Map of gas field at Amenas in Algeria where a BP installation was seized by combatants. An attempt to end the takeover has resulted in the deaths of at least 50 people., a photo by Pan-African News Wire File Photos on Flickr.
January 17, 2013, 4:59 AM
Militants: 35 hostages dead in Algerian copter attack
Updated at 9:41 a.m. Eastern
ALGIERS, Algeria The hostage situation in an Algerian natural gas complex appeared to reach a dangerous crescendo Thursday, with Islamic militants claiming that Algerian helicopter attacks left 35 hostages and 15 captors dead, according to the Associated Press.
Details were still emerging Thursday morning and there was no official confirmation from U.S. or other governments involved on the reported deaths. The British Foreign Office did confirm that they were aware of an "ongoing military operation."
A diplomatic source confirmed to CBS News that the Algerian military had a plan to retake the facility and that there had been casualties among both the terrorists and hostages, including multiple deaths.
A British security source, citing a contact close to the scene, told CBS News "that the Algerians were firing from helicopters at anything that moved," but could not confirm any deaths.
Islamists with the Masked Brigade, who have been speaking through a Mauritanian news outlet, said according to the AP that the Algerians opened fire as the militants tried to leave the vast energy complex with their hostages a day after seizing the installation deep in the desert.
The militant spokesman said the leader of the kidnappers, Abou El Baraa, was among those killed. He said the militants would blow up the remaining hostages if the Algeria army approached.
The Algerian government did not immediately comment on the situation, but both Japanese and British authorities confirmed to that AP that they had been told by the Algerians there was an ongoing operation to free the hostages.
The information came from the Nouakchott Information Agency, which has often carried reports from al Qaeda-linked extremist groups in North Africa.
The number of remaining hostages is unclear. The militants originally said they had seized 41 foreigners, including Americans, Britons, French, Japanese, Romanians, Malaysians, Irish and Norwegians, among others.
CBS News correspondent Margaret Brennan reports the State Department has only confirmed that three Americans were among those taken hostage, and that 10 in total worked at the facility.
Meanwhile, multiple sources reported the earlier escape of some hostages, but details differed. An employee at the facility, partly operated by BP, told CBS News that 26 Algerians and four foreigners, including one American, had escaped, citing a briefing from BP officials. Two Britons and one French hostage accounted for the other foreigners.
An Algerian security official had told the Associated Press that around 20 foreign hostages had escaped.
Those reports were also unconfirmed by government officials.
The Masked Brigade was formed by Belmoktar, a one-eyed Algerian who recently declared he was leaving the terror network's Algerian branch, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, to create his own group. He said at the time he would still maintain ties with the central organization based in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Earlier on Thursday, the Al-Jazeera television network spoke via telephone to three purported hostages, and to a man identifying himself as Baraa, the commander reportedly killed in subsequent attack.
"Yesterday, the Algerian army deliberately opened fire and they injured some of the hostages from Japan and South Korea," Baraa told Al-Jazeera. "If the army withdrew from the area, lifted this siege, and abandoned their obstinate approach, this can open the door for negotiations with governments of the hostages' countries."
A man identifying himself as a Japanese hostage told the network that he and a Norwegian hostage had been wounded by sniper fire. Two others, who identified themselves as a Briton and an Irish national, said they had communicated to their respective embassies that the situation was "deteriorating," and urged the Algerian military to pull back from the confrontation and stop engaging the kidnappers.
The Irishman said the "message does not seem to be getting through," warning that the incoming fire from Algerian troops was continuing, "up until recently, about 10 minutes ago, they were still firing into the camp."
The complex is jointly operated by BP, Norway's Statoil and the Algerian Sonatrach company. A Japanese company, JGC Corp, provides services for the facility as well.
The Algerian government said some 20 militants hit the gas complex at Ain Amenas, 800 miles south of Algiers, the third largest in the country, early Wednesday morning and occupied it, taking hostages. They were then surrounded by the Algerian military and a tense standoff ensued.
The militants had said the gas plant attack came in retaliation for Algeria allowing France to use its airspace to attack al Qaeda-linked rebel groups in neighboring Mali.
