The chaotic end of Algeria’s hostage crisis at a natural-gas plant in the Sahara on Thursday highlights the broad front on which Islamic extremists can strike back against France’s military intervention in Mali.
Algerian officials said their troops and helicopter gunships stormed the gas facility where Islamic extremists were holding foreign hostages, including several Americans, when the terrorists tried to leave plant with their captives.
An unknown number of hostages were killed in the military assault, according to various accounts.
Algerian state media said four foreign hostages had been freed in the raid and at least one of them, Michael McFaul, a Briton from West Belfast, was able to speak by telephone to his family.
The extremists, loyal to Mokhtar Belmokhtar, an Algerian jihadist who was formerly a regional commander for al Qaeda, told a Mauritanian news agency that they had more than 40 foreign hostages from nine countries.
They told the Nouakchott Information Agency, which often runs reports from al Qaeda-linked militants, that 35 hostages and 15 of the militants’ comrades had been killed when helicopter gunships strafed the vehicles in which they were traveling. There was no independent confirmation of the figures or of their account.
Algerian officials said they feared the terrorists were heading across the nearby border to Libya, where large areas of the country are without effective government and have become havens for extremists since the 2011 revolution that toppled dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
U.S. officials were tight-lipped about the situation, possibly because they lacked information from the Algerian authorities about what was happening.
“Because of the fluidity [of the situation] and the fact that there is a lot of planning going on, I cannot give you any further details at this time about the current situation on the ground,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told reporters in Washington.
Information coming from Algeria was “pretty sketchy” even after the assault began, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta told ABC News in an interview in England. White House press secretary Jay Carney said the Obama administration was “seeking clarity from the government of Algeria.”
An unarmed U.S. 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, but the Algerian government refused, according to a U.S. official in Washington cited by The Associated Press. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the offer.
A European official, agreeing to speak without being named in order to discuss sensitive issues, told The Washington Times: “The Algerians acted on their own. They didn’t consult us. They didn’t consult the Americans. No one knew what was happening until it had started.”
British Prime Minister David Cameron had not been informed in advance of the operation and would have liked to have been, a spokesman for Mr. Cameron said.
Mr. Cameron himself warned his countrymen: “We should be prepared for further bad news.”