Algerian special forces launched a rescue operation Thursday at a natural gas plant in the Sahara Desert and freed foreign hostages held by al-Qaida-linked terrorists, but estimates for the number of dead varied wildly from four to dozens.
Terrorists claiming revenge for France’s intervention against rebels in Mali seized the Ain Amenas natural gas complex on Wednesday, taking dozens of foreign workers hostage.
Algerian state media said Thursday that four captives, two Britons and two Filipinos, had died. But the terrorists said at least 35 hostages had died in the state’s rescue attempt. There was no way to independently verify the toll in the remote location, 800 miles (1,300 kilometers) from Algiers.
The reports of high casualties have deeply disturbed foreign governments, prompting a number to criticize Algeria’s operation. Britain’s Foreign Office attempted to prepare the British public by saying, “We should be under no illusion that there will be some bad and distressing news to follow from this terrorist attack.”
The Algerian government said it was forced to intervene due to the terrorists’ stubbornness and their desire to escape with the hostages.
Islamists from the Masked Brigade, a Mali-based al-Qaida offshoot, who have been speaking through a Mauritanian news outlet, said Algerian helicopters opened fire as the terrorists tried to leave the vast energy complex with their hostages. They claimed that 35 hostages and 15 militants died in the attack and only seven hostages survived.
Algeria’s official news service, meanwhile, claimed earlier that 600 local workers were freed in the raid and half of the foreigners being held were rescued. Many of those locals were reportedly released on Wednesday, however, by the capturers themselves.
In Washington, White House press secretary Jay Carney said the Obama administration was “concerned about reports of loss of life and are seeking clarity from the government of Algeria.”
An unarmed American surveillance drone soared overhead as the Algerian forces closed in, U.S. officials said. The U.S. offered military assistance Wednesday to help rescue the hostages, whose numbers varied wildly from dozens to hundreds, but the Algerian government refused, a U.S. official said in Washington. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the offer.
The kidnapping is one of the largest ever attempted by a terrorist group in North Africa.