Confusion over fate of foreigners kidnapped in Algeria
The fate of foreign hostages held at a remote Algerian gas plant hung in the balance Friday, with their Islamist captors demanding a prisoner swap and end to French military action in Mali.
The Al-Qaeda-linked gunmen, cited by Mauritania's ANI news agency, said they still held seven foreigners at the site deep in the Sahara desert near the border with Libya.
An Algerian security official put their number at 10.
International criticism mounted over the haste of a dramatic Algerian military assault to rescue the hostages from the site that a security official said had left dead 12 hostages and 18 kidnappers.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said a Frenchman had been killed in the operation.
A security official said troops were trying to reach a "peaceful" end to the hostage crisis, before "neutralising the terrorist group that is holed up in the plant and freeing a group of hostages still being held there."
The kidnappers said they were still holding three Belgians, two Americans, one Japanese and a Briton.
Belgium said there was no indication any of its nationals were being held.
More remain unaccounted for, amid growing global concern about the way the hostage crisis was handled, with the fate of at least 10 Japanese nationals and eight Norwegian hostages still unknown.
APS quoted a government official as saying the kidnappers, who claimed to have come from Niger, were heavily armed, with weapons including machineguns, assault rifles, rocket launchers, grenades and missiles.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged Algeria to show "utmost care" to preserve the lives of the hostages and offered condolences for those killed.
"Utmost care must be taken to preserve innocent life," Clinton told a joint news conference with Japan's Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida.
An AFP photographer saw trucks delivering empty coffins to the hospital at In Amenas, where the wounded had been taken.
Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said the United States was "working around the clock" to secure the safe return of Americans, as Washington ruled out talks for a hostage swap.
Some of those who escaped said explosives had been wrapped around their necks and others said they hid, petrified, wherever they could.
Alexandre Berceaux of French catering firm CSI said he took cover in his room before troops freed him.
"I was under the bed and I put boards everywhere just in case," Berceaux said. "I had a bit of food, a bit to drink. I didn't know how long it would last."
Algerian forces launched their rescue bid on Thursday, a day after kidnappers seized the plant to avenge what they said was Algiers' support for French military action in neighbouring Mali.
The kidnappers said 34 captives were killed in the army assault, but an Algerian security official called that "fantasy," saying 18 of more than 30 Islamists died.
"We left the complex by a back door the terrorists didn't know about," said one freed Algerian. "We waved a white cloth so the army would know we were workers."
British Prime Minister Cameron said he was "disappointed" not to have been told in advance about the rescue bid, and said "significantly" fewer than 30 Britons remained at risk at the field, operated jointly by BP, Norway's Statoil and Sonatrach of Algeria.
BP said a "small number" of its staff remained unaccounted for, adding it had evacuated hundreds of workers from the complex and other fields.
Japanese plant builder JGC said it had accounted for 17 of its employees, but not another 61.
Statoil said the fate of eight Norwegian workers was unknown.
France said two of its nationals had returned safely but it had no word on two more. Vienna said one Austrian had been released.
A Northern Ireland man, Stephen McFaul, escaped. His brother said he fled when the convoy he was in came under army fire.
The gunmen from a group known as "Signatories in Blood" want an end to French intervention in Mali and to exchange American hostages for US-held prisoners, ANI quoted sources close to their leader, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, as saying.
ANI said Belmokhtar, a veteran Algerian Islamist with Al-Qaeda ties who has claimed responsibility for the attack, had proposed Paris and Algiers negotiate "an end to the war being waged by France in Azawad" (northern Mali).
He also proposed exchanging US hostages held by his group for Egyptian Omar Abdul Rahman and Pakistani Aafiah Siddiqui, jailed in the United States on charges of terrorist links.
"The United States does not negotiate with terrorists," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said when asked about the proposal.
Clinton spoke to Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal to try to coordinate efforts on the "extremely fluid" hostage crisis, she added.
The hostage drama dragged Algiers, which has also insisted it will not negotiate with "terrorists," and Western powers into the Mali conflict, taking the spotlight off French and Malian troops battling Islamists in the country's vast desert north.
The Malian army has retaken the centre of Konna, which had fallen to Islamists advancing from the north and sparked French military intervention, the French military confirmed.
© 2013 AFP