CAIRO -- The Algerian news agency reported Thursday that as many as 45 hostages, including Americans, had escaped from a natural gas complex a day after Islamic militants seized the installation in retaliation for French airstrikes against Islamist rebels in neighboring Mali.
The Algerian report said 30 Algerians and 15 foreigners had fled the compound Thursday. The report could not be independently confirmed. The Associated Press, quoting an unnamed Algerian official, said 20 foreigners, including Americans, had escaped.
[Updated, 6:02 a.m. Jan. 17: Conflicting reports suggested that hostages and kidnappers may have been killed by Algerian soldiers when they attempted to leave the complex. Media reports said a Mauritanian news organization quoted a militant spokesman as saying gunfire from helicopters killed 35 foreigners and 15 kidnappers, including the group's leader.
If either scenario if true -- no details are yet known -– it would mark a stunning twist in a drama that has raised fears of a long siege and highlighted the dangerous Islamist extremism stretching from Mali across the mountains and lawless deserts of North Africa.]
The militants had reportedly threatened to blow up the gas facility at In Amenas near the Libyan border if government commandos attempted to free the hostages. France 24 television reported that a male captive said in a telephone interview that attackers forced some hostages to strap on belts laden with explosives. It could not be confirmed if the man was a hostage.