Algeria i(ANN)The Algerian military launched an operation on Thursday against armed Islamist extremists holding dozens of hostages including Americans and other foreigners at a remote gas field on Thursday, and a top Algerian official said
at least four hostages were freed. There were unconfirmed reports of multiple casualties.
The military operation, confirmed by an Algerian official and the governments of Japan and Britain, which said they had been informed by Algerian authorities, came more than 24 hours after the armed extremists seized the hostages at the internationally managed gas field near the Libyan border in retaliation for the French military intervention in Mali last week.
“There was an assault, yes,” said the Algerian official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the operation. “There are burned-out vehicles. Four hostages have been saved.”
The official said reports that Algerian army helicopters had strafed the gas field and had killed 35 hostages and 15 kidnappers were “exaggerated.” He said that some kidnappers had been killed but he did not say whether any hostages had been killed.
“We are waiting for official confirmation,” he said.
News agencies in Algeria and neighboring Mauritania said the helicopters may have attacked when the kidnappers sought to move their hostages from one part of the installation to another.
British officials in London said Algerian authorities had informed them that an “operation” was under way at the remote location in the desert, but gave no further details. “It remains an ongoing situation,” one official said, speaking in return for anonymity under departmental rules. Japanese authorities were still trying to ascertain if any Japanese hostages had escaped, the top Japanese government spokesman, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, told a news conference.
The situation is “very confused,” President François Hollande of France said at a news conference in Paris and was “evolving hour by hour.” Mr. Hollande confirmed for the first time officially that French citizens were among the captives.
The kidnapping in Algeria was a retaliation for the continuing French military assault on Islamist extremists in Mali that has escalated into a much broader conflict, now enmeshing the United States and other countries with citizens held hostage. Reuters said the survivors of the Algerian assault included hostages from the United States, Belgium, Japan and Britain. The full extent of the casualties was not immediately clear.
Before reports of an assault began to emerge, many hostages — both Algerian and foreign — were reported to have escaped as the kidnappers sought and failed to persuade Algerian authorities to give them safe passage with their captives.
The Algerian news Web site TSA, quoted a local official, Sidi Knaoui, as saying that 10 foreign hostages and 40 Algerians had escaped Thursday after the kidnappers had made several aborted attempts to flee with their captives. Mr. Knaoui said he had been scheduled to meet with the hostage takers in an attempt at negotiations. He could not be reached for confirmation.
The Irish government confirmed that an Irish national had escaped or been released. The man had contacted his family and was “understood to be safe and well and no longer a hostage,” Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said in a statement.
Other Algerian news reports said that 30 Algerian hostages and 15 foreigners escaped, but there was no immediate independent confirmation of that account. The Associated Press, quoting an unidentified Algerian official, said 20 foreigners, including some Americans, had escaped.
Earlier, a French television station, France 24, quoted an unidentified hostage as saying the attackers “were heavily armed and forced several hostages to wear explosives belts. They threatened to blow up the gas field if Algerian forces attempted to enter the site,” the station reported.