ALGIERS, Algeria — The militants had filled five jeeps with hostages and begun to move when Algerian government attack helicopters opened up on them, leaving four in smoking ruins. The fifth vehicle crashed, allowing an Irish hostage inside to clamber out to safety with an explosive belt still strapped around his neck.
Three days into the crisis at a natural gas plant deep in the Sahara, it remained unclear how many had perished in the faceoff between Africa's most uncompromising militant group and the region's most ruthless military.
By Friday, around 100 of the 135 foreign workers on the site had been freed and 18 of an estimated 30 kidnappers had been slain, according to the Algerian government, still leaving a major hostage situation centered on the plant's main refinery.
The government said 12 workers, both foreign and Algerian, were confirmed dead. But the extremists have put the number at 35. And the government attack Thursday on the convoy — as pieced together from official, witness and news media accounts — suggested the death toll could go higher.
In Washington, U.S. officials said one American — a Texan — was known to have died.
Meanwhile, the al-Qaida-linked Masked Brigade behind the operation offered to trade two American hostages for two terrorists behind bars in the U.S., including the mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. The U.S. rejected the deal out of hand.
"The United States does not negotiate with terrorists," declared State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
The Algerian government released few details about the continuing siege at the Ain Amenas plant, which is jointly run by BP, Norway's Statoil and Algeria's state-owned oil company. By Friday, however, the outlines of the takeover by Islamic militants were coming into focus.