CAIRO — Algerian forces launched a brazen air attack on suspected Islamist militants holding scores of foreign employees of a natural gas complex Thursday, killing both kidnappers and hostages in what appeared to be a forceful message from Algeria that it would not tolerate jihadist movements operating within its borders.
It was unclear how many hostages and kidnappers died in the assault on the Ain Amenas complex, a joint venture of the British oil giant BP and Algeria's state oil company. According to Mauritania's ANI news agency, 34 hostages and 15 Islamists died. Four hostages were freed, ANI said, although it did not say how. The Reuters news agency reported that 25 hostages escaped and six were killed.
The family of Stephen McFaul of Belfast, Northern Ireland, told the BBC that he had called home to report he was free.
The Algerians acknowledged that some hostages had been killed but did not say how many or give their nationalities. An undetermined number of Americans were among the hostages. Reuters, citing unnamed sources, later reported that the dead militants included three Egyptians, two Algerians, two Tunisians, two Libyans, one Frenchman and a Malian.
"Unfortunately we deplore some deaths and some people wounded. We don't yet have the numbers," said Algerian Communications Minister Mohand Said Oubelaid.
The operation lasted into the night, with the Algerian military flying helicopters overhead and its troops surrounding the gas line site.
That the Algerians launched an air and ground offensive to rescue hostages, without notifying nations whose citizens were among those kidnapped, suggested that the Algerians saw an opportunity to aggressively fend off jihadists moving within its borders.
British Prime Minister David Cameron said he was not notified before the offensive and called the Algerian offensive an "extremely difficult situation."
"The Algerian prime minister explained that the situation was very fast-moving and that in the government's judgment they needed to act immediately," said Jean-Christophe Gray, a spokesman for Cameron. "The Algerians are aware that we would have preferred to have been consulted in advance."
The U.S. State Department said it would not say if the Algerians told it about the impending attack. A U.S. military official told McClatchy that there was given no advance notice. Three of the hostages were Japanese, and officials in Tokyo said Algeria did not notify them beforehand.
Many countries whose nationals are among the hostages, including the United States, said they were unclear about what had happened in Algeria.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the Obama administration was in contact with the Algerians but did not offer any specifics, calling it an "ongoing situation" and saying that the U.S. is "seeking clarity."
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