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Algeria botches rescue attempt

| Thursday, Jan. 17, 2013, 9:42 p.m.
Mokhtar Belmokhtar, identified by the Algerian interior ministry as the leader of a militant Islamic group, is pictured in a screen capture from an undated video distributed by the Belmokhtar Brigade obtained by Reuters on Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013. Belmokhtar, an Algerian who fought against Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980's, has claimed responsibility for the January 16 kidnapping of up to 41 foreigners at an Algerian gas field, according to media reports. Reuters

ALGIERS — Algerian helicopters and special forces on Thursday staged a high-stakes military assault against Islamist terrorists to free scores of hostages, including Americans, at an international gas complex in the Sahara Desert, with some accounts suggesting the military attack was botched, resulting in the deaths of perhaps dozens.

Dueling claims from the military and the terrorists muddied the world's understanding of an event that angered Western leaders, raised world oil prices and complicated the international military operation in neighboring Mali.

Algeria's attack against the militants sparked a torrent of complaints from countries representing the hostages. The United States was not notified before Algerian forces conducted the raid and had urged caution, an Obama administration official said. British Prime Minister David Cameron expressed dismay that he wasn't consulted, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe demanded that Algeria halt the operation.

Details from the remote outpost near Algeria's border with Libya remained sketchy, with conflicting accounts nevertheless indicating a potentially significant number of casualties.

Algeria's Communications Minister Mohamed Said Oubelaid told state media late Thursday that combat operations had ended. But efforts to free some hostages were continuing. Algerian media reported that some of the hostages were still held by militants who escaped the attack, with Algerian forces in pursuit.

“This it is a very dangerous, very uncertain and very fluid situation, and I think we have to prepare ourselves for the possibility of bad news ahead,” Cameron said, after confirming that at least one Briton had died.

In an interview Thursday with ABC News, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said “about 100 people” were at the complex when the attack occurred but that it was unclear how many were taken hostage. He said initial reports were that the hostages included “somewhere in the vicinity” of seven or eight Americans.

Spokesmen for the hostage-takers said their siege was in response to the French intervention in Mali. Experts, however, said the sophistication of the attack suggested it may have been planned long before French troops arrived in Mali and that the motive may have been a show of force against an old adversary — the Algerian military.

The ability of militants to mount the most daring attack on Algerian soil in years rattled observers, who had considered the country's energy fields — which supply Western Europe with 20 percent of its natural gas — as beyond the reach of radical groups. News of the chaos caused oil prices to rise $1.25 to close at $95.49 a barrel.

Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, described the attack as a “brazen, large scale raid” that went far beyond the scope of the kidnapping operations that have become routine for al-Qaida's affiliate in North Africa.

Militants took dozens of hostages at the sprawling Tiguentourine plant, jointly run by BP, Norway's Statoil and the Algerian state energy company, about 25 miles southwest of the town of Ain Amenas.

Stephen McFaul, 36, a father of five from Northern Ireland who works as an electrician at the facility, was herded into a room with others, the London-based Daily Mail reported. He made what he thought might be his last phone call, telling his relatives: “Al-Qaida have got me.”

Bullets could be heard “flying about outside,” relatives said.

Reports suggested some hostages were forced to wear suicide-bomber vests.

Speaking through the Agence Nouakchott d'Information — the Mauritanian news agency sympathetic to the militants — a spokesman for the terrorists claimed that the attempted Algerian rescue began because the jihadists had tried to move hostages out of the facility.

The U.S. government sent an unmanned surveillance drone to the BP-operated site, but it could do little more than watch. Algeria's army-dominated government, hardened by decades of fighting Islamists, shrugged aside foreign offers of help.

According to French government sources, the extremists started killing hostages “in an appalling fashion” after the assault began.

The ensuing helicopter assault, Algerian media reported, left 35 hostages and 15 of their captors dead. Neither Algerian officials nor Western governments have confirmed the toll. An eyewitness described a scene of carnage, saying: “There were bodies all over the ground.”

At least six were killed — Britons, Filipinos and Algerians. Dozens more remained unaccounted for: Americans, Britons, French, Norwegians, Romanians, Malaysians, Japanese, Algerians. Hostages from Ireland and Norway trickled out of the plant.

McFaul was one of the lucky ones. About 3 p.m. he phoned his wife to say: “I'm free, love, I'm free.”

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