Algerian helicopters have attacked a group of Mali Islamists militants held up in a Saharan gas facility, reportedly killing 34 hostages and 15 of their captors. The army moved in after up to 50 captives, including dozens of foreigners, escaped.
One of the kidnappers at the Algerian gas installation told Mauritania's ANI news agency about the government airstrikes and resulting causalities, though the information has not been independently confirmed. The leader of the militant group, Abu al-Baraa, was also reportedly killed in the government assault.
The agency says the remaining hostages are two Americans, three Belgians, one Japanese and one British citizen.
The militant spokesman, who said that warplanes and ground fources were attempting to take the site by force, warned they would "kill all the hostages if the Algerian forces succeed in entering the complex."
Other local sources put the number of casualities much lower, saying that only six hostages and eight rebels were killed in the strike. The hostages were said to have died when the Algerian army fired on a vehicle.
The Algerian government has said that many militants had been killed in the operation as the rescue mission is still ongoing. Communication Minister Mohamed Said admitted several hostages had been killed or injured, though the militants had forced their hand to act when talks failed.
A US drone has arrived at the scene of the hostage crisis to gather intelligence on the situation as it continues to unfold. No information was released regarding the timing or the duration of the drone mission.
The UK Foreign Office confirmed that a military operation is currently underway at the site, though no other information was forthcoming.
Britain said it would have been preferable if the Algerian government had given them prior notice of the operation, a spokesman for Prime Minister David Cameron said. Cameron told his Algerian counterpart that he was “extremely concerned” about the “very grave and serious situation” after the operation commenced.
"The Algerian Prime Minister explained that the situation was very fast-moving and that in the government's judgement they needed to act immediately," Reuters quotes the spokesman as saying.
A source in the French government also told France 24 the operation is taking place, and Norway later affirmed it as well. French President Francois Hollande said the Algerian hostage crisis demonstrated that France's ongoing intervention in Mali justified.
Western powers whose citizens have been taken hostage are involved in unspecified diplomatic efforts to bring the crisis to an end. Cameron has spoken with US President Barack Obama and Hollande, the British PM’s office tweeted. The White House strongly condemned the "terrorist attack" and has been in touch with BP officials in London.
BP, which jointly operates the In Amenas gas facility with Norway's Statoil ASA and Algerian state oil and gas company Sonatrach, released a statement saying "we have been informed by the UK and Algerian governments that the Algerian army is attempting to take control of the In Amenas site."
Locals told Reuters that the vehicles of the hostage takers had been destroyed in the assault, and “many” dead bodies were at the scene.
Two Japanese nationals had previously been reported injured in the airstrikes.
The military operation followed the escape of an unconfirmed number of hostages, with widely conflicting reports putting their numbers anywhere between 20 and over 600. Locals told Reuters that 180 Algerian hostages had fled the site, while the Algerian Press Service (APS) said that 600 Algerians had managed to escaped. Algerian soldiers have reportedly freed four of the foreign hostages, APS reports. The freed hostages included two Scots, one Kenyan and one French national, the agency says. The Irish Foreign Ministry also confirmed that one of its citizens had been freed and was safe.
While some Algerian media outlets previously report that the military has completely regained control of site, others denied that any sort of military operation was underway.
At least 20 Islamist gunmen calling themselves the ‘Battalion of Blood’ raided a compound near an Algerian gas field on Wednesday, taking dozens of hostages.
They also killed a British citizen and an Algerian in an assault on a bus.
The Islamists were reportedly Malian nationals, and are demanding that French forces cease their bombardment of Mali and withdraw from the country. They have also called on the Algerian government to allow them safe passage from the facility, an unnamed official security source told Reuters.
The UK condemned the killing of the British national and has called for caution in connecting the kidnappings with the French intervention in Mali.
“It is absolutely unacceptable of course. It is in this case the cold-blooded murder of people going about their business. So there is no excuse whether it be connected to Libya, Mali or anywhere else,” said Foreign Minister William Hague in a statement.
UK Prime Minister David Cameron said that any request from the Algerian government for aid would be seriously considered by the UK.
A French national being held hostage by the militants spoke to France 24 and confirmed that he was one of the hostages, whose number has so far been mostly put at around 150 people. The militants were “heavily armed,” and the hostages had been forced to put on “explosive belts,” the Frenchman said.
He explained that the militants carried out simultaneous attacks on Wednesday morning, assaulting the gas station and rounding up hostages in the living quarters.
Another hostage, who identified himself as British, told Al Jazeera that the hostages were receiving “care and good treatment from the kidnappers.”
Foreign nationals from eight countries were among those taken captive.
Twelve Norwegian employees of Statoil were previously reported missing following the incident. Norway's Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg said on Thursday evening there is still no "reliable information" on nine of its nationals working at the gas plant.
Seven Americans also among the captives, though the Islamists claim five were killed by the Algerian army during assault. The United States has confirmed its citizens were taken captive, but provided no additional information.
The British, French, and Romanian governments said their citizens were among those being held at the site, though no exact figures were given. Japanese media reports say at least three of those being held are Japanese, while two Malaysians are among the hostages, the government says. An Irish citizen was taken captive but managed to escape and is now safe, Dublin has confirmed.
Hundreds of Algerians worked at the gas plant, though national media reports say most of them have been released. Statoil says three of its Algerian employees were taken hostage.
France voiced support for the Algerian government, stating it had complete faith in their ability to resolve the situation.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian also told the press that there were currently 1,400 French troops on the ground in Mali, and that they are battling rebel fighters north of Bamako. On Tuesday, Paris announced plans to deploy 2,500 troops – including French Foreign Legionnaires – into Mali, a former French colony.