Algeria Attacks Center of Gas Plant; Toll Unclear

A man reads a newspaper headlining "Terrorist attack and kidnapping in In Amenas", at a news stand in Algiers, Thursday, Jan. 17, 2013.
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By KARIM KABIR and PAUL SCHEMM, Associated Press

ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) — A deadly Algerian military raid to free hostages from at least 10 countries and wipe out their Islamist militant captors moved closer to the heart of the natural gas complex on Friday, the government news service said.

A total of 18 militants were killed and the plant's living quarters were secured, according to the news agency, which cited security officials. Dozens of energy workers remained unaccounted for after the Algerian military's initial claim that the assault at the remote desert facility was over late Thursday.

[READ: Hostages of Islamic Militants in Algeria Escape, Freed by Algerian Military]

Algeria's government has kept a tight grip on information, but it was clear that the militant assault that began Wednesday has killed at least six people from the factory — 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, which jointly operates the plant, 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."

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Algeria's army-dominated government, hardened by decades of fighting Islamist militants, shrugged aside foreign offers of help and drove ahead alone.

On Friday, Algeria's ambassador to Japan was summoned and told that Japan demanded that Algeria prioritize hostages' lives and cooperate more closely.

The U.S. government sent an unmanned surveillance drone to the BP-operated 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. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was briefed early Friday, according to a senior defense official, who offered no other details because "we view it as a sensitive, ongoing situation." The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

With the hostage drama entering its second day Thursday, Algerian security forces moved in, first with helicopter fire and then special forces, according to diplomats, a website close to the militants, and an Algerian security official. The government said it was forced to intervene because the militants were being stubborn and wanted to flee with the hostages.

Militants claimed 35 hostages died when the military helicopters opened fire as they were transporting hostages from the living quarters to the main factory area where other workers were being held.

The group — led by a Mali-based al-Qaida offshoot known as the Masked Brigade — suffered losses in Thursday's military assault — but garnered a global audience.

Even violence-scarred Algerians were stunned by the brazen hostage-taking Wednesday, the biggest in northern Africa in years and the first to include Americans as targets. Mass fighting in the 1990s had largely spared the lucrative oil and gas industry that gives Algeria its economic independence and regional weight.