Islamist militants are offering to free twoÂ American hostages held captive at an Algerian gas field in exchange for theÂ release of two renowned terrorists jailed in the United States.
The attempt to negotiate comes after a USÂ citizen and up to 12 Britons, who were kidnapped with dozens of other foreignÂ oil workers on Wednesday, were killed in a botched rescue mission by AlgerianÂ forces.
As many as 60 foreign hostages remainÂ unaccounted, as the bloody siege continues into its third day, though Algeria’sÂ news service said some could be hidden throughout the sprawling desertÂ site.
Yesterday’s air raid, which was carried outÂ in Algerian helicopters and special forces without the prior knowledge of the USÂ government, was meant to wipe out the al-Qaeda-linked militants and free the 132Â foreigners from at least 10 countries who were being held, but instead leftÂ scores of people dead, injured or missing.
Militants said sevenÂ Americans had been taken hostage and itÂ was reported that two of them escaped unharmed yesterday.
The Associated Press said today thatÂ kidnappers wanted to swap two American hostages still in captivity for twoÂ prominent terror figures in jail in the US, according to a Mauritanian website.
One of the two terrorists the captors wantÂ freed is Omar Abdel Rahman, who masterminded the 1993 World TradeÂ CenterÂ bombing. The other is a Pakistani scientist convicted of shooting at two U.S.Â soldiers in Afghanistan.
‘The Blind Sheikh’, as Abdel Rahman is oftenÂ known, is currently serving a life sentence at the Butner Federal CorrectionalÂ Institution in Butner, North Carolina.
The offer, according to a Mauritanian newsÂ site that frequently broadcastsÂ dispatches from groups linked to al-Qaida, cameÂ from Moktar Belmoktar,Â an extremist commander based in Mali who apparentlyÂ masterminded theÂ operation.
Five other Americans who had been at the vast Ain AmenasÂ complex were able to avoid being taken captive when theÂ terrorists firstÂ attacked early on Wednesday. Neither theÂ Obama administration nor the British government was aware of the AlgerianÂ military’s raid ahead of time.
Algeria‘s news service said special forces had resumedÂ negotiations with militants today as foreign leadersÂ scrambled to find out theÂ fates of their citizens.
According to Reuters, the kidnappers wereÂ also threatening to attack other energy installations after the bloody raid.
The American who was killed in the raid isÂ from Texas although his or her name has not been released nor any otherÂ details.
A U.S. C-130 military aircraft is evacuatingÂ between 10 and 20 people caught up in the hostage-taking, a U.S. defenseÂ official told CNN on Friday.
They will be flown to U.S. facilities inÂ Europe, the official said, and the condition of those who are injured will beÂ assessed on the flight.
‘We just don’t know what kind of injuriesÂ they have,’ he said.
A total of 18 militants were killed andÂ theÂ plant’s living quarters were secured, according to the Algerian governmentÂ newsÂ agency, which cited security officials.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta wasÂ briefedÂ early on Friday, a senior defense official told The AssociatedÂ Press, butÂ offered no other details because ‘we view it as a sensitive,Â ongoingÂ situation.’
Mr Panetta said in London that thereÂ was ‘noÂ justification for the kidnapping and murder of innocent people’Â in Algeria, andÂ vowed the US government was ‘working around the clock to ensure the safe returnÂ of our citizens.’
He warned terrorists in Algeria that thereÂ was ‘no place to hide’ and said that American authorities were working closelyÂ with Britain and otherÂ nations ‘to assess precisely what was happening on theÂ ground.’
He added that ‘regardless of the motivationÂ of hostage takers there was no justification for the kidnap and murder ofÂ innocent people going aboutÂ their daily lives.’
‘Terrorists should be on notice that theyÂ will find no sanctuary or refuge; not in Algeria, not in North Africa, notÂ anywhere. Those who will want only to attack will have no place to hide,’ heÂ said.
