PARIS — The bloody three-day hostage standoff at a natural gas plant in the Sahara took a dramatic turn Friday as Algeria’s state news service reported that nearly 100 of the 132 foreign workers kidnapped by Islamic militants had been freed.
That number of hostages at the remote desert facility was significantly higher than any previous report, but it still left questions about the fate of over 30 other foreign energy workers. It wasn’t clear how the government arrived at the latest tally of hostages, which was far higher than the 41 foreigners the militants had claimed previously.
Algeria’s state news agency also reported late Friday that a “provisional toll” shows 12 hostages have been killed since the start of the Algerian military operation to free workers kidnapped by militants at the plant. The APS news agency quoted an unidentified security source for the new death toll and said the fatalities include both Algerian and foreign workers.
That hostage death toll would be more than double the one APS had reported earlier. The news agency has said 18 militants had been killed.
Yet the report that nearly 100 workers were safe could indicate a breakthrough in the confrontation that began when the militants seized the plant early Wednesday.
U.S. officials said Friday that one American worker at the complex, Texas resident Frederick Buttaccio, has been found dead there, but that it was unclear how he died. The Obama administration was seeking to secure the release of other Americans still being held by the militants.
France said one Frenchman has been killed during the raid by Algerian forces. The Foreign Ministry identified him as Yann Desjeux, without providing additional information. The ministry said three other French hostages are now free, but didn’t say if any French citizens remain in captivity.
The militants, meanwhile, offered to trade two captive American workers for two terror figures jailed in the United States, according to a statement received by a Mauritanian news site that often reports news from North African extremists.
The U.S. State Department confirmed that some Americans are still being held hostage in Algeria. Asked about a militant offer to trade two American hostages for jailed terror figures in the United States, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said, “The United States does not negotiate with terrorists.”
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton urged Algeria to do everything possible to protect the remaining hostages. Clinton said that in her conversation on Friday with Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal she emphasized that “the utmost care must be taken to preserve innocent life.”
It was not clear whether the remaining foreigners were still captive or had died during the Algerian military offensive to free them that began Thursday.
The desert siege erupted Wednesday when the militants attempted to hijack two buses at the plant, were repulsed, and then seized the sprawling refinery, which is 800 miles (1,300 kilometers) south of Algiers. They had claimed the attack came in retaliation for France’s recent military intervention against Islamist rebels in neighboring Mali, but security experts have said it must have taken weeks of planning to hit the remote site.
Since then, Algeria’s government has kept a tight grip on information about the siege.
The militants had seized hundreds of workers from 10 nations at Algeria’s remote Ain Amenas natural gas plant. The overwhelming majority were Algerian and were freed almost immediately.
Algerian forces retaliated Thursday by storming the plant in an attempted rescue operation that left leaders around the world expressing strong concerns about the hostages’ safety.