About 60 foreign hostages from countries across the globe, including America, are still missing three days after Islamic militants overtook, with bloody force, a gas plant deep in the Sahara, Algeria’s state news service said Friday.
The militants, meanwhile, offered to trade two American hostages for terrorists jailed in the United States, according to a statement received by a Mauritanian news site that often reports news from North African extremists—the group behind the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and a Pakistani scientist convicted of shooting at two U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.
The offer, according to the Mauritanian news site, came from Moktar Belmoktar, an extremist commander based in Mali who apparently masterminded the Sahara operation.
The hostage swap offer is the latest development in a drama that began Wednesday when militants captured hundreds of workers from 10 nations at Algeria’s remote Ain Amenas natural gas plant. Algerian forces retaliated Thursday by storming the plant in an attempted rescue mission that killed at least four hostages and left leaders around the world expressing strong concern about the hostages’ safety.
Algerian special forces resumed negotiating Friday with the militants holed up in the refinery, according to the Algerian news service, which cited a security source.
According to the report, the Islamic militants freed “more than half of the 132 hostages” in the first two days, but it could not account for the remainder, saying some could be hidden throughout the sprawling desert site.
Though the Algerian government has kept a tight grip on information, it was clear that the militant assault that began Wednesday with an attempted bus hijacking has killed at least six people from the plant—and perhaps many more.
Workers kidnapped by the militants came from around the world—Americans, Britons, French, Norwegians, Romanians, Malaysians, Japanese, Algerians. Leaders on Friday expressed strong concerns about how Algeria was handling the situation and its reluctance to communicate.
Algeria’s army-dominated government, hardened by decades of fighting Islamist militants, dismissed foreign offers of help and drove ahead alone. The U.S. government sent an unarmed surveillance drone to the BP-operated site, near the border with Libya, but it could do little more than watch Thursday’s military intervention.
A U.S. official said while some Americans escaped, other Americans were either still held or unaccounted for.
One Irish hostage managed to escape: electrician Stephen McFaul, who worked in North Africa's oil and natural gas fields off and on for 15 years. His family said the militants let hostages call their families to press the kidnappers' demands.
"He phoned me at 9 o'clock to say al-Qaida were holding him, kidnapped, and to contact the Irish government, for they wanted publicity," said his mother, Marie. “Nightmare, so it was. Never want to do it again. He'll not be back! He'll take a job here in Belfast like the rest of us.”.
Dylan, McFaul's 13-year-old son, started crying as he talked to Ulster Television.
"I feel over the moon, just really excited,” he said. “I just can't wait for him to get home."