By Jeffrey Fleishman, Los Angeles Times
CAIRO — The Algerian military on Thursday launched a raid to retake a natural gas complex from Islamic militants who seized the compound a day earlier and took scores of hostages, including Americans, Britons and Japanese.
Conflicting reports of casualties emerged. The Algerian news agency reported that as many as 45 hostages, including Americans, escaped the site in the Sahara Desert near the Algerian-Libyan border. Algeria media reports later in the day said that only between four and six foreign hostages were freed and that were a number of “victims.”
A Mauritanian news organization quoting an extremist spokesman suggested that gunfire from Algerian military helicopters at two vehicles attempting to flee the compound killed 35 foreigners and 15 kidnappers, including the militant group’s leader.
The militant assault on the Western-run gas compound reportedly was carried out as retaliation for French military strikes against Islamist rebels seeking to overthrow the government in neighboring Mali. The Al Qaeda-linked militants, who belonged to a group called the Signed-in-Blood Battalion, reportedly threatened to blow up the site if Algerian commandos attempted to free the hostages.
Hundreds of Algerian soldiers ringed the remote compound and helicopters skimmed above, reports said. Algerian officials had earlier said they would not negotiate with the extremists, who reportedly had asked for safe passage into neighboring Libya.
“The authorities do not negotiate, no negotiations,” Algerian Interior Minister Daho Ould Kablia said on state television. “We have received their demands, but we didn’t respond to them.”
The Algerian military’s raid on the complex marked a stunning twist in a drama that had raised fears of a long siege and highlighted the dangerous Islamist extremism stretching from Mali across the mountains and lawless deserts of North Africa.
The Algerian government was under pressure from the United States, Britain and other countries whose nationals were taken hostage to end the ordeal.
But the military raid appeared to have caught some by surprise. British Prime Minister David Cameron’s office said that he would have preferred to have been told in advance of the operation.
In a phone interview with Al Jazeera, two European hostages urged the Algerian army to pull back from the site.
“We are receiving care and good treatment from the kidnappers. The [Algerian] army did not withdraw and they are firing at the camp,” said one of the hostages. “There are around 150 Algerian hostages. We say to everybody that negotiations is a sign of strength and will spare many any loss of life.”
The natural gas field complex at In Amenas, which supplies Europe and Turkey, is a joint venture operated by BP, the Norwegian firm Statoil and Sonatrach, the Algerian national oil company.