American, Frenchman Confirmed Killed in Algeria Siege
An American and a Frenchman have been found dead, and the Obama administration said Friday it was trying to secure the release of U.S. hostages still being held by Islamic militants at an Algerian gas plant deep in the Sahara.
Earlier Friday, Algeria's state news service said nearly 100 out of 132 foreign hostages had been freed three days into the bloody siege.
That number of hostages at the remote desert facility was significantly higher than any previous report, and still meant that the fate of over 30 foreign energy workers was unclear. Yet it could indicate a potential breakthrough in the confrontation that began when the militants seized the plant early Wednesday.
U.S. officials identified the dead American as Frederick Buttaccio, a Texas resident, but said it was unclear how he died. They said U.S. officials recovered Buttaccio's remains on Friday and notified his family. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak publicly on the matter. A spokesman for the Buttaccio family in the Houston suburb of Katy, Texas, declined to comment.
The French Foreign Ministry said a Frenchman, Yann Desjeux, was killed during the rescue operation and three other French citizens had survived. Norway's Statoil, which also operates the plant, said nine employees have been brought to safety and experiencing "extreme stress," but the fate of eight others was not clear.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said she spoke by telephone with Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal to get an update on Americans and others in danger at the sprawling refinery. She said the "utmost care must be taken to preserve innocent life."
Clinton spoke after the State Department confirmed that Americans were still being held hostage, even as some Americans were being flown out of the country for recovery in Europe. The Algerian state news agency reported that 12 hostages had been killed since Wednesday's start of an Algerian rescue operation, and world leaders steadily increased their criticism of the North African country's handling of the attack.
A satellite image of the Amenas Gas Field, jointly operated by BP, Norway's Statoil and Algeria's Sonatrach.
Clinton, however, defended Algeria's action. "Let's not forget: This is an act of terror," she told reporters in Washington. "The perpetrators are the terrorists. They are the ones who have assaulted this facility, have taken hostage Algerians and others from around the world as they were going about their daily business."
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.
The hostage siege began Wednesday when militants seized hundreds of workers from 10 nations at Algeria's remote Ain Amenas natural gas plant, which is partly operated by BP. 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.
Friday's report by the government news agency APS said nearly 100 of the 132 hostages had been freed, indicating a potential breakthrough in the siege and reflecting a significant jump in the number of foreign hostages involved. The report, citing a security official, did not mention any casualties in the battles between Algerian forces and the militants. But earlier it had said that 18 militants had been killed, along with six hostages.
It was not clear whether the remaining foreigners were still captive or had been killed in the Algerian military operation to free them that began Thursday.
Abual-Baraa Al-Jazairi, who the Nouakchott Mauritanian News Agency (ANI) claims is the head of the militant group that kidnapped 41 foreigners in In Amenas in eastern Algeria. (Source: AFP | Getty Images)
In London earlier, visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Washington was working around the clock to ensure the safe return of its citizens caught up in the Algeria crisis. A U.S. plane landed on Friday at an airport near the desert gas plant to evacuate Americans caught in the crisis.
"Regardless of the motivation of the hostage takers, there is no justification, no justification for the kidnapping and murder of innocent people," Panetta said.
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-Qaeda, 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 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 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.