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World scrambles to learn fate of U.S. hostages in Algeria

- The Washington Times - Friday, January 18, 2013

Algerian authorities said Friday that their ongoing special forces assault on the Ain Amenas natural gas plant had freed 650 hostages, including nearly 70 foreigners, who were being held by heavily armed al Qaeda-linked Islamic extremists, according to state media in Algiers.

An unknown number of hostages and their captors were also killed or wounded in the assault, which began Thursday when the extremists tried to leave with their captives and continued Friday as troops searched the sprawling gas plant, which occupies several square miles in the Sahara Desert near Algeria's border with Libya.

A U.S. plane landed near the plant Friday, ready to evacuate any American survivors, French media reported. An unknown number of Americans were among the foreign hostages the extremists seized Wednesday when they attacked the plant in three vehicles and fought off the Algerian police guarding it.

There was no word of the fate of the U.S. hostages, but the state news agency in Algeria, APS, reported that 132 foreign workers had been held and "over half" of them had been freed.

In Washington, officials were tight-lipped, saying the fluid and chaotic circumstances at the gas plant made it impossible to give real-time updates to the press or public.

President Obama "is receiving regular updates from his national security team on the ongoing situation," said spokesman Thomas F. Vietor. "We are in constant contact with the government of Algeria and have been clear that our first priority is the safety and security of the hostages."

He said Mr. Obama had spoken Thursday with British Prime Minister David Cameron "and we are in close touch with our other international partners."

In statements to a Mauritian news agency, the extremists said their attack was in retaliation for the French military intervention in neighboring Mali, where 2,500 French troops began arriving last week to fight an insurgency led by al Qaeda that has already seized control of the country's vast desert north.

The hostage-takers said they were fighters loyal to Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a one-eyed Algerian veteran of the Afghan jihad who was formerly a regional commander for al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the terrorist network's affiliate in the region.

In addition to several Americans and Britons, there were Norwegians, Romanians and French and Irish citizens among the hostages.

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