An unarmed American surveillance drone soared overhead as the Algerian forces closed in, U.S. officials said. The U.S. offered military assistance Wednesday to help rescue the hostages — whose numbers varied wildly from dozens to hundreds — 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.
Algerian forces who had ringed the Ain Amenas complex in a tense standoff had vowed not to negotiate with the kidnappers, who reportedly were seeking safe passage. Security experts said the end of the two-day standoff was in keeping with the North African country's tough approach to terrorism.
"I would not be surprised if the death toll was has high as the militants put it, it's a well-known fact that the Algerians never had problems causing a blood bath to respond to terrorist attacks," said Riccardo Fabiani, North Africa analyst for the Eurasia group, who expressed doubt over Algeria's claims that mediation was abandoned in the face of the kidnappers' intransigence. "I wonder whether really in 24 hours you can establish some kind of negotiations with terrorists, I don't think they really tried."
The kidnapping is one of the largest ever attempted by a militant group in North Africa. The militants phoned a Mauritanian news outlet to demand that France end its intervention in neighboring Mali to ensure the safety of the hostages in the isolated plant, located 800 miles (1,300 kilometers) south of the capital of Algiers.
Phone contacts with the militants were severed as government forces closed in, according to the Mauritanian agency, which often carries reports from al-Qaida-linked extremist groups in North Africa.
A 58-year-old Norwegian engineer who made it to the safety of a nearby Algerian military camp told his wife how militants attacked a bus Wednesday before being fended off by a military escort.