Hostages of Islamic Militants in Algeria Escape, Freed by Algerian Military

International news reports conflict on how many killed, how many remain captive.

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The Algerian military raided a natural gas field where Islamic militants are suspected of holding foreign hostages Thursday morning, and as many as 45 hostages are believed to have been freed, Los Angeles Times reports.

A conflicting report from Mauritanian news organization ANI, which is in direct contact with the hostage-takers, said Algerian helicopter strikes killed 35 foreigners and 15 kidnappers, including the group's leader. Reuters reports lower numbers all around: 25 hostages escaped and eight kidnappers killed.

The crisis began Wednesday when a band of gunmen calling themselves the Signed-in-Blood Battalion stormed the In Amenas gas field, near Algeria's eastern border with Libya, and took nearly 200 of the complex's employees as hostages, including over 40 foreigners. An estimated 600 people work at the site were also taken in, according to Algerian news service APS, though it is not clear if they were treated as hostages.

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The group, which is linked to al Qaeda, claimed the attack was revenge for Algeria's support of French military intervention in nearby Mali. They demanded the French halt its attacks, and that 100 militants being held in Algeria be released in exchange for the hostages, Reuters reports.

In response, Algerian forces surrounded the gas field and some news reports indicated the army used helicopters to strike the gas complex, which is run jointly by the Algerian state oil company, the British company BP, and the Norwegian company Statoil.

British and Norwegian government officials told Reuters they were aware an operation was underway but did not know of the fates of the hostages, while a conflicting report from an Algerian news agency reported that the strike led to the escape of 45 hostages, including 15 foreigners, according to the LA Times.

The Algerian service APS is also reporting the gas complex is under the military's control. Both APS and the kidnappers claimed earlier Thursday morning that seven hostages were still alive, including two Americans. BBC and French newspaper Le Monde have since reported that Algerian forces freed four hostages: one French, two Scots, and a Kenyan.

[READ: Algeria Mulls International Force for Hostages]

Government officials in Britain, Norway, Algeria, and the United States have not confirmed the numbers. Speaking to the press in Rome Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta confirmed that some Americans were among the hostages and indicated the U.S. would take action.

"The United States strongly condemns these kinds of terrorist acts," Panetta said. "I want to assure the American people that the United States will take all necessary and proper steps that are required to deal with this situation."

Panetta said he had spoken with European authorities and had not confirmed a link between the Algerian kidnappers and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the Islamic terrorist organization currently fighting French and Malian forces in northern Mali.

"It is for that reason that we have always been concerned about their presence in Mali -- because they would use it a base of operations to do exactly what happened in Algeria," Panetta said. "That's the kind of thing that terrorists do."

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