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.
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.
Hundreds of Algerian soldiers ringed the Sahara Desert compound and helicopters skimmed above. Algerian officials had earlier said they would not negotiate with the militants, who reportedly had asked for safe passage into Libya.
Captives being held are believed to be from the U.S., France, Japan, Norway and other countries. Reports on Wednesday suggested that as many as 41 foreigners were being held by an al Qaida-linked group calling itself the Signed-in-Blood Battalion.
The ordeal has shown the volatility of a region bristling with gunrunners, smugglers and a visceral strain of Islamic ideology. Militant groups, including Algeria’s al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), have been deadly at home but now present a widening danger in North Africa, including in Tunisia and Libya, where Islamic extremists have gained a foothold since the uprisings of the Arab Spring.
The natural gas complex at In Amenas, which supplies Europe and Turkey, is a joint venture operated by BP; Statoil, a Norwegian firm; and Sonatrach, the Algerian national oil company.