ALGIERS, Algeria – Algerian helicopters and special forces stormed a gas plant in the stony plains of the Sahara on Thursday to wipe out Islamist militants and free hostages from at least 10 countries. Bloody chaos ensued, leaving the fate of the fighters and many of the captives uncertain.
Claims by the military and the militants muddied the understanding of an event that angered Western leaders, raised world oil prices and complicated the military operation in neighboring Mali.
At least six people, and perhaps many more, were killed – Britons, Filipinos and Algerians. Terrorized hostages from Ireland and Norway trickled out of the Ain Amenas plant, families urging them never to return.
Dozens more remained unaccounted for: Americans, Britons, French, Norwegians, Romanians, Malaysians, Japanese, Algerians and the fighters themselves.
A U.S. official said late Thursday that while some Americans escaped, other Americans remain either held or unaccounted for.
The U.S. government sent an unmanned surveillance drone to the BP-operated site, near the border with Libya and 800 miles from the Algerian capital, but it could do little more than watch Thursday’s intervention. Algeria’s army-dominated government, hardened by decades of fighting Islamist militants, shrugged aside foreign offers of help and drove ahead alone.
With the hostage drama entering its second day Thursday, Algerian security forces moved in, first with helicopter fire and then special forces, according to diplomats, a website close to the militants, and an Algerian security official. The government said it was forced to intervene because the militants were being stubborn and wanted to flee with the hostages.
The militants – led by a Mali-based al-Qaida offshoot known as the Masked Brigade – suffered losses in the assault but succeeded in garnering a global audience.
The official news agency said four hostages were killed in Thursday’s operation, two Britons and two Filipinos. Two others, a Briton and an Algerian, died Wednesday in an ambush on a bus ferrying foreign workers to an airport. Citing hospital officials, the APS news agency said six Algerians and seven foreigners were injured.
APS said some 600 local workers were safely freed in the raid – but many of those were reportedly released the day before by the militants themselves.
The militants, via a Mauritanian news website, claimed that 35 hostages and 15 militants died in the helicopter strafing. A spokesman for the Masked Brigade told the Nouakchott Information Agency in Mauritania that only seven hostages survived.