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At Least Four Hostages Freed from Algerian Gas Field, Official Says

By ADAM NOSSITER, ALAN COWELL and SCOTT SAYARE, BAMAKO, Mali (NY Times): 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 — 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 efforts 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.

The Al Jazeera channel based in Qatar also quoted a hostage identified as British as saying the captives were “receiving care and good treatment from the kidnappers” but that Algerian forces surrounding the installations were “firing at the camp.”

Both stations said it was unclear whether the people they interviewed had been speaking under duress. Al Jazeera quoted a kidnapper as demanding that the Algerian Army pull back to permit negotiations to end the crisis.

Algerian officials said at least two people, including a Briton, were killed in the kidnappers’ initial assault on the gas facility, which began with an ambush on a bus trying to ferry workers to an airport. It was depicted by the attackers as reprisal for the French intervention in Mali and also to punish Algeria for allowing French warplanes to use its airspace to reach targets in northern Mali. Algeria’s official news agency said at least 20 fighters had carried out the attack and mass abduction.

The British Foreign Office confirmed that a British citizen had been killed in what Foreign Secretary William Hague called an “extremely dangerous situation.”

Hundreds of Algerian security forces surrounded the gas-field compound and the country’s interior minister said there would be no negotiations.

Many details of the assault on the gas field in a barren desert site near Libya’s border remained murky, including the precise number of hostages. American, French, British, Japanese and Norwegian citizens who worked at the field were known to be among them, officials said.

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta called the attack a terrorist act and said the United States was weighing a response. His statement suggested that the Obama administration could be drawn into a military entanglement in North Africa that it had been seeking to keep at arm’s length — even as it has conceded that the region has become a new haven for extremists who threaten Western security and vital interests.

The attack appeared to make good on a pledge by the Islamist militants who seized northern Mali last year to sharply expand their struggle against the West in response to the French military intervention that began last week.

In a statement sent to ANI, a Mauritanian news agency, a group called Al Mulathameen, which has links to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the North African affiliate of Al Qaeda, claimed it was holding more than 40 “crusaders” — apparently a reference to non-Muslims — “including seven Americans, two French, two British as well as other citizens of various European nationalities.”

Algeria’s interior minister, Daho Ould Kablia, said that the raid was overseen by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, an Algerian who fought Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s and has reportedly established his own group in the Sahara after falling out with other local Qaeda leaders.

Mr. Belmokhtar is known to French intelligence officials as “the Uncatchable” and to some locals as “Mister Marlboro” for his illicit cigarette-running business. His ties to Islamist extremists who seized towns across northern Mali last year are unclear, though he is thought to be based in the Malian city of Gao.

The facility at the center of the kidnapping is the fourth-largest gas development in Algeria, a major oil producer and OPEC member. The In Amenas gas compression plant is operated by BP of Britain, the Norwegian company Statoil and the Algerian national oil company Sonatrach.

(Adam Nossiter reported from Bamako, and Alan Cowell and Scott Sayare from Paris. Reporting was contributed by Clifford Krauss from Houston, Rick Gladstone from New York, Elisabeth Bumiller from Rome, and Steven Erlanger from Paris)

Published Date: Thursday, January 17th, 2013 | 08:59 AM

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