Algerian special forces have freed about 100 foreign hostages from Islamist gunmen at a remote gas plant near the Libyan border, but some 30 are still missing, national media said today.
"Around 100 foreigners out of 132 hostages seized by a terrorist group that attacked the Tiguentourine gas plant on Wednesday have been freed," APS reported, citing a security official.
The Algerian news agency had said earlier that "more than half" of the foreign hostages had been freed in the rescue operation, along with 573 Algerians, some of whom spoke of their ordeal on Algerian television.
"The kidnappers took all the hostages, Algerians and foreigners, to the canteen and wired it with explosives," said one Algerian, an employee of US firm Halliburton.
Another explained how they had escaped through a door at the back of the base that the kidnappers were not aware of, adding: "When we left we waved scraps of white cloth so that the army knew we were workers."
Some of the foreign hostages who managed to escape said they had had explosives wrapped around their necks, or hid, petrified, wherever they could for nearly two days.
"I was under the bed (in my room) and I put boards everywhere just in case," before finally being freed by Algerian troops on Thursday evening, said an employee of French catering firm CSI.
The army rescue operation was launched at around midday on Thursday after the kidnappers seized the hostages at the gas plant in what they said was retaliation for Algeria's support for French air strikes in Mali.
Security sources said the army was trying to reach a "peaceful" end to the ongoing hostage crisis, before "neutralising the terrorist group that is holed up in the plant and freeing a group of hostages still being held there." The In Amenas plant, which is jointly operated by British oil giant BP, Norway's Statoil and Algeria's Sonatrach, was put out of service to avoid the risk of explosion.
The kidnappers said 34 captives were killed in the military assault, but an Algerian security source described that toll as "fantasy," while stating that 18 of more than 30 gunmen involved in the hostage-taking operation were killed.
International criticism is mounting of the Algerian government's handling of the attack on the plant amid reports that many foreign hostages may have been killed in the army raid. Sources close to the militants' leader were quoted by Mauritanian media today as saying they want to negotiate an end to French intervention in Mali and exchange American hostages for prisoners held in the United States.
Algeria has insisted it would not negotiate with "terrorists."