Instead of freeing the dozens of hostages,Â the raid resulted in bloody chaos atÂ the isolated plant 800 miles south of theÂ capital, Algiers, leaving theÂ fate of many of the captives and the fightersÂ uncertain. In launchingÂ its assault, Algeria also ignored offers of help fromÂ the SAS andÂ American special forces.
‘We asked them not to go in with allÂ gunsÂ blazing and they just did it anyway,’ said one London official.Â ‘They insistedÂ this was their sovereign territory and it was theirÂ operation.’
French sources said the decision toÂ go inÂ was taken because the terrorists were executing hostages. LastÂ night, after aÂ fierce day of fighting, Algerian officials said theÂ rescue operation was over.Â They said Tahar Ben Cheneb, a prominent commander in the region, was among theÂ dead militants.
The 11 bodies of gunmen found on ThursdayÂ comprised three Egyptians, twoÂ Tunisians, two Libyans, a Malian and a FrenchmanÂ and all were assumed to have been hostage-takers, a security source toldÂ Reuters. Algeria state news agency APS said the group had planned to take theÂ hostages toÂ Mali.
On Friday, the source said 18 militants hadÂ now been found dead.
A source said yesterday that 30 hostages wereÂ killed, of whom theÂ nationalities of 15 had been established. Of these, eightÂ were AlgerianÂ and seven were foreigners, including two British, two JapaneseÂ and aÂ French national. One Briton was killed when the terrorists seized theÂ gas compound on Wednesday. The number of foreigners unaccounted for and fearedÂ dead is now at 60.
An Irish engineer who survived saidÂ he sawÂ four jeeps full of hostages blown up by Algerian troops whoseÂ commanders saidÂ they moved in about 30 hours after the siege beganÂ because the gunmen hadÂ demanded to be allowed to take their captivesÂ abroad.
A French hostage employed by a French catering company said Algerian military forces had found some BritishÂ hostagesÂ hiding in a roof space and were combing the sprawling In Amenas site for othersÂ when he was escorted away by the military.
‘I hid in my room for nearly 40 hours, underÂ the bed. I put boards up pretty much all round,’ AlexandreÂ Berceaux told EuropeÂ 1. ‘I didn’t know how long I was going to stayÂ there … I was afraid. I couldÂ see myself already ending up in a pineÂ box.’
The Japanese government said onÂ Friday thatÂ three of its citizens escaped but 14 were still unaccountedÂ for and their fateÂ was unclear.
BP said there was a ‘small number ofÂ BPÂ employees’ at the facility ‘whose current location and situationÂ remainÂ uncertain.’ It added that 11 employees and hundreds of staff atÂ other oilÂ companies were flown out of the area yesterday and alsoÂ described the situationÂ as ‘ongoing.’
Fierce gun battles erupted at middayÂ onÂ Thursday as troops moved in on the Islamists and there were claimsÂ thatÂ hostages had been used as human shields. An eyewitness described aÂ scene ofÂ carnage, saying: ‘There were bodies all over the ground.’Â Â Another spokeÂ of Algerian forces firing at ‘anything that moved’.
The Obama administration appeared toÂ be inÂ the dark on Thursday about the hostage situation at the natural gasÂ plant deepÂ in the Sahara Desert. An administrative official told theÂ Associated Press thatÂ the U.S. was not aware of the raid to free theÂ hostages in advance.
The administration wasÂ offering no detailsÂ about how many American hostages had been taken andÂ whether they were still inÂ captivity — or even alive. A source told theÂ AP that while some U.S. citizensÂ escaped, others remained missing orÂ unaccounted for.
SecretaryÂ of State Hillary Rodham ClintonÂ said U.S. counterterrorism officialsÂ were in touch with their AlgerianÂ counterparts and that she planned toÂ speak on Thursday with Algerian PrimeÂ Minister Abdelmalek Sellal for theÂ second time in as many days. She made aÂ vague reference to ongoing U.S.Â ‘planning,’ without elaborating.
