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60 hostages dead, missing in Algeria standoff

Friday - 1/18/2013, 10:33am  ET

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron, centre, speaking to the House of Commons in London in this image taken from TV Friday Jan. 18, 2013, where the prime minister spoke about the kidnap situation in Algeria. (AP Photo/PA) UNITED KINGDOM OUT

PAUL SCHEMM

ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) -- About 60 foreign hostages are still unaccounted for three days into a bloody siege with Islamic militants at a gas plant deep in the Sahara, Algeria's state news service said Friday.

The militants, meanwhile, offered to trade two American hostages for 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.

It was the latest surprising development in a hostage drama that began Wednesday when militants seized hundreds of workers from 10 nations at Algeria's remote Ain Amenas natural gas plant. Algerian forces retaliated Thursday by storming the plant in an attempted rescue operation that killed at least four hostages and left leaders around the world expressing strong concerns about the hostages' safety.

Algerian special forces resumed negotiating Friday with the militants holed up in the refinery, according to the Algerian news service, which cited a security source.

The report said "more than half of the 132 hostages" had been freed in the first two days, but it could not account for the remainder, saying some could be hidden throughout the sprawling desert site.

Militants on Friday offered to trade two American hostages for two prominent terror figures jailed in the United States: the mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and a Pakistani scientist convicted of shooting at two U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.

The offer, according to a Mauritanian news site that frequently broadcasts dispatches from groups linked to al-Qaida, came from Moktar Belmoktar, an extremist commander based in Mali who apparently masterminded the operation.

Algeria's government has kept a tight grip on information, but it was clear that the militant assault that began Wednesday with an attempted bus hijacking has killed at least six people from the plant -- and perhaps many more.

Workers kidnapped by the militants came from around the world -- Americans, Britons, French, Norwegians, Romanians, Malaysians, Japanese, Algerians. Leaders on Friday expressed strong concerns about how Algeria was handing the situation and its apparent reluctance to communicate.

British Prime Minister David Cameron went before the House of Commons on Friday to provide an update, seeming frustrated that Britain was not told about the military operation despite having "urged we be consulted."

Terrorized hostages from Ireland and Norway trickled out of the Ain Amenas plant, 800 miles (1,300 kilometers) south of Algiers, the capital. BP, which jointly operates the plant, said it had begun to evacuate employees from Algeria.

"This is a large and complex site and they are still pursuing terrorists and possibly some of the hostages," Cameron said. He told lawmakers the situation remained fluid and dangerous, saying "part of the threat has been eliminated in one part of the site, a threat still remains in another part."

Algeria's army-dominated government, hardened by decades of fighting Islamist militants, shrugged aside foreign offers of help and drove ahead alone.

The U.S. government sent an unarmed surveillance drone to the BP-operated site, near the border with Libya, but it could do little more than watch Thursday's military intervention. British intelligence and security officials were on the ground in Algeria's capital but were not at the installation, said a British official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.

A U.S. official said while some Americans escaped, other Americans were either still held or unaccounted for.

El Mokhtar Ould Sidi, editor of the Mauritanian news site ANI, said several calls on Thursday came from the kidnappers themselves giving their demands and describing the situation.

"They were clearly in a situation of war, the spokesman who contacted us was giving orders to his colleagues and you could hear the sounds of war in the background.... He threatened to kill all the hostages if the Algerian forces tried to liberate them," he said.

With the hostage drama entering its second day Thursday, Algerian security forces moved in, first with helicopter fire and then special forces, according to diplomats, a website close to the militants, and an Algerian security official. The government said it was forced to intervene because the militants were being stubborn and wanted to flee with the hostages.

Militants claimed 35 hostages died when the military helicopters opened fire as they were transporting hostages from the living quarters to the main factory area where other workers were being held.

The group -- led by a Mali-based al-Qaida offshoot known as the Masked Brigade -- suffered losses in Thursday's military assault -- but garnered a global audience.

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