Algeria Hostage Crisis Stretches Into Another Day

On Thursday, Algerian forces opened fire on Islamists holding dozens of foreigners hostage. The militants, who have been linked to al-Qaida, say they took over the gas facility deep into the Sahara Desert in retaliation for France's attack on Islamic militants in the west African nation of Mali.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. We continue to follow the unfolding hostage crisis at a gas field in Algeria. President Obama is also following the situation and consulting with the Algerian government. The priority, the White House says, is the safety of the hostages, who include American citizens. Information has been difficult to come by since Algerian forces launched an operation against the Islamist militants who seized the gas field.

There are reports this morning that scores of foreigners held hostage, have been freed. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley is on the line, following this from Paris, and has the latest. Good morning.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee. Or good afternoon, from here.

MONTAGNE: You're right. Eleanor, what do you know about - so far today?

BEARDSLEY: Well, there are a couple new elements. One is that the official Algerian news agency has said that 650 hostages have been freed; among them, 100 foreigners out of the apparently, 132 taken. But this is a little bit misleading because this site - this gas and oil site is like a city. So these 650 that have gotten out, they weren't all held by the Islamist jihadists. They were probably at other parts of the site; and when the Algerian army surrounded the whole thing when they started their assault, they were trapped inside. So - but it is probably true; the French news is reporting it, too - that 650 hostages have left the site.

Another new thing that French news is reporting is that there's a showdown going on between the Algerian army and a core group of about 10 to 12 Islamists, at the center - at the core of the facility, near the gas operation. So you can imagine it's extremely dangerous, as far as blowing up.

And the third new thing is that - this is being reported by French television as well as a Mauritanian newswire site that has been communicating with the jihadists regularly. And they're saying that the jihadists want to exchange two American hostages for two Islamists that are jailed in the U.S.; an Egyptian and a Pakistani, one of whom is - was involved in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

MONTAGNE: Now, tell us one thing: Why is there so little information about this, since it's been going on for - you know, at least a couple of days and the Algerian government, at one point, said the operation had more or less ended yesterday?

BEARDSLEY: Right - that was about, almost 24 hours ago - because Algeria is basically, a military state. They're keeping a tight lid on information. That's one reason. They don't want it to get out. Secondly, this site is 1,000 miles from Algiers, the capital. There's no one there. There are no journalists there. Foreign journalists can't get - just come into Algeria so there's no witnesses, really, to speak of. And thirdly, the history of the country, they had one whole decade where they fought Islamists, and more than 100,000 Algerians lost their lives during that fight.

So, you know, this is - this - have these terrorists actually come back? They were supposedly beaten. So you can imagine the government is very anxious to finish with these guys. And they just - it's very difficult to get information because of those three reasons.

MONTAGNE: And the - of course, Americans - and the other countries who have their foreign nationals there, at that site - have been upset about the fact that Algerians sent troops in without informing them.

BEARDSLEY: Yeah. I mean, the international community is stunned. Japan recalled the Algerian ambassador - talked to him. David Cameron said he was just - he couldn't believe that Britain was uninformed. No one knew about the assault before it happened. Washington offered help. They were going to send drones and special forces. Algeria said no. It's a very proud country. This is on Algerian soil, and they want to handle their terrorist problem. They don't negotiate with terrorists. They've always said it. And they came in, and they moved quickly.

Another reason is - we're hearing reports that the jihadists were trying to move the terrorists - I mean, sorry. The jihadists were trying to move the hostages off the site, maybe take them to Libya; somewhere out of Algeria, which would have been a horrible situation. So they had to move fast.

MONTAGNE: We have just a few seconds here, Eleanor. What about France? This is...

BEARDSLEY: France...

MONTAGNE: Go ahead.

BEARDSLEY: France is being a little bit more cautious. France needs Algeria. In a huge change in diplomacy, Algeria opened up its air space to France for - to fly bombing raids, to fight the Islamists in Mali. It's a huge change but apparently, it's divided Algerian public opinion, who don't want to see French. France is a former colony of Algeria, so this is a very touchy subject. So France is being prudent, saying let's just - we don't have all the information yet. They're not being very critical.

MONTAGNE: Thanks very much. That's NPR's Eleanor Beardsley, in Paris.

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