ALGIERS, Algeria Algerian forces raided a remote Sahara gas plant Thursday in an attempt to free dozens of foreign hostages held by militants with ties to Mali’s rebel Islamists, diplomats said. Islamic militants claimed that 35 hostages and 15 militants were killed after Algerian military helicopters strafed the area but said seven hostages survived.
Islamists with the Masked Brigade, who have been speaking through a Mauritanian news outlet, said the Algerians opened fire as the militants tried to leave the vast Ain Amenas energy complex with their hostages a day after seizing the installation deep in the desert.
Algerian forces had surrounded the complex in a tense standoff since the plant was seized early Wednesday and had vowed not to negotiate with the kidnappers, who reportedly were seeking safe passage.
President Barack Obama’s government offered military assistance Wednesday to help rescue the hostages, but the Algerian government refused, a U.S. official said in Washington. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the offer.
Information about the 41 foreign hostages the militants claimed to have — including seven Americans — was scarce and conflicting. All were reportedly workers at the remote plant.
The spokesman for the Masked Brigade said Thursday that the surviving hostages included three Belgians, two Americans, a Briton and a Japanese citizen. The information from the militants came from the Nouakchott Information Agency, which has often carried reports from al-Qaida-linked extremist groups in North Africa.
Ireland said an Irish hostage had made contact with his family and was safe and free.
Algeria’s national news service, however, said four hostages were freed during the military operation Thursday, citing a local law enforcement source. An Algerian security official had said earlier that 20 foreign hostages had escaped before the raid.
There was no way to verify the information independently and the Algerian government did not immediately comment on the hostages or the military operation.
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