Friday, January 18, 2013

US Won't Negotiate Release of Hostages Still Being Held in Algeria

State Department: US won't negotiate with terrorists still holding US hostages in Algeria

Published January 18, 2013
Associated Press

The State Department confirmed Friday there are still American hostages being held at a gas plant in Algeria – but asked about a report that the Al Qaeda-linked group wants to trade hostages for terror figures jailed in the United States, spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said: “The United States does not negotiate with terrorists.”

A Mauritanian news site that often reports news from North African extremists received a statement Friday about the Al Qaeda-linked group offering to trade two Americans being held for two terror figures jailed in the United States. One of the two, Omar Abdel Rahman, masterminded the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

Nuland did not confirm the supposed trade but repeatedly told reporters, “The United States does not negotiate with terrorists.”

Meanwhile, the Associated Press says Algerian state news service is reporting nearly 100 out of 132 foreign hostages have been freed from the gas plant in the Saharan Desert. That number of hostages at the remote desert facility was significantly higher than any previous report, and still meant that the fate of over 30 foreign energy workers was unclear.

Yet it could indicate a potential breakthrough in the confrontation that began when the militants seized the plant early Wednesday.

The Friday report from the Algerian government news agency APS, citing a security official, did not mention any casualties in the fighting between Algerian forces and the militants. But earlier it had said that six hostages and 18 militants had been killed.

It was not clear whether the remaining foreigners were still captive or had died during the Algerian military raid to free them, which began Thursday.

Fox News reports that within the last few hours a U.S. C-130 cargo aircraft left Algeria with casualties on board. It's not clear how many people are on board or their identities, but a source says there were no U.S. citizens.

A second aircraft, a U.S. C-17, is on the ground in Algeria to take out more casualties. Both U.S. aircraft were deployed out of Ramstein air base in Germany.

At a U.S State Department briefing Friday, spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the Al Quaeda-linked group was still holding American hostages.But when asked about the proposed trade of U.S. hostages for terrorists, she said, "The United States does not negotiate with terrorists."

An American from Texas remains missing after the raid but two Americans escaped unharmed Thursday, a senior U.S. defense official told Fox News. Five other Americans who had been at the vast Ain Amenas complex were able to avoid being taken captive when the terrorists first attacked early Wednesday.

The Associated Press reports at least six people, and perhaps many more, were killed -- Britons, Filipinos and Algerians -- in the Algerians special forces' rescue mission. Dozens more remained unaccounted for, including Britons, French, Norwegians, Romanians, Malaysians, Japanese, Algerians, at least one American and the fighters themselves.

The two Americans who managed to escape before the raid are en route to London, sources told Fox News.

A White House spokesman said Friday that President Barack Obama is receiving regular updates on the situation, according to a Reuters report. ``We are in constant contact with the government of Algeria and have been clear that our first priority is the safety and security of the hostages,'' Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the White House Natioal Security Council, said in a statement.

Vietor also said Obama spoke about the situation with British Prime Minister David Cameron Thursday. ``We are in close touch with our other international partners, as well as BP's security office in London,'' said Vietor.

Britain's Foreign Office said Friday the hostage crisis in Algeria "remains ongoing" but gave no details of the situation.

The agency reported that three flights left Algeria Thursday, carrying staff from several hundred companies at the site.

The desert siege erupted Wednesday when the militants tried to hijack two buses at the plant, and then seized the sprawling refinery. Algerian troops then surrounded them.

Since then, Algeria's government has kept a tight grip on information about the mass kidnapping.

At least 20 gunmen attacked and took over the complex, reportedly in retaliation for France's military intervention against Al Qaeda-linked rebels in neighboring Mali, though Fox News sources say the attack may have been planned much earlier.

With the hostage drama entering its second day Thursday, Algerian security forces moved in, first with helicopter fire and then special forces, according to diplomats, a website close to the militants, and an Algerian security official. The government said it was forced to intervene because the militants were being stubborn and wanted to flee with the hostages.

The militants -- led by a Mali-based Al Qaeda offshoot known as the Masked Brigade -- suffered losses in Thursday's military assault, but succeeded in garnering a global audience.

"An important number of hostages were freed and an important number of terrorists were eliminated, and we regret the few dead and wounded," Algerian Communications Minister Mohand

Said Oubelaid told national media, adding that the "terrorists are multinational," coming from several different countries with the goal of "destabilizing Algeria, embroiling it in the Mali conflict.

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