Foreigners still trapped in Sahara hostage crisis
By Lamine Chikhi and Abdelaziz Boumzar
ALGIERS/IN AMENAS, Algeria (Reuters) - More than 20 foreigners were captive or missing inside a desert gas plant on Saturday, nearly two days after the Algerian army launched an assault to free them that saw many hostages killed.
The standoff between the Algerian army and al Qaeda-linked gunmen - one of the biggest international hostage crises in decades - entered its fourth day, having thrust Saharan militancy to the top of the global agenda.
The number and fate of victims has yet to be confirmed, with the Algerian government keeping officials from Western countries far from the site where their countrymen were in peril.
Reports put the number of hostages killed at between 12 to 30, with possibly dozens of foreigners still unaccounted for - among them Norwegians, Japanese, Britons, Americans and others.
By nightfall on Friday, the Algerian military was holding the vast residential barracks at the In Amenas gas processing plant, while gunmen were holed up in the industrial plant itself with an undisclosed number of hostages.
Scores of Westerners and hundreds of Algerian workers were inside the heavily fortified compound when it was seized before dawn on Wednesday by Islamist fighters who said they wanted a halt to a French military operation in neighboring Mali.
Hundreds escaped on Thursday when the army launched an operation, but many hostages were killed in the assault. Algerian forces destroyed four trucks holding hostages, according to the family of a Northern Irish engineer who escaped from a fifth truck and survived.
Leaders of Britain, Japan and other countries have expressed frustration that the assault was ordered without consultation and officials have grumbled at the lack of information. Many countries also withheld details about their missing citizens to avoid releasing information that might aid the captors. Continued...