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Algeria Raids Gas Plant to Free Hostages; Conflicting Reports on Fallout

January 17, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JEFFREY BROWN: Algeria’s state news agency now says special forces have completed a mission to rescue dozens of foreign hostages, including some Americans. They’d been held by militants tied to al-Qaida. But there are wildly varying accounts of how many got out alive, how many were killed.

SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: Because of the fluidity 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.

JEFFREY BROWN: Even this afternoon, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested, the situation in Algeria remained confused.

The focus was this natural gas compound in the SaharaDesert seen here in footage from last month. The vast natural gas facility at In Amenas is owned in part by BP and located just 60 miles from Algeria’s border with Libya. Islamists apparently led by this man, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, attacked the plant yesterday, claiming they took 41 foreign hostages, including seven Americans.

Early today, the Algerian military stormed the sprawling site, as the militants were attempting to leave with the hostages. Hours later, the country’s communications minister told Algerian radio:

“An important number of hostages were freed and an important number of terrorists were neutralized, and we regret the few dead and wounded, but we don’t have numbers.”

U.S. officials said an American drone watched the operation from overhead, but that the Algerians had refused U.S. military assistance. Confusion reigned. The militants claimed 35 hostages died, while Algerian state TV said four were killed. And hundreds of local workers apparently escaped.

There was relief for at least one family in Ireland. They got word their son was now free.

CHRISTOPHER MCFAUL, father of released hostage: The last 48 hours has been a hell. So, this has been hell. That’s all I can really say about it, you know?

JEFFREY BROWN: In his video message, the militant leader Belmokhtar had said the attack on the gas complex was retaliation for French intervention in neighboring Mali against another al-Qaida-linked group.

In Washington today, after meeting with the president of Somalia, Secretary Clinton said the U.S. is ready to help the French.

HILLARY CLINTON: We are supporting the French operation in Mali with intelligence and airlift. We’re working with a half-a-dozen African countries, as we did with respect to Somalia over so many years, to help them be prepared to send in African troops.

JEFFREY BROWN: Clinton said U.S. trainers will arrive in the region by this weekend to work with those troops. In addition, the European Union approved sending a military training mission to Mali during an emergency meeting in Brussels.