LONDON — The Algerian government on Thursday staged a high-stakes military assault against Islamist militants to free scores of hostages, including Americans, at an international gas complex in the Sahara, with official accounts suggesting a tragedy had unfolded in the desert.
Algeria’s attack against the militants sparked a torrent of complaints from countries representing the hostages. The United States, which had urged caution, was not notified before Algerian forces conducted the raid, an Obama administration official said. British Prime Minister David Cameron expressed dismay through a spokesman that he wasn’t consulted. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had urged Algeria to halt the operation.
Islamic militants have told a Mauritanian news outlet that that 35 hostages were killed but seven are still alive after Algerian military helicopters strafed a gas complex deep in the Sahara in Algeria. The militants also said two of the survivors are Americans.
A map locating In Amenas, Algeria
Details from the remote outpost near Algeria’s border with Libya remained sketchy, but the conflicting accounts nevertheless indicated a potentially significant number of casualties among hostages and captors.
Algerian Communications Minister Mohamed Said Oubelaid told state media late Thursday that combat operations had “ended.” But efforts to free the hostages were continuing, he said, adding that many had been liberated but that some had died. Private Algerian media outlets reported that militants who escaped the attack were still holding some hostages, with government forces in pursuit.
“This is a very dangerous, very uncertain and very fluid situation, and I think we have to prepare ourselves for the possibility of bad news ahead,” Cameron said Thursday, after confirming the death of one Briton.
In an interview Thursday with ABC News, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said that “about 100 people” were at the complex when the attack occurred but that it was unclear how many were taken hostage. He said initial reports were that the hostages included “somewhere in the vicinity” of seven or eight Americans. “Right now, we just really don’t know,” he said.
Panetta’s comments appeared to raise doubts about reports by the official Algerian Press Service that quoted local sources as saying that four foreign hostages and nearly 600 Algerian workers were “freed” Thursday.
The events at the plant evoked memories of the North African nation’s bloody civil war against Islamist extremists in the 1990s and underscored the rapidly escalating tensions in a region where French troops have come to the aid of the fragile government in neighboring Mali as it seeks to block the advance of emboldened militants.
Spokesmen for the hostage-takers have said that their siege was a response to the French operation in Mali. Experts, however, said that the sophistication of the attack suggested that it may have been planned long before France intervened last week and that the motive may have been a show of force against an old adversary — the Algerian military.
The ability of militants to mount the most daring attack on Algerian soil in years rattled observers, who had considered the country’s energy fields — which supply Western Europe with 20 percent of its natural gas — as beyond the reach of radical groups. Should the number of causalities prove to be as high as some reports indicated, it could stain the image of the Algerian military domestically and raise questions about the type of counsel and offers of aid made to Algiers by U.S. and European governments.