ALGIERS, Algeria -- Algeria raided a remote Sahara gas plant on Thursday in an attempt to free dozens of foreign hostages held by militants with ties to Mali’s rebel Islamists, U.K. and Japanese diplomats said. The militants claimed strafing by Algerian helicopters killed 35 hostages and 15 kidnappers.
Islamists with the Masked Brigade, who have been speaking through a Mauritanian news outlet, said the Algerians opened fire as the militants tried to leave the vast energy complex with their hostages a day after seizing the installation deep in the desert.
The militant spokesman said the leader of the kidnappers, Abou El Baraa, was among those killed. He said the militants would blow up the remaining hostages if the Algeria army approached.
The Algerian government did not immediately comment on the situation, but both Japanese and British authorities confirmed that they had been told by the Algerians there was an ongoing operation to free the hostages. The Associated Press was not able to independently confirm the casualties.
The information came from the Nouakchott Information Agency, which has often carried reports from al-Qaida-linked extremist groups in North Africa.
The number of remaining hostages is unclear. The militants originally said they had seized 41 foreigners, including Americans, Britons, French, Japanese, Romanians, Malaysians, Irish and Norwegians, among others.
An Algerian security official had said, however, that around 20 foreign hostages had escaped earlier Thursday.
It was not possible to reconcile the conflicting reports from the complex, which is jointly operated by BP, Norway’s Statoil and the Algerian Sonatrach company.
The Algerian government said some 20 militants hit the gas complex at Ain Amenas, 800 miles (1,300 kilometers) south of Algiers, the third largest in the country, early Wednesday morning and occupied it, taking hostages. They were then surrounded by the Algerian military and a tense standoff ensued.
The militants had said the gas plant attack came in retaliation for Algeria allowing France to use its airspace to attack al-Qaida-linked rebel groups in neighboring Mali.