Algiers, Jan. 17 (Reuters): Twenty-five foreign hostages escaped and six were killed today when Algerian forces launched an operation to free them from the In Amenas desert gas plant, Algerian sources said, as one of the biggest international hostage crises in decades unfolded.
Three other hostages were later freed by the army, a local source told Reuters, as the military operation continued after dark. The reported loss of hostages' lives in the fast-moving events raised a chorus of concern from western leaders.
The standoff began when gunmen calling themselves the Battalion of Blood stormed the gas facility yesterday morning. They said they were holding 41 foreigners and demanded a halt to a French military operation against fellow al Qaida-linked Islamist militants in neighbouring Mali.
The raid increased fears that jihadist militants could launch further attacks in Algeria, a vast desert country with large oil and gas reserves that is only just recovering from a protracted conflict with Islamist rebels during the 1990s which cost an estimated 200,000 lives.
A local source told Reuters six foreign hostages were killed along with eight captors when the Algerian military fired on a vehicle being used by the gunmen. He said 40 Algerians and three foreigners were freed by the army as it continued its operation into this evening. An Algerian security source said earlier 25 foreign hostages had escaped.
Mauritania's ANI news agency, which has been in constant contact with the kidnappers, had earlier said seven hostages were still being held: two Americans, three Belgians, one Japanese and one British citizen.
It quoted one of the kidnappers as saying that Algerian ground forces were trying to fight their way into the complex. The reports were difficult to confirm. Algeria's official APS news agency said about half the foreign hostages had been freed and about 600 Algerian workers at the site had fled.
ANI and Qatar-based Al Jazeera reported that 34 of the captives and 15 of their captors had been killed when government forces fired from helicopters at a vehicle. Those death tolls, far higher than confirmed by the local source, would contradict the reports that large numbers of foreigners escaped alive.
This evening, ANI said it had lost all contact with the kidnappers. Britain and Norway, whose oil firms BP and Statoil run the plant jointly with the Algerian state oil company, said they had been informed by the Algerian authorities that a military operation was under way.
British Prime Minister David Cameron called his Algerian counterpart to express his concern at what he called a "very grave and serious" situation, a spokesman said.
Algerian interior minister Daho Ould Kablia said the kidnappers were led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a veteran Islamist guerrilla who fought Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s and had set up his own group in the Sahara after falling out with other local al Qaida leaders.