Militants who attacked a natural gas facility in eastern Algeria took as many as 40 people hostage, including three Americans as retaliation for France's intervention in neighboring Mali. NBC's Rohit Kachroo reports.
ALGIERS, Algeria -- Fifteen hostages were reported Thursday to have escaped from Islamist fighters who claimed to be holding 41 foreign nationals after taking over a gas plant in the Algerian desert.
U.S. officials said Wednesday that three Americans were among the hostages, but the report of the escape by Algerian television did not make clear whether they were among those who managed to flee.
Mauritania's ANI news agency reported that one of the kidnappers had claimed two Algerian army helicopters attacked the gas complex, injuring two of the Japanese hostages. It was not possible to independently verify the report, Reuters said. ANI has close contacts with the al-Qaida-linked group that has claimed responsibility for the mass kidnapping.
Nearly 24 hours after gunmen stormed the natural gas pumping site and workers' housing before dawn on Wednesday, little was certain beyond a claim by a group calling itself the "Battalion of Blood" that it was holding foreign nationals, including Japanese and Europeans in addition to the Americans, at Tigantourine, near In Amenas, deep in the Sahara.
The raid opened an international front in the civil war in neighboring Mali, just as French troops launched an offensive against Islamist rebels in that country.
Kjetil Alsvik / Statoil via AFP - Getty Images, file
This picture released by Norway's Statoil on shows vehicles parked at the In Amenas gas field in eastern Algeria near the Libyan border. Algerian troops surrounded Islamists holding foreign hostages at the field on Thursday.
On Wednesday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said he wanted "to assure the American people that the United States will take all necessary and proper steps that are required to deal with this situation."
British Foreign Secretary William Hague confirmed one Briton had been killed and "a number" of others were being held hostage. Algerian media said an Algerian was killed in the assault. Another local report said a Frenchman had died.
"This is a dangerous and rapidly developing situation," Hague told reporters in Sydney on Thursday, adding Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron had spoken with the Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
The crisis presents French President Francois Hollande with a daunting dilemma and spreads fallout from Mali's war against loosely allied bands of al-Qaida-inspired rebels far beyond Africa, challenging Washington and Europe.
Led by an Algerian veteran of guerrilla wars in Afghanistan, the group demanded France halt its week-old intervention in Mali, an operation endorsed by Western and African allies who fear that al-Qaida is building a haven in the desert.
Hollande has warned of a long, hard struggle in Mali and now faces a risk of attacks on more French and other Western targets in Africa and beyond.
The Algerian government ruled out negotiating and the United States and other Western governments condemned what they called a terrorist attack on a facility, now shut down, that produces 10 percent of Algeria's gas, much of which is pumped to Europe.
A French businessman with employees at the site said the foreigners were bound and under tight guard, while local staff, numbering 150 or more, were held apart and had more freedom.
The militants, communicating through established contacts with media in neighboring Mauritania, said they had dozens of men at the base, near the town of In Amenas close to the Libyan border, and that they were armed with mortars and anti-aircraft missiles.
The group said its fighters had rigged explosives around the site and any attempt to free the hostages would lead to a "tragic end."
Algerian Interior Minister Daho Ould Kablia said the raid was led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who fought Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s and recently set up his own group in the Sahara after falling out with other local al-Qaida leaders.
Belmokhtar is a holy warrior and smuggler dubbed "The Uncatchable" by French intelligence and "Mister Marlboro" by some locals for his illicit cigarette-running business.
In their own statements, the militants condemned Algeria's secularist government for "betraying" its predecessors in the bloody anti-colonial war against French rule half a century ago by letting French warplanes fly over its territory to Mali. They also accused Algeria of shutting its border to Malian refugees.
Hollande has called for international support against rebels who France says pose a threat to Africa and the West, and admits it faces a long struggle against well-equipped fighters who seized Timbuktu and other oasis towns in northern Mali and have imposed Islamic law, including public amputations and beheading.
Islamists have warned Hollande that he has "opened the gates of hell" for all French citizens.
The conflict, in a landlocked state of 15 million twice the size of France, has displaced an estimated 30,000 people and raised concerns across mostly Muslim West Africa of a radicalization of Islam in the region.
NBC News' Robert Windrem contributed to this report.