In an image from television, freed hostages hug each other in the town of… (Canal Algerie, Associated…)
CAIRO — One American was dead and dozens of foreign hostages were unaccounted for Friday after a military raid in the Sahara desert to retake a natural gas compound that was stormed this week by Islamist militants.
The Algerian government said 573 Algerians and nearly 100 of an estimated 132 foreign hostages had been freed or had escaped. Much about the military operation, however, remained unclear, leaving officials in other countries frustrated by contradictory versions of what happened at the remote gas field near the Algerian-Libyan border.
Reports suggested that heavily armed militants had scattered throughout the complex and that an unknown number of hostages were still hiding or possibly dead. The state-run news agency, which had announced the night before that the ordeal was over, said the military was still seeking a "peaceful end."
Late Friday, there were reports that the militants had offered to trade two captive American workers for two extremist figures jailed in the United States, including Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind Egyptian cleric convicted in 1995 of plotting to bomb landmarks in New York.
Asked about the offer, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said, "The United States does not negotiate with terrorists." She confirmed that some Americans were still being held hostage in Algeria.
Nuland later confirmed reports that authorities had recovered the remains of one American, Frederick Buttaccio of Texas. She offered condolences to his family.
The chaos left the United States, Britain and other nations worrying about their citizens and questioning why they hadn't been consulted about a rushed military strike that ignited intense firefights and sent captives taking cover or fleeing into the desert.
"The action of Algerian forces was regrettable," said Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga. British Prime Minister David Cameron expressed dismay about not being informed before the launch of the operation against the 20 to 60 militants who seized the gas complex, ostensibly in retaliation for French airstrikes on Islamist rebels in neighboring Mali.
In a statement to the House of Commons, Cameron said, "I was told by the Algerian prime minister while it was taking place. He said that the terrorists had tried to flee, that they judged there to be an immediate threat to the lives of the hostages and had felt obliged to respond."
A statement from the White House said President Obama was "receiving regular updates from his national security team on the ongoing situation in Algeria."
The Algerian government, which fought Islamist militants in a civil war that killed more than 100,000 people in the 1990s, sought to justify its raid on the complex at In Amenas, which is operated by BP; Statoil, a Norwegian firm; and Sonatrach, the Algerian national oil company.
"Those who think we will negotiate with terrorists are delusional," Mohamed Said Belaid, Algeria's communications minister, told state media. "Those who think we will surrender to their blackmail are delusional."
State news media reported that 18 extremists had been killed. Two Filipino and two British hostages reportedly died, though unconfirmed reports put the number of foreigner deaths as high as 35. A Mauritanian news organization said dozens of foreigners were killed when military helicopters strafed two vehicles attempting to flee the compound.
As first-person accounts began trickling out from survivors, at least one offered a similar description of Algerian air attacks on vehicles that contained hostages.
The drama began Wednesday when extremists ambushed a convoy of foreign workers headed for a nearby airport. They seized the vehicles and their occupants and drove to the complex.
Stephen McFaul, an Irishman who escaped the complex during the military assault, told his family that hostages had their mouths taped shut and explosives hung around their necks, Reuters news agency reported. McFaul said he narrowly escaped being killed — not by the militants, but by the Algerian military.
"They were moving five Jeep-loads of hostages from one part of the compound. At that stage they were intercepted by the Algerian army. The army bombed four out of five of the trucks, and four of them were destroyed," said Brian McFaul, recounting what his brother's wife, Angela, had told him. "The truck my brother was in crashed, and at that stage Stephen was able to make a break for his freedom. He presumed everyone else in the other trucks was killed."
Alexandre Berceaux, a French worker at the plant, told Europe 1 radio that he hid under a bed in his living quarters for 40 hours. His Algerian co-workers brought him food and water and communicated by password for him to open the door.
"I saw some dead. They said there were many dead," he said. "I don't know how many. There were terrorists who were dead along with foreigners and locals.... Nobody was expecting this. The site was protected; there were military forces there."