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Algeria hunts for remaining hostage-takers at gas complex

Algerian authorities hunted through a sprawling natural gas complex yesterday for al-Qaida-linked militants and for about 30 foreigners unaccounted for following a hostage-taking attack.

Twelve hostages, including Algerians and foreigners, have been killed since a government counter-attack against the hostage-takers began Thursday, the state-run Algeria Press Service said, citing a security source. That figure is “provisional,” it said.

Algeria’s Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal confirmed “that there is an ongoing operation against terrorists” still inside the facility in Algeria’s southeastern desert, Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg told reporters in Oslo.

Algerian security forces have freed 573 Algerians and about 100 foreign captives out of 132, the state-run Algerian Press Service reported, without saying where it got the information. That accounting of foreigners at the facility – which includes a housing compound and production areas – is three times larger than the early reports that about 40 foreigners were being held.

“The housing is now secured,” Norwegian Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide said. “We know that a number of hostages were freed in yesterday’s operation by Algerian security forces. We also know that both hostage-takers and hostages were killed in this phase.”

“There are still hostages and hostage takers in the production-part of the facility,” he said. “We know a number of hostage-takers were attacked when they attempted to move inside the facility in cars” Thursday morning, and some of those hostages got away during that action.

The situation remains “difficult and dangerous,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in Washington yesterday. She spoke by phone for the third time in as many days with Sellal, and said the U.S. seeks to expand counterterrorism cooperation with Algeria and other North African nations.

Islamic militants struck Wednesday, taking hostage workers at the plant operated by London-based BP, Statoil of Norway and Algeria’s Sonatrach.

About 30 attackers of various nationalities were involved, APS said, citing security sources. The group, which entered Algeria from neighboring Niger, included citizens of Algeria, Canada, Mali, Egypt, Niger and Mauritania, according to Mauritania’s private ANI news agency, citing a source in the group.

The army began a second attack yesterday and killed 18 militants, according to APS. Some captives were reported dead after Thursday’s assault, which was begun without informing foreign governments in advance. The gas complex has been shut down to avert the risk of explosion, APS said.

Soltenberg said his nation should “be prepared for bad news.”

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