It may be no coincidence that Algeria, long allied to the Soviet bloc, still relies on Russia for both weapons and special forces military training.

...

The relationship with the Russian armed forces, who sacrificed countless civilian lives in wars against Islamists and separatists first in Afghanistan and later in Chechnya, continues despite Algeria's growing closeness to the West.

French analysts said the Algerian force given responsibility was the "Special Intervention Group", a force dating back to a now disbanded unit employed to brutal effect in the civil war. It would have regarded any escape by the militants as especially humiliating.

Read more at the Telegraph.

--Kavitha A. Davidson

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According to HuffPost France, Islamist sources including members of the Signed-In-Blood battalion revealed to the Mauritanian agency ANI that the kidnappers are still holding seven foreign hostages. According to the same source, there are three Belgians, two Americans, one Japanese and one British.

The AP has received confirmation from the State Department that Americans are still being held captive.

--Cosima Ungaro

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From the AP:

@ AP : BREAKING: State Department confirms Americans still being held hostage in Algeria.

--Eline Gordts

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Google/GeoEye has some incredible photos of the In Amenas oil facility, taken from Google Earth on September 10, 2012.

google geoeye in amenas september 2012 1

google geoeye in amenas september 2012 2

google geoeye in amenas september 2012 3

(Images courtesy of Google/GeoEye)

--Kavitha A. Davidson

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The Canadian government has confirmed that they are aware of reports stating that one of the hostage-takers is a Canadian national, reports Global National.

@ GlobalNational : Canadian gov't confirms they are aware of reports that a Canadian is among the hostage-takers in #Algeria: http://t.co/wiKUb8hC

Watch the report here.

--Kavitha A. Davidson

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From the AP:

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.

Read more here.

-- Eline Gordts

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A U.S. official said that one American hostage in Algeria is believed dead and four others alive, CBS news reports.

CBS:

The medical condition of the four survivors is not known. Of the five Americans present at the facility, three had been taken hostage and two others successfully remained hidden in the complex, the official said. Five others escaped before the militants took over the plant.

Read the full report here.

-- Eline Gordts

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According to French newspaper Le Monde, Norway still hasn't heard anything from its eight citizens in the gas plant. Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg declared in a press conference today: "As this weekend approaches, the nation needs to be prepared to receive bad news."

--Cosima Ungaro

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With al Qaeda-affiliated militants threatening to attack new installations in north Africa, energy firms in Egypt and Libya are taking extra measures to boost oilfield security.

"Due to events in the region, the Petroleum Faculty Guard has taken a series of actions to enhance and reinforce the protection of oilfields, facilities and employees in the western and southern regions of Libya," said a statement by the Libyan oil protection force, according to Reuters.

--Shirin Barghi

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According to a Gallup poll posted today, the majority of Malians support the implementation of Sharia law to some extent, but do not agree with the Islamist militants' view that Sharia be the only source of legislation.

The poll also found that Malians' confidence in their government had plummeted in 2012, before rebel aggression forced France to intervene. "Malians' growing dissatisfaction with their government may point to support in the country for these foreign efforts and a return to what was before the military coup in March 2012," the report says.

Read the whole report at Gallup.

--Kavitha A. Davidson

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NBC News correspondent Michelle Kosinski spoke to a terrorism analyst with FBI experience who warned of the possibility of similar attacks from other groups inspired by the crisis in Algeria.

"[Militant groups' are all vying for attention -- for fighters, for financing. They see this, they see the attention it gets," he said.

Read more at NBC News.

--Kavitha A. Davidson

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Norwegian journalist and Sky News reporter Trygve Sorvaag notes that Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg is leading an effort to airlift foreign evacuees to Europe.

@ TrygveSorvaag : "We are working to establish an international airlift for evacuees from #Algeria to Europe" says Norwegian PM tonight. @SkyNews

--Kavitha A. Davidson

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According to The Guardian, the United States will not respond to a deal with the kidnappers at the In Amenas facility. Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters, "The United States does not negotiate with terrorists." Mauritania's ANI news service earlier reported that militants at the gas facility had offered an exchange of American hostages for two jihadists held in U.S. prisons.

--Cosima Ungaro

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Foreign Policy outlines Algeria's history of dealing with militants, explaining why the government does not negotiate with terrorists, even at the risk of losing lives.

