Algeria hostage crisis ends after ‘final’ assault, officials say

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(CNN) — An Algerian military operation ended a deadly hostage crisis at a gas plant Saturday, Algerian and Western officials said, after three days of chaos and confusion left dozens of casualties and sparked world fears of a new front of terror in Africa.

At least 23 hostages and 32 “terrorists” died in the Algerian hostage crisis, Algerian state news said Saturday, citing the military. At least 685 Algerian workers and 107 foreigners have been freed, those reports said.

A “final” assault to dislodge the militant hostage-takers killed seven hostages and 11 militants Saturday at the sprawling facility in eastern Algeria near Libya, Algerian state media reports said.

The Algerian military had to clear mines planted by militants, the official Algerian Press Service reported, citing the country’s state-owned oil and gas company.

An Algerian Radio report did not specify the nationalities of those killed in the Algerian government’s final push. CNN is unable to verify the state media figures on the deaths.

The militant siege, which began Wednesday, caught world attention as it dragged on for days.

“Algerian authorities have confirmed to us that the military phase of the operation to resolve this crisis has concluded,” the British Foreign Office said.

“The site is still being made safe by the Algerian authorities and we are urgently continuing our work to establish the status of all British nationals caught up in this incident.”

Algerian authorities said they believe the militants’ attack was revenge for allowing France to use Algerian airspace for an offensive against Islamist militants in neighboring Mali.

Special forces had had to move in on Saturday because the terrorists wanted to flee the site with the hostages, Algerian state TV said The terrorists planned to take the captives to Mali to put pressure on France and the other nations who intervened in that country, it said.

The militants also planned to blow up the gas installation, state TV said. Operations had been halted to prevent an explosion.

Now the Algerian government faces questions over its decision Thursday to stage a military offensive at the site — a move some nations criticized as endangering the lives of the hostages.

International businesses want to invest in Algeria. At the same time, they want to be assured that their operations run smoothly and employees are safe in Algeria — Africa’s largest natural gas producer and a major supplier of natural gas to Europe.

British Defense Secretary Philip Hammond said Britain was still pressing the Algerian government for full details, but that the last assault by Algerian forces had resulted in more deaths. He called the loss of lives “appalling and unacceptable” and said terrorists bore sole responsibility.

Speaking alongside Hammond, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the information was still “sketchy” and he was unable to confirm how many Americans were there and what had happened to them.

Svein Michelsen, spokesman for Norway’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said his country had confirmation the military offensive was over but gave no details.

The In Amenas plant is run by Algeria’s state oil company, Norway’s Statoil and Britain’s BP.

Many are unaccounted for

The precise breakdown and number of casualties, evacuees and people missing from the In Amenas complex hasn’t yet been determined. Algerian TV said the death toll it reported is not final.

Five Norwegians are missing, Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg said.

“Of the 13 Norwegians that were involved, eight are now safe, but five of our countrymen are still missing,” he said.

Five British nationals and one UK resident are missing or feared dead in Algeria, British Foreign Secretary William Hague told reporters. The death of a Briton had already been announced.

The Scottish government said eight of its residents are safe.

There are no more French hostages at the plant as far as French authorities can tell, Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Saturday.

One French national was killed, but three others who were at the site are safe, the Foreign Ministry said a day earlier. The man who died, identified as Yann Desjeux, had spoken to the French newspaper Sud Ouest from the plant Thursday. He was quoted as saying he and 34 other hostages of nine different nationalities were being well treated.

Of the BP employees, 14 are safe, and four BP employees are still missing in Algeria, BP Chief Executive Bob Dudley said.

At least one American, identified as Frederick Buttaccio, is also among the dead, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.

As of Friday, six Americans were freed or escaped, a U.S. official said. Other Americans were unaccounted for.

One Romanian has also lost his life, a spokeswoman for the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs told CNN on Saturday. Four other Romanians were freed.

There are also 14 Japanese unaccounted for, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said.

Malaysia’s state-run news agency reported Thursday that two of its citizens were held captive.

It was not clear how many hostages were seized by the Islamist militants and how many were being held.

The military operation Thursday ended with 650 hostages — including 100 foreigners — freed, while at least 12 Algerian and foreign workers were killed, the Algerian Press Service reported in what it said was a “provisional toll.”

Eighteen of the attackers were “neutralized,” APS said.

A dangerous escape

When the crisis began Wednesday, militants gathered the Westerners into a group and tied them up, survivors said. The kidnappers wielded AK-47 rifles and put explosive-laden vests on some hostages, a U.S. State Department official said.

Survivors who’ve made their way to freedom have described harrowing escapes from the terror group. Some rigged up disguises, others sneaked to safety with locals, and at least one ran for his life with plastic explosives strapped around his neck.

When the military kicked off its operation Thursday, the militants moved some hostages, according to one survivor’s account.

With plastic explosives strapped around their necks, these captives were blindfolded and gagged before being loaded into five Jeeps, according to the brother of former hostage Stephen McFaul.

McFaul, with the explosives still around his neck, escaped after the vehicle he was in — one of several targeted by Algerian fighters — crashed, his brother said from Belfast, Northern Ireland.

“I haven’t seen my mother move as fast in all my life, and my mother smile as much, hugging each other,” Brian McFaul said upon his family hearing his brother was safe. “… You couldn’t describe the feeling.”

McFaul said the other four Jeeps were “wiped out” in an explosion, and his brother believed the hostages inside did not survive.

American Mark Cobb also escaped. Cobb, a Texan who with a LinkedIn profile as general manager for a BP joint venture out of In Amenas, told CNN on Saturday he will be in the United States next week. He said doesn’t want to talk to the press “until the whole situation is resolved.”

Al Qaeda-linked group offered prisoner-hostage exchange

A spokesman for Moktar Belmoktar, a longtime jihadist who leads the Brigade of the Masked Ones — a militant group associated with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb — reportedly offered to free U.S. hostages in exchange for two prisoners.

Behind the group claiming responsibility for the attack and kidnappings, he is known for seizing hostages and has long been targeted by French counterterrorism forces.

The prisoners are Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, who orchestrated the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani woman jailed in the United States on terrorism charges, the spokesman said in an interview with a private Mauritanian news agency.

Nuland rejected the offer, restating U.S. policy of not negotiating with terrorists.

By Laura Smith-Spark and Joe Sterling, CNN. CNN’s Barbara Starr, Per Nyberg, Dan Rivers, Greg Botelho, Tricia Escobedo, Josh Rubin, Mike Mount, Joe Sutton, Elwyn Lopez, Frederik Pleitgen, Mitra Mobasherat, Saskya Vandoorne, Laura Perez Maestro, Junko Ogura, Dheepthi Namasivayam, Saad Abedine, Elise Labott and Tim Lister contributed to this report, as did journalists Peter Taggart from Belfast and Said Ben Ali from Algiers.