The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

State and Nation

January 17, 2013

Algeria: Army rescues hostages, toll unclear

(Continued)

"Bullets were flying over their heads as they hid on the floor of the bus," Vigdis Sletten told The Associated Press in a phone interview from her home in Bokn, on Norway's west coast.

Her husband and the other bus passengers climbed out of a window and were transported to a nearby military camp, she said.

"He is among the lucky ones, and he has confirmed he is not injured," she said, declining to give his name for security reasons.

It was then that the militants went after the living quarters of the plant instead of disappearing back into the desert.

Information about the 41 foreign hostages the militants claimed to have — which allegedly included seven Americans — was scarce and conflicting. All were reportedly workers at the plant.

A spokesman for the Masked Brigade told the Nouakchott Information Agency in Mauritania that the seven surviving hostages included three Belgians, two Americans, a Briton and a Japanese citizen.

Earlier in the day before the raid, an Algerian security official said that 20 foreign hostages had escaped. He did not return phone calls after the raid.

The Norwegian energy company Statoil had said three Algerian employees who had been held hostage were safe but the fate of nine Norwegian workers was unclear. Japanese media reported at least 3 Japanese citizens among the hostages and Malaysia confirmed two.

Algerian Interior Minister Daho Ould Kabila said the roughly 20 well-armed gunmen operating under orders from Moktar Belmoktar, al-Qaida's strongman in the Sahara, who is now based in Mali.

It is certainly the largest haul of hostages since 2003, when the radical group that later evolved into al-Qaida in North Africa snatched 32 Western tourists in southern Algeria. This is also the first time Americans have been involved.

BP, the Norwegian company Statoil and the Algerian state oil company Sonatrach, operate the gas field and a Japanese company, JGC Corp, provides services for the facility.

Mali and al-Qaida specialist Mathieu Guidere said Algeria's refusal to accept help was also normal.

"They never accept any military help," he said. "They want to do it their way."

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