Algeria launches hostage rescue, reportedly frees 650
POSTED: Friday, January 18, 2013 - 1:09pm
UPDATED: Friday, January 18, 2013 - 1:10pm
(CNN) — Militants strapping plastic explosives around the necks of foreign workers seized in the remote Algerian desert. Hostages secretly inventing disguises to escape their captors.
These are just some of the few concrete details that have emerged from the survivors of a massive terrorist assault on an Algerian gas field, an ordeal that is entering a third day.
It isn't clear how many hostages were initially seized by the Islamic militants, how many are still being held or how many have been killed. Some may still be hiding in the complex, according to the state-run Algerian Press Service.
The press service said Friday that an Algerian military operation freed 650 hostages, including 100 foreigners. At least 30 foreign workers are still unaccounted for, according to the unconfirmed media report.
It said there were numerous casualties in the military operation, without offering details.
Facing criticism that it didn't alert other countries before launching its military operation Thursday, Algeria said it had to act fast before the hostages were moved to another country.
Like most of the information about the situation, there are conflicting reports over whether the operation is still ongoing.
Algeria's state media reported it was over, but British Prime Minister David Cameron said Friday morning that the Algerians were still pursuing terrorists and possibly hostages at the large and complex site.
It all started Wednesday, when the al Qaeda-linked militants -- apparently angry about Algeria's support in a rout of their comrades in neighboring Mali -- targeted the remote gas field, which is operated by Algeria's state oil company in partnership with foreign companies, including Britain's BP and Norway's Statoil.
The massive gas field is in the southern Algerian town of In Amenas, just 60 kilometers (37 miles) from the Libyan border.
Officials from Britain, the United States, Norway, France, Malaysia and Japan have said their nationals are also among those involved, without offering further details, citing conflicting reports.
Cameron said Friday that the number of Britons unaccounted for is "significantly" fewer than 30.
A reported offer to negotiate the release of an unknown number of American hostages has been rejected by the United States.
A spokesman for Moktar Belmoktar, a veteran jihadist who leads the the Brigade of the Masked Ones, which has claimed responsibility for the kidnappings, made the offer in an interview with a Mauritanian private news agency.
The spokesman said Belmoktar is willing to release the American hostages in exchange for Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, the mastermind behind the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani woman who is jailed in the United States on terrorism charges.
When asked Friday about the reported prisoner exchange offer, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland restated the United States' policy of not negotiating with terrorists.
It's unclear how many Americans are being held. There could be as few as three American hostages, two U.S. officials said Wednesday.