Algeria's experience with Islamist insurgency during the 1990s defines its response to events today. During that conflict, a debate emerged within the Algerian government about how to deal with the violent Islamists. One side favored a negotiated solution. The other, known as the eradicateurs, said killing the Islamists was the only approach. The eradicateurs won -- and they still remain in the drivers seat in today's Algeria.

Read more at Foreign Policy.

--Kavitha A. Davidson

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French editorialist Jean-Francois Kahn introduces the idea that the hostage crisis could be a consequence of Nicolas Sarkozy's hasty intervention in Libya on HuffPost France, noting that the kidnappers and their arms are believed to have come from the country.

--Cosima Ungaro

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According to The Guardian, Radio France's correspondent in Algeria reported that between seven and 10 attackers armed with explosives were still in the In Amenas plant's machine room.

--Cosima Ungaro

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Algerian hostages revealed details of their ordeal to the French online magazine Le Point.fr. The hostages claim there were 18 to 30 kidnappers, and at least two of them were foreigners. One is reportedly French and the other is from Northern Europe. They describe "heavy and sophisticated" artillery and confirm that Algerians had been separated from foreign hostages, who were held outside.

Read more on Lepoint.fr. (In French)

--Cosima Ungaro

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Loading Slideshow...
  • 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. <em>Caption: This image from video provided by the SITE Intel Group made available Thursday Jan. 17, 2013, purports to show militant militia leader Moktar Belmoktar. (AP Photo/SITE Intel Group) </em>

  • Norway

    Nine Norwegian employees of Statoil are hostages, the company says. <em>Caption: Norwegian Prime minister Jens Stoltenberg, right, and Foreign Minister, Espen Barth Eide, attend a press conference in Oslo regarding the attack on Statoil's plant in Algeria, where 13 Norwegians are among 17 workers who were taken as hostages, Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013. (AP Photo/NTB Scanpix, Berit Roald) </em>

  • 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. <em>Caption: Defense Secretary Leon Panetta pauses during a news conference in Rome, Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013. Panetta confirmed on Wednesday that American citizens are among the hostages taken by an Al Qaeda-linked group that seized a gas field in Algeria, calling the action a "terrorist attack," (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)</em>

  • Britain

    Several" British nationals are among the hostages, the U.K. government says. <em>Caption: Statoil spokesman Ole Anders Skauby, centre right, talks to TV reporters outside Scandic Bergen Airport hotel where a drop-in center is established for relatives of hostages involved in the situation in Algeria. (AP Photo / Hakon Mosvold Larsen / NTB scanpix) </em>

  • Malaysia

    Two Malaysians being held, the government says. <em>Caption: This April 19, 2005 photo released by Statoil via NTB scanpix, shows the Ain Amenas gas field in Algeria, where Islamist militants raided and took hostages Wednesday Jan. 16, 2013. (AP Photo/Kjetil Alsvik, Statoil via NTB scanpix) </em>

  • Ireland

    A 36-year-old Irish man was among the hostages but is now safe and free, according to Ireland's government. <em>Caption: This April 19, 2005 photo released by Statoil via NTB scanpix, shows the Ain Amenas gas field in Algeria, where Islamist militants raided and took hostages Wednesday Jan. 16, 2013. (AP Photo/Kjetil Alsvik, Statoil via NTB scanpix) </em>

  • France

    President Francois Hollande says there are French hostages but gave no exact number. <em>Caption: In this undated image released Wednesday Jan. 16, 2013, by BP petroleum company, showing the Amenas natural gas field in the eastern central region of Algeria, where Islamist militants raided and took hostages Wednesday Jan. 16, 2013. (AP Photo/BP)</em>

  • Romania

    Romania's Foreign Ministry says Romanians are among hostages. <em>Caption: In this undated image released Wednesday Jan. 16, 2013, by BP petroleum company, showing the Amenas natural gas field in the eastern central region of Algeria, where Islamist militants raided and took hostages Wednesday Jan. 16, 2013. (AP Photo/BP)</em>

  • Japan

    At least three of the hostages are Japanese, according to the Japanese media. <em>Caption: Employees arrive for work at the headquarters of JGC Corporation, or Nikki in Yokohama, near Tokyo Thursday, Jan. 17, 2013, a day after an attack at a natural gas complex in Algeria which involves the company's workers. (AP Photo/Kyodo News) </em>