Suspected Islamic fundamentalists who hijacked an Algerian airliner held about 50 hostages inside the plane Saturday as they negotiated with authorities for permission to fly to another country, officials said.
State-owned Air Algerie said 88 people, including six crew members, were aboard the Boeing 737 when it was hijacked Friday on a domestic flight from the Saharan resort of Ghardaia to the capital, Algiers.On Saturday, the two hijackers, who were reportedly armed, released 36 of the passengers in the eastern city of Annaba, where the plane had been forced to land.
Air Algerie said there were 14 foreign nationals among the 88 people aboard. It wasn't clear if the 88 included the two hijackers. In Washington, the State Department said no Americans were aboard.
There were conflicting reports about the hijackers' identities. Transport Minister Hassan Kahlouche said the hijackers, both male, were Algerian. He said they had made no political statements or demands.
"Right now, this only concerns a simple affair of common law," he said. However, another Algerian official said the hijackers probably were Islamic fundamentalists.
Algeria is home to North Africa's most powerful Islamic fundamentalist movement, which took a majority of seats in local and municipal elections in June.
Negotiations to win the release of the remaining hostages continued late into the night. Security forces surrounded the aircraft, although other flights took off and landed as scheduled.
Sources said the hijackers wanted fuel and water to fly to another country. Reports suggested that country could be Tunisia, Libya or Egypt.
Late Saturday, Interior Minister Mohammed Salah Mohammedi said the hijackers would not be allowed to leave Annaba and suggested they were wearing down.
"They're tired," Mohammedi said. "It's necessary to know how to profit from it."
In an interview with Algerian radio, one freed hostage described the hijackers as "delinquents" about 25 years old. She said at least one of the hijackers was armed with a medium-caliber, semiautomatic pistol.