US officials are saying very little about the Algerian military operation to free those taken hostage after militants attacked a gas facility Wednesday morning. NBC's Stephanie Gosk reports.
The fate of dozens of hostages seized by Islamists at a gas field in Algeria remained unclear early Friday, hours after the Algerian military stormed the site.
At least six people, and perhaps many more, were killed, The Associated Press reported, and dozens were unaccounted for.
Algerian state media reported Thursday evening that the military operation had ended at the remote desert facility where dozens of workers — including three Americans — had been held hostage. The Algerian government was reported as saying two Filipinos and two British hostages had been killed.
Accounts of the number of hostages and militants killed in the operation differed wildly — ranging from four to 35 — in reports from regional sources cited by The Associated Press and Reuters.
Among those unaccounted for were Americans, Britons, French, Norwegians, Romanians, Malaysians, Japanese and Algerians.
Some of the hostages reportedly escaped from the natural gas pumping plant, near In Amenas, close to the border with Libya and 800 miles from the Algerian capital.
An unknown number of hostages left the country on a charter flight and were expected to land at London's Gatwick airport near midnight Thursday, according to BP, which operates the gas complex. The plane had not arrived as of 3:15 a.m. Friday.
The Islamist militants stormed the plant and workers' housing before dawn on Wednesday seizing up to 41 hostages in one of the biggest international hostage incidents in decades.
The militants have demanded an end to the French military campaign in Mali where ground troops and air forces of the former colonial power are backing Mali's military in offensive against Islamist rebels linked to al-Qaida in that country.
The group that has claimed responsibility for the gas plant raid is said to be led by an Islamic militant called Mokhtar bel Mokhtar, whose nicknames include "The Uncatchable" and "Mr. Marlboro."
According to the AP, militants with the Masked Brigade, a Mali-based al-Qaida offshoot, provided updates through a Mauritanian news organization that said the Algerians attacked when the militants tried to move hostages from the energy complex. The group claimed that 35 hostages and 15 militants died but seven hostages survived the helicopter attack on its convoy.
An Algerian security official says the decision to send forces came because the militants were being stubborn and wanted to flee with the hostages.
U.S. officials called the hostage situation "murky" and said the United States is working with the Algerian government and other affected nations to try to resolve the situation as quickly and securely as possible.
"It's in a remote area of Algeria, near the Libyan border," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said. "The security of our Americans who are held hostage is our highest priority, but of course we care deeply about the other Algerian and foreign hostages as well."
Clinton said she could not provide any additional information about the situation.
An Ireland government spokesman said Thursday that an Irish national held at the In Amenas gas plant had "made contact with his family and is understood to be safe and well, and no longer a hostage."
Sky News in London identified the Irish survivor as Stephen McFaul, 46, from west Belfast.
In an interview with the television station, McFaul's father Christopher said he was "delighted" by the news but added he felt "sorry for the other hostages that are still there."
He also described the last 48 hours as "hell".
Stephen McFaul's son, Dylan, also spoke to the Sky reporters: "I can't even explain the excitement. I can't wait until he gets home again," he said, adding that he would tell his father "he's never going back there and I'm not letting him".
A local resident near the plant told Reuters the Algerian military had opened fire and that "many people" were killed.
Twenty hostages of an Algerian militant group with ties to al Qaeda in a standoff with the Algerian Army are reported to have escaped Thursday. Over 41 hostages of several nationalities, including Americans, were being held in a BP gas facility. NBC's Michelle Kosinski reports.
Faycal Metaqui, a journalist at Algerian newspaper El Watan, told French news channel BFM that he was unable to confirm with authorities the earlier reports that some hostages had escaped.
"Sadly, there have been some reports of casualties, but we are still lacking any confirmed or reliable information," said a statement from oil giant BP, which is a joint owner of the plant.
Nancy Ing, Jim Miklaszewski and Courtney Kube of NBC News, contributed to this report.