‘The security of our Americans who are heldÂ hostage is our highestÂ priority,’ Clinton told reporters. ‘Because of theÂ fluidity and the fact that there is a lot of planning going on, I cannot giveÂ you any further details.
‘This is a serious and sensitiveÂ situation,’Â Pentagon spokesman George Little told reporters travelingÂ with DefenseÂ Secretary Leon Panetta in England. Little said militaryÂ officials were activelyÂ seeking information, and that Panetta had beenÂ briefed by senior militaryÂ officials.
Ahead of the raid, U.S. officials had beenÂ urging the Algerians to be cautious in their actions, but did notÂ know a rescueÂ mission was planned, said the administration official, who spoke on theÂ condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speakÂ publicly.
MilitantsÂ earlier said they were holdingÂ seven Americans, but the administrationÂ confirmed only that Americans wereÂ among those taken.
‘We are deeply concerned about any loss ofÂ innocent life and are seekingÂ clarity from the government of Algeria,’ WhiteÂ House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters.
During her conversation with Algeria’s primeÂ minister on Wednesday, ClintonÂ expressed Washington’s ‘willingness to beÂ helpful,’ State DepartmentÂ spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said. They alsoÂ discussed what type ofÂ assistance might be needed, Nuland added, but declinedÂ to provideÂ details.
A local workerÂ said from his home onÂ Thursday that the Islamist gunmen of the ‘Battalion of Blood’ told the terrifiedÂ staff that they would not harmÂ Muslims but would kill ‘Christians andÂ infidels.’
Algerian security specialist Anis RahmaniÂ told Reuters about 70 militants were involved from two groups, Belmokhtar’sÂ ‘Those who sign in blood,’ who travelled from Libya, and the lesser knownÂ ‘Movement of the Islamic Youth in the South.’
‘They were carrying heavy weapons includingÂ rifles used by the Libyan army during (Muammar) Gadaffi’s rule,’ he said. ‘TheyÂ also had rocket-propelled grenades and machineguns.’
Last night, as the military operation toÂ rescue those captured continued, aÂ local worker revealed how the militantsÂ appeared to have a clearÂ strategy for their prisoners — some of whom even endedÂ up havingÂ explosives strapped to their chest.
‘The terrorists told us at the veryÂ startÂ that they would not hurt Muslims but were only interested in theÂ Christians andÂ infidels,’ Abdelkader, 53, told the Mail from his home in the nearby town of InÂ Amenas. ‘”We will kill them,” they said.’
The U.S. government sent an unmannedÂ surveillance drone to the BP-operated site, near the border with LibyaÂ and 800Â miles (1,290 kilometers) from the Algerian capital, but it could do little moreÂ than watch Thursday’s intervention. Algeria’sÂ army-dominated government,Â hardened by decades of fighting IslamistÂ militants, shrugged aside foreignÂ offers of help and drove ahead alone.
With the hostage drama entering its secondÂ day Thursday, Algerian securityÂ forces moved in, first with helicopter fire andÂ then special forces,Â according to diplomats, a website close to the militants,Â and anÂ Algerian security official. The government said it was forced toÂ intervene because the militants were being stubborn and wanted to fleeÂ withÂ the hostages.
The militants – led by a Mali-basedÂ al-QaidaÂ offshoot known as the Masked Brigade – suffered losses inÂ Thursday’s militaryÂ assault, but succeeded in garnering a globalÂ audience.
EvenÂ violence-scarred Algerians were stunnedÂ by the brazen hostage-takingÂ Wednesday, the biggest in northern Africa in yearsÂ and the first toÂ include Americans as targets. Mass fighting in the 1990s hadÂ largelyÂ spared the lucrative oil and gas industry that gives Algeria itsÂ economic independence and regional weight.
