More than 20 foreigners were captive or missing inside a desert gas plant on Saturday, nearly two days after the Algerian army launched an assault to free them that saw many hostages killed.
The standoff between the Algerian army and al-Qaeda-linked gunmen – one of the biggest international hostage crises in decades – entered its fourth day, having thrust Saharan militancy to the top of the global agenda.
The number and fate of victims has yet to be confirmed, with the Algerian government keeping officials from Western countries far from the site where their countrymen were in peril.
Reports put the number of hostages killed at between 12 and 30, with possibly dozens of foreigners still unaccounted for – among them Norwegians, Japanese, Britons, Americans and others.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland confirmed on Friday the death of one American, Frederick Buttaccio, in the hostage situation, but gave no further details.
Two Japanese, two Britons and a French national were among the seven foreigners confirmed dead in the army’s storming, the Algerian security source told Reuters. One British citizen was killed when the gunmen seized the hostages on Wednesday.
A U.S. official said on Friday that a U.S. Medevac flight carrying wounded of multiple nationalities had left Algeria.
By nightfall on Friday, the Algerian military was holding the vast residential barracks at the In Amenas gas-processing plant, while gunmen were holed up in the industrial plant itself with an undisclosed number of hostages.
Scores of Westerners and hundreds of Algerian workers were inside the heavily fortified compound when it was seized before dawn on Wednesday by Islamist fighters, who said they wanted a halt to a French military operation in neighbouring Mali.
Hundreds escaped on Thursday when the army launched an operation, but many hostages were killed in the assault. Algerian forces destroyed four trucks holding hostages, according to the family of a Northern Irish engineer who escaped from a fifth truck and survived.
Britain, Japan and other countries have expressed frustration that the assault was ordered without consultation and officials have grumbled at the lack of information. Many countries withheld details about their missing citizens to avoid releasing information that might aid the captors.
An Algerian security source said 30 hostages, including at least seven Westerners, had been killed during Thursday’s assault, along with at least 18 of their captors. Eight of the dead hostages were Algerian, with the nationalities of the rest of the dead still unclear, he said.
Algeria’s state news agency APS put the total number of dead hostages at 12, including both foreigners and locals.
The base was home to foreign workers from Britain’s BP, Norway’s Statoil and Japanese engineering firm JGC Corp. and others.
Algerian commanders said they moved in on Thursday about 30 hours after the siege began, because the gunmen had demanded to be allowed to take their captives abroad.