Algeria's Quick Response To Hostage Crisis Brings Quiet Relief To Some

The hostage-taking drama at an oil and gas facility in the Algerian desert continued for a second day on Friday. It remained fast moving, chaotic and confusing. According to the French and Algerian media, a stand-off between the last remaining jihadists, their hostages, and the Algerian army is said to be continuing.

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It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

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We begin this hour with the ongoing hostage drama at an oil and gas facility in the Algerian Desert. We've got some clarity at this hour about where things stand and still plenty of confusion. The Algerian state news agency confirms that 650 people have safely made it out of the facility and that at least 12 hostages are confirmed dead. According to the State Department, one American was among those who died. We're also hearing reports of a standoff now between the last remaining jihadists and the Algerian army.

NPR's Eleanor Beardsley has our report.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: French news is reporting that Algerian soldiers have cornered about 10 jihadists still holding hostages in the heart of the gas facility. The French media also say the militants are demanding a kind of prisoner swap - two American hostages for two convicted militants in U.S. jails, one of whom was involved in the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Meanwhile, television showed the first footage of Algerian hostages stepping off buses to hug relieved family members. This engineer, who would not give his name, described how the harrowing experience began.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Through translator) We were changing shifts when, all of a sudden, there was firing and explosions. Then we were plunged into the dark. The militants came through our rooms, breaking down doors, looking for the foreigners. They rounded them up, bound them and took them away.

BEARDSLEY: Nations with hostages in Algeria have reacted with muted anger to the North African country's decision to launch a military rescue mission without consultation, but France reserved its criticism.

MANUEL VALLS: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Speaking on the radio, French Interior Minister Manuel Valls said if any country knew about terrorism, it was Algeria, and he saluted their courage. How is it that you don't have more information, asked the interviewer. Because it's far and confused and the terrorists are fanatics, said Valls. France has never had anything like that.

France is in a delicate position because Algeria, for the first time since it won independence from France, has given the green light for French planes to use its airspace for bombing missions to Mali. That decision is said to be controversial among the Algerian population and one of the first reasons the terrorists cite for the attack.

Algeria fought a brutal civil war through the 1990s against Islamist militants. More than 100,000 Algerians lost their lives. Jean-Pierre Filiu says even in the worst days of that civil war, never had a jihadi group attacked an oil facility.

JEAN-PIERRE FILIU: The Algerian regime was struck at the very heart. No matter how bloody is the outcome of the hostage taking, already it's a historical failure of the Algerian security system.

BEARDSLEY: Algerian journalist Atmane Tazaghart is an expert in the workings of al-Qaida in the Maghreb. He says another reason the army went in so fast was because the jihadists were moving the hostages.

ATMANE TAZAGHART: (Through translator) The jihadists wanted to get the hostages out of Algeria because they know the government never negotiates with terrorists. They wanted to take the hostages to Libya or Mali and negotiate a ransom.

BEARDSLEY: Tazaghart says the West may be shocked by the bloodbath, but he thinks there is also relief over Algeria's quick response, even if no one can say so. A protracted hostage drama in a lawless place like Libya, says Tazaghart, would not only complicate the war in Mali, it would be the West's worst nightmare. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

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