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Algeria hostage standoff in talks; unknown number of captives still trapped in Sahara gas facility

| Friday, Jan. 18, 2013, 9:26 p.m.

Survivors of one of the largest hostage crises in recent memory recounted harrowing tales of their ordeal, as Algerian security forces attempted late Friday to negotiate an end to the standoff at a natural gas facility in the Sahara Desert.

Some workers described being forced to strap on explosives-filled belts when Islamist militants stormed the site on Wednesday. Others were shot on the spot.

An unknown number of captives, including Americans, remain trapped at the complex. At least some militants and hostages were killed, including at least one American, with the unverified toll potentially in the dozens.

Survivors on Friday narrated close escapes, even as Algerian military forces continued to sweep the sprawling compound for remaining captives.

One escaped worker, Stephen McFaul, said through a family spokesman that he initially avoided capture. McFaul, who is from Northern Ireland, locked himself in a room at the compound in the hopes of avoiding detection, said John Morrisey, a family spokesman briefed about the ordeal.

Over the course of the day, however, he was discovered and taken hostage — a fact he revealed to his worried wife and mother through brief telephone calls back home in West Belfast on Thursday morning.

As the militants prepared to move hostages to a more secure area later on Thursday, McFaul was loaded into one of four Jeeps, according to the family spokesman. As the vehicles moved away, Algerian helicopters closed in on the convoy, raining a barrage of heavy artillery that directly hit and severely damaged three of the vehicles, causing the one in which McFaul was traveling to overturn.

McFaul then scrambled away from the wreckage through the window and managed to escape, Morrisey said. He was scheduled to land on Friday evening in London.

“He is still very worried about those still back in Algeria, but as you can imagine, he is looking forward to getting home,” Morrisey said.

Hundreds of captives appear to have been released, with the first of the British survivors landing late Friday at London's Gatwick Airport via a transport flight chartered by energy giant BP.

Algerian TV broadcast images of survivors, with some Turkish and Filipino workers at a hospital bandaged and burned and others jubilantly hugging their compatriots. Weary-looking British workers boarded a bus, where they expressed relief that they were going home.

Algeria's state-run news service painted a chaotic picture of the ongoing crisis, with militants reportedly taking more than 650 hostages.

“I heard a lot of gunshots, and an alarm telling us to stay where we were,” said Alexandre Berceaux, a catering contractor.

Once he realized the danger, he said, he barricaded himself in his room to try to stay safe.

“I stayed hidden for almost 40 hours in my room, under my bed. I put planks everywhere just in case,” he said.

Then on Thursday, relief came, Berceaux said: his compatriots, accompanied by men in green uniforms.

The Algerian news service said the military had used “missiles, rocket launchers, grenades, machine guns and assault rifles” to free virtually all of the 573 Algerian hostages, along with 100 of 132 foreign nationals from eight countries, including the United States.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the militant attack “an act of terror,” saying she had spoken with Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal and emphasized that “the utmost care must be taken to preserve innocent life.” But she did not criticize Sellal for his handling of the crisis.

At least one American at the complex, Frederick Buttaccio, a Texas resident, died there, according to a U.S. law enforcement official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Echoing the dismay of many governments representing the foreign hostages, British Prime Minister David Cameron told Parliament that he had not been given advance notice of the Algerian operation.

Cameron laid out the fullest official timeline yet of the crisis, saying groups backed by the one-eyed Islamist militant Mokhtar Belmokhtar initiated their attack on transit buses on the isolated compound that left two dead.

The militants then fanned out, seizing a residential compound and a gas pumping facility, holding a still-unknown number of hostages.

A senior French official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said Algerian authorities have not been forthcoming about tallies of the dead and rescued.

The Mauritanian news agency ANI, which has been in contact with the extremists who have asserted responsibility for the siege, said the group has offered to release its remaining American hostages in exchange for two high-profile prisoners being held in the United States.

ANI said the militants are seeking the release of the Pakistani scientist Aafia Siddiqui, convicted in a U.S. court in 2010 of the attempted murder of American personnel in Afghanistan, and Egyptian Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind sheik convicted on terrorism charges.

The news agency quoted a spokesman for the Masked Brigade, the Islamist group allegedly behind the attack on the gas complex. The group was affiliated with the umbrella organization al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, but it reportedly broke with AQIM last month, according to terrorism experts in France.

One Algerian engineer told the France Info radio station that the captors were interested only in the foreign employees.

“They came into the bedrooms,” one said. “They broke down the doors. They were shouting: We're only looking for the expatriates! The Algerians can leave! They rounded up the expats. ... They tied them up.”

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