A satellite image of the gas facility in Algeria.
A satellite image of the gas facility in Algeria. Photo by Google Earth
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AFP
Undated hand out picture released by Norway's energy group Statoil on January 17, 2013 shows vehicles parked at the In Amenas gas field, Algeria. Photo by AFP
AP
This image from video provided by the SITE Intel Group made available Thursday Jan. 17, 2013, purports to show militant militia leader Moktar Belmoktar. Photo by AP

Roughly 36 hours after a group of Islamist rebels took control of a gas facility in southeastern Algeria, holding at least 40 foreign nationals and 150 Algerians hostage, the Algerian military launched an operation aimed at freeing the prisoners. At around 8:30 P.M., an official Algerian source said the operation had ended.

Throughout the course of the day reports indicated that dozens of Algerians and at least 25 foreign nationals managed to escape the compound.

The Algerian military carried out an air strike on the compound Thursday, with contradictory reports emerging regarding the number of casualties: Rebels claim that at least 34 hostages and 15 kidnappers were killed in the attack, while Algerian news outlets claimed a far lower number. Either way, the true nature of the situation on the ground in Algeria is still unclear.

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta confirmed that Americans are among the hostages. Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg said 13 Norwegian nationals were caught up in the crisis and the Irish government also confirmed an Irish hostage.

According to reports from various governments, the hostages also include individuals from England, Japan, Malaysia, Ireland, and France. U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron's spokesman said on Thursday that Britain believes the best course of action in the Algeria hostage attack is to continue working through the Algerian government rather than acting unilaterally. The spokesman said Cameron had reached that decision after speaking with the prime ministers of Japan and Norway.

The initial attack on the compound, carried out by an organization affiliated with Al-Qaida, comes in response to recent efforts by French and Malian forces to step up their campaign against Islamist groups who have controlled northern Mali for nearly a year and had recently begun to push south.

2:00 AM: Hostage's family says Algerian army attacked hostage jeeps. (Reuters)

9:56 PM:  Algeria's state news agency APS says military operation to free hostages is over, quoting an unnamed official source who gave no further details. 

9:23 P.M.: In first official word from Algeria, sources say 25 foreign hostages escaped and six were killed on in military operation to free them at remote desert gas plant. Sources also say many "terrorists" have been killed. Local source tells Reuters three foreign hostages were freed by the army as it continued its operation after dark.

8:58 PM: Algerian Information Minister Mohammed Said confirms that military operation is ongoing. Said also confirms death among hostages without specifying a number of casualties.

8:57 PM: Norwegian energy group to evacuate 40 personnel from Algeria, as nine Norwegian nationals employed at the gas facility remain unaccounted for.

8:30 PM: Japan's Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, spoke to his Algerian counterpart on the phone, and expressed his concern over the chain of events. Abe reportedly asked that Algeria put a stop to its military activity near the gas facility.

7:44 PM: White House spokesman Jay Carney: "We are seeking clarity from the Algerian government about this matter, and obviously we are focused most intently on the status of Americans."

French President Francois Hollande: "Algerian hostage crisis shows French intervention in Mali is justified."

7:14 PM: Algerian radio reports that operation to free hostages has ended.

7:03 PM: U.S. President Brack Obama, French President Francois Hollande, and British Prime Minister David Cameron speak on the phone to discuss Algerian hostage crisis.

6:31 P.M.: British Prime Minister David Cameron's office claims Britain was not given prior notice of Algeria's plans to launch a military operation targeting the rebels holding hostages at the gas facility. "We would have preferred to have been consulted in advance," said the spokesman.

5:20 PM: Irish Foreign Ministry confirms that one Irish national held captive in Algeria has been released.

4:53 PM: Rebel spokespersons have claimed that they still hold seven hostages, among them 2 Americans, 3 Belgians, as well as a British and a Japanese national, according to a Mauritanian news agency. Meanwhile, Algerian news outlets have reported that 4 foreign nationals were freed by the Algerian military.

4:40 PM: An Algerian journalist told Haaretz that the hostage situation has cast serious doubts on Algeria's ability to guarantee safety for the gas and oil facilities in the country. "How was such a sensitive facility taken over with almost no opposition?" asked the journalist. According to his estimations, special forces will most likely covertly assist the Algerian military in freeing the hostages.

4:22 PM: Algerian source near the gas facility tells Reuters that the Algerian air strike killed 6 foreign hostages and 8 kidnappers. According to this source some of the hostages have still not been released, although 180 Algerian workers managed to escape.

3:58 PM: The British Foreign Ministry confirms that the Algerian military has launched an operation to release the hostages from the gas facility.

3:52 PM: Rebels in Algeria claim that 34 hostages and 15 kidnappers have been killed in an air strike on the gas compound where hostages are being held. It is unclear if the rebels are referring to a failed airstrike which was carried out last night, or a new attack.

3:08 PM: A Mauritanian news agency reports that an Algerian fighter jets attacked the gas facility in which the hostages are being held. According to the report, both hostages and kidnappers were killed during the attack. It is unclear if the report is in reference to an attack carried out last night, or a new airstrike on the compound.

2:00 PM: EU foreign ministers approve sending troops to Mali. According to reports, the decision includes forces that will be engaged in combat operations.

1:16 PM: An official source in Algeria reported that 25 foreign workers, including two French nationals, managed to escape from the Gas facility where hostages were being held. It is unclear if the workers escaped from captivity, or if they remained hidden during the initial attack on the compound. Also, the radical Islamist group responsible for the kidnappings has demanded safe passage for themselves and their hostages, apparently to Mali.

1:00 PM: French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said that his government has complete faith in Algeria's capability to deal with the hostage crisis. He added that roughly 1,400 French troops are participating in combat in Mali, and that he is traveling to Berlin in order to discuss the events in western Africa with his German counterpart.

12:23 PM: 30 Algeiran workers managed to escape during the initial attack on the gas facility, according to a report from an Algerian news agency. The number of workers who were trapped and remain in captivity is unclear. According to estimates, the figure stands at roughly 150 Algerian and dozens of foreign nationals.

11:33 AM: Sources within the Algerian government discuss the possibility of a joint military operation with American and French officials. Also, the Algerian government has approached Tuareg tribal officials in hopes of enlisting their assistance in resolving the hostage situation.

10:12 AM: A worker at the gas facility reported to the "France 24" news network that some of the hostages were ordered to wear explosive devices. According to the worker, the terrorists are heavily armed and threatening to bomb the facility if Algerian military or foreign forces attempt to break in. The worker also claimed that the initial attack on the facility took place simultaneously on two different sides of the compound.

9:47 AM: Over 2,000 soldiers from central African countries have joined French troops in fighting the Islamist militia in Mali. The troops came primarily from Chad, Niger, and Nigeria, among other nations.