The hostage-taking raised questions aboutÂ security for sites run byÂ multinationals that are dotted across Africa’sÂ largest country. It alsoÂ raised the prospect of similar attacks on otherÂ countries allied against the extremist warlords and drug traffickers who rule aÂ vast patch ofÂ desert across several countries in northwest Africa. Even theÂ heavy-handed Algerian response may not deter groups looking forÂ martyrdom andÂ attention.
Casualty figures in the AlgerianÂ standoffÂ varied widely. The remote location is extremely hard to reachÂ and wasÂ surrounded by Algerian security forces – who, like theÂ militants, are inclinedÂ to advertise their successes and minimize theirÂ failures.
‘An importantÂ number of hostages were freedÂ and an important number of terrorists were eliminated, and we regret the fewÂ dead and wounded,’ Algeria’sÂ communications minister, Mohand Said Oubelaid,Â told national media,Â adding that the ‘terrorists are multinational,’ comingÂ from severalÂ different countries with the goal of ‘destabilizing Algeria,Â embroilingÂ it in the Mali conflict and damaging its natural gasÂ infrastructure.’
The official news agency said four hostagesÂ were killed in Thursday’sÂ operation, two Britons and two Filipinos. Two others,Â a Briton and anÂ Algerian, died Wednesday in an ambush on a bus ferrying foreignÂ workersÂ to an airport. Citing hospital officials, the APS news agency said sixÂ Algerians and seven foreigners were injured.
APS said some 600 local workers were safelyÂ freed in the raid – but many of those were reportedly released the day before byÂ the militantsÂ themselves.
The militants, via a Mauritanian newsÂ website, claimedÂ that 35 hostages and 15 militants died in the helicopterÂ strafing. AÂ spokesman for the Masked Brigade told the Nouakchott InformationÂ AgencyÂ in Mauritania that only seven hostages survived.
By nightfall, Algeria’s government said theÂ raid was over. But the whereabouts of the rest of the plant workers wasÂ unclear.
President Obama and British Prime MinisterÂ David Cameron spoke on the phone toÂ share their confusion. White House PressÂ Secretary Jay Carney said theÂ Obama administration was ‘seeking clarity fromÂ the government ofÂ Algeria.’
An unarmed American surveillanceÂ droneÂ soared overhead as the Algerian forces closed in, U.S. officialsÂ said. The U.S.Â offered military assistance Wednesday to help rescue theÂ hostages but theÂ Algerian government refused, a U.S. official said inÂ Washington. He spoke onÂ condition of anonymity because he was notÂ authorized to speak publicly aboutÂ the offer.
Militants earlier said they were holdingÂ seven Americans, but the administrationÂ confirmed only that Americans wereÂ among those taken. The U.S.Â government was in contact with American businessesÂ across North AfricaÂ and the Middle East to help them guard against theÂ possibility ofÂ copycat attacks
BP, theÂ Norwegian company Statoil and theÂ Algerian state oil company Sonatrach,Â operate the gas field and a JapaneseÂ company, JGC Corp, providesÂ services for the facility.
Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe protestedÂ the military raid as an act thatÂ ‘threatened the lives of the hostages,’Â according to a spokesman. Jean-Christophe Gray, a spokesman for Cameron, saidÂ Britain was not informed in advance of the raid.
DiplomatsÂ privately described the fiasco asÂ the most serious hostage crisis sinceÂ Iran seized 52 American officials inÂ 1979.
Norway’s prime minister, Jens Stoltenberg,Â summed up the anger and frustration felt by Western governments and said too heÂ had been in constant contact withÂ Mr Sellal.
‘My message wasÂ that concern for the livesÂ and health of the hostages had to go first,’Â he said. ‘That was also theÂ attitude of David Cameron. Our desire wasÂ that they showed restraint.
‘We all feel deep anxiety of not knowing whatÂ has happened to our citizens and the other hostages. I feel for the families.Â What has happened is abominable.’
The militant group believed to be holding theÂ hostages has claimed that it carried out the attack in retaliation for theÂ French military intervention against Al Qaeda-backed rebels in neighbouringÂ Mali.
Source: The Daily Mail