Updated January 17, 2013, 9:44 a.m. ET
Algeria Rescue Operation Under Way .
By GABRIELE PARUSSINI And CASSELL BRYAN-LOW
Military operations at the Algerian gas field where foreign hostages are being held are under way Thursday, a U.K. foreign office spokesman said.
Several news agencies reported that some hostages and hostage-takers had been killed by air strikes by the Algerian army at the In Amenas natural-gas field. Earlier Thursday, the Associated Press cited an Algerian official as saying 20 foreign hostages, including Americans and Europeans, had escaped. Neither report could be independently confirmed.
The U.K. official said that the Algerian authorities have confirmed to the U.K. that an operation was continuing, and declined to comment on any potential casualties.
No government has confirmed the reports of deaths, nor have the companies that operate the site.
An undated handout photograph taken from a video released by the IntelCenter on Jan. 16 shows Mohktar Belmokhtar, leader of the group that claims to have taken hostages at the gas facility in Algeria.
BP BP.LN +0.29%PLC, which operates the field along with Norway's Statoil ASA STL.OS -0.21% and Algerian energy company Sonatrach, said earlier Thursday that the situation at In Amenas "remains unresolved and fragile. Armed groups still occupy the site and hold a number of site personnel."
Militants with possible links to al Qaeda took about 40 foreign hostages Wednesday, including several Americans, posing a new level of threat to nations trying to blunt the growing influence of Islamist extremists in Africa. The attack came days after France sent combat troops to fight alongside the Malian army, seeking to uproot an al Qaeda-linked insurgency in the West African nation.
France's top target, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, claimed responsibility for the Algeria kidnappings, calling it retaliation. The claim couldn't be verified, although AQIM has its origins in Algeria and operates across a swath of Africa.
The U.S., U.K., Japan, Norway, Austria and Ireland have all confirmed that some of their citizens were being held at the scene. French President François Hollande confirmed Thursday that French nationals are involved. The U.K. foreign office declined to comment.
Algerian security forces failed in an attempt late Wednesday to storm the facility. News reports on Thursday suggested that Algeria's military had launched a helicopter strike on the site, and 35 of the foreigners and 15 of the kidnappers had been killed, according to a Mauritanian news outlet.
Arabic broadcaster Al Jazeera said Algerian government snipers had opened fire on the site earlier Thursday. The details couldn't be verified.
Security experts say there are a number of options to free the hostages, including ransom negotiations by BP, U.S. government negotiations and U.S. military operations.
About 40 foreigners were abducted in a raid on the In Amenas gas facility, above. An Islamist group fighting the French in neighboring Mali claimed responsibility for the attack.
Al Jazeera reported the hostage-takers were ready for talks with foreign governments if there is a cease-fire by the Algerian authorities. The network said the condition was outlined in a telephone interview with one kidnapper who identified himself as Abou al-Baraa.
But the involvement of so many different foreign nationals could complicate efforts to quickly resolve the crisis, particularly given that Algeria has insisted it won't negotiate with the hostage-takers.
"Algeria has always condemned the payment of ransoms to terrorist groups, because that's a boost to the kidnapping industry," said Jean-Charles Brisard, an international consultant specializing in terrorism.
Mr. Brisard said he expects the Algerian army will act alone, despite so many other countries being involved. "The Algerian government is very much attached to its national sovereignty," he said. "The Algerians will settle it in their own way."
Japan's foreign minister Fumio Kishida asked the Algerian government to make securing the lives of the hostages the top priority. The U.K. government also said it would consider any requests for military assistance from Algeria, but hasn't received any.
Japan has dispatched a senior government official to Algeria to help deal with the situation on the ground. Several Japanese nationals, including employees of plant engineering company JGC Corp., 1963.TO -1.95%are believed to be among the foreigners taken hostage.
Norway's foreign minister said the government is communicating with Algeria and the other countries whose citizens have been taken hostage, with the security of the hostages in mind. "Algeria has the main responsibility, this is in Algeria and Algeria must be in the drivers' seat for what's going to happen," said Espen Barth Eide.
—Nour Malas, Mitsuru Obe and Kjetil Malkenes Hovland contributed to this article.
Write to Gabriele Parussini at email@example.com