(USA TODAY) - The fate of hostages being held at a gas complex deep in the Sahara desert drew conflicting reports Thursday, with an Algerian news service reporting that 600 hostages were freed while militants claimed 35 were killed in an Algerian military raid.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Algerian government forces had moved to end the standoff involving hostages from several nations, but Nuland revealed no details. She said officials were contacting the families of Americans who were held.
Algerian news service ANP reported that the Algerian military conducted air strikes and a ground operation to free the hostages, who were picked up by military helicopters. It remained unclear if any of the hostages were injured, ANP said.
However, Islamist terrorists told a Mauritanian news outlet that Algerian military helicopters strafed the gas complex, killing 35 foreign hostages and 15 of the kidnappers, the Associated Press is reporting.
Adding to the confusion was an earlier AP report, citing an unnamed Algerian official, that as many as 20 foreign hostages, including an unknown number of Americans, had escaped their captors.
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A spokesman for the terror group Qatiba, which had earlier claimed responsibility for the hostage-taking Wednesday, said Abou El Baraa, the leader of the kidnappers, was among militants killed in the Algerian army's helicopter attack.
The spokesman for Qatiba, which translates as Signers in Blood, also said seven hostages survived, including two Americans.
British oil giant BP's Group Chief Executive Bob Dudley released a statement saying that "Sadly, there have been some reports of casualties but we are still lacking any confirmed or reliable information."
White House spokesman Jay Carney said U.S. officials were still gathering details. "We condemn in the strongest terms a terrorist attack on BP personnel and facilities in Algeria and we are closely monitoring the situation," he said.
The U.S. government offered military assistance Wednesday to help rescue the hostages, but the Algerian government refused, a U.S. official said in Washington. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the offer.
Algerian soldiers surrounded the facility near Amenas after kidnappers occupied it Wednesday. The militants appeared to have no escape, with Algerian troops ringing the facility and army helicopters clattering overhead.
The Qatiba spokesman told Mauritanian news website Sahara Media Agency on Wednesday that the attack was in retaliation for Algeria's decision to allow French aircraft to use its airspace in its intervention in Mali. Experts say Qatiba is closely associated with or simply another name for Masked Brigades.
The spokesman, pictured in a black turban and an automatic weapon in front of a jihadist flag, said his group took 41 foreigners hostage, including Americans, French, British and Japanese nationals.
The spokesman added that there were 400 Algerian soldiers on site, but said his group had not targeted the soldiers. None of the information from the Mauritanian site could be independently verified.
Norwegian oil company Statoil and British company BP confirmed their facilities at In Amenas in southeastern Algerian came under attack at 5 a.m. local time Wednesday. In Rome, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta condemned the action as "terrorist attack."
The United States military has a quick reaction force capable of deploying quickly to Algeria, according to a military official who declined to be named because they are not authorized to speak about the issue. The Pentagon also has "capabilities" to watch over the region, though officials would not specify whether that involves manned aircraft or drones.
The identities of the hostages were not clear, but Ireland announced that they included a 36-year-old married Irish man. Prime Minister David Cameron's office said "several British nationals" were involved.
A Norwegian woman said her husband called her saying he had been taken hostage.
Japanese news agencies, citing unnamed government officials, said there are three Japanese hostages.
"I want to say this is unforgivable," said Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who was traveling from Vietnam to Thailand on Thursday as part of a Southeast Asian tour.
"Our first priority is to protect their lives," Abe said of the hostages. Japanese and U.S. officials were meeting in Tokyo to cooperate in resolving the crisis, and Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera called for close exchange of information between the two governments.
Late Wednesday, Statoil said five employees - four Norwegians and a Canadian - were safe at an Algerian military camp and two of them had suffered minor injuries. It said 12 employees were unaccounted for.
Six people were wounded in the attack, including two foreigners, two police officers and two security agents, Algeria's state news agency reported.
Algeria's top security official, Interior Minister Daho Ould Kabila, said that "security forces have surrounded the area and cornered the terrorists, who are in one wing of the complex's living quarters."
"We reject all negotiations with the group," Kabila said on national television.
Hundreds of Algerians work at the plant and were taken in the attack but the state news agency reported that they have gradually been released in small groups.
Wednesday's attack began with the ambush of a bus carrying employees from the gas plant to the nearby airport but the attackers were driven off, according to the Algerian government, which said three vehicles of heavily armed men were involved.
"After their failed attempt, the terrorist group headed to the complex's living quarters and took a number of workers with foreign nationalities hostage," said the statement.
Al-Qaeda's influence in the poorly patrolled desert wastes of southern Algeria and northern Mali and Niger has grown. The group operates smuggling and kidnapping networks throughout the area. Militant groups that seized control of northern Mali already hold seven French hostages as well as four Algerian diplomats.
Algeria's security forces have struggled for years against Islamist extremists, and have in recent years managed to nearly snuff out violence by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb around its home base in northern Algeria. In the meantime, AQIM moved its focus southward.
AQIM has made tens of millions of dollars off kidnapping in the region, abducting Algerian businessmen or political figures, and sometimes foreigners, for ransom.
The attack is the first time the country's hydrocarbon industry was targeted since the 1990s, said Geoff Porter, an analyst with North Africa Risk Consulting, a political risk firm specializing in North Africa and the Sahara.
"Even during the worst of the Islamist violence in the 1990s, Algeria's hydrocarbon infrastructure was never attacked," Porter said. "This is a real departure."
Algerian leaders adopted an eradication policy against Islamist insurgents in a war that cost more than 100,000 lives. The insurgents eventually accepted amnesty and renounced violence. Remnants of the insurgency have been fighting for an Islamic state in northern Mali, Porter said.
All three AQIM factions in North Africa and the Sahara were "on a downward trend" until 2012, Porter said. The collapse of Libya, which allowed weapons from former Libyan leader Moamar Gadhafi's vast arsenal to be seized by extremists, "helped them gain power in northern Mali and the group has transformed from 2011 and 2012," he said.
While not all the Jihadi factions involved in violence across the region call themselves al-Qaeda or are officially affiliated with the group, their goals tend to be the same, Porter said.
"The goal is still spread radical Islam, attack the near enemy, attack the far enemy, create a Shariah state -- it's just no longer called al-Qaeda," he said.
Aaron Zelin, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that while al-Qaeda is "probably the weakest it's ever been," the jihadist movement has adapted and has strengthened in North Africa.
"The central organization has been weakened but the branches have gotten stronger because a lot of them are more embedded within the local milieu," he said.
In its new form, al Qaeda and its Jihadi affiliates and sympathizers are less able to launch attacks on the USA or Europe, where security is better than a decade ago, and more focused on "setting up little emirates" and threatening U.S. and Western interests in their own countries, Zelin said.
"They want to bleed the U.S. and it's allies dry and exhaust them over a long period of time," he said.