(AP) - An Algerian official tells The Associated Press that 20 foreign hostages, including Americans, escaped from their captors at a desert gas facility where at least 20 foreigners and more than 100 Algerians were kidnapped yesterday by al Qaeda-linked militants.
An official Algerian Press Service reports that 30 Algerian workers — out of a reported 150 — have managed to escape from the, according to Reuters.
A French national told France24 that the hostages have been forced to wear explosive belts and that the militants are heavily armed.
On Wednesday dozens of armed Algerian jihadists killed two foreigners, including a British national, and kidnapped at least 20 more — including American, French, British, Japanese and Norwegian citizens — in a raid at the In Amenas oil field near the Algeria-Libya border.
The facility, the fourth-largest gas development in Algeria, is jointly operated by British oil giant BP, Norway's Statoil and Algeria's Sonatrach.
The attackers, reportedly members of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), initially demanded a halt of French attacks in northern Mali and the release of 100 militants being held in Algeria in exchange for the safety of kidnapped hostages. An Algerian security source tells Reuters that they now demand safe passage out of the oil field — which has been surrounded for hours by Algerian forces — with the captives.
U.S. officials also told CNN that they believe the attack originated in Libya, the border of which lies 60 miles from the facility, and the "level of planning suggests that this was in train before the French overflights ever took place."
Last night CNN reported that a U.S. Africa Command response force is on standby, adding that the team has been diverted from Mali and is gathering intel on the facility.
Officials told CNN the Commanders In-extremis Force "is on a very short string" and "other nations are similarly assessing their response posture, but the situation is dicey because "with so little information, if you're talking dozens of militants and up to 40 hostages, I don't see how you go in without killing half the hostages."
Al-Arabiya noted that the raiders are reportedly commanded by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a veteran Saharan jihadist and smuggling kingpin based in Gao, Mali.
“He’s one of the best known warlords of the Sahara,” said Stephen Ellis, an expert on organized crime and professor at the African Studies Centre in the Netherlands, told Al-Arabiya.
Jihadists in the area built an empire off ransom payments and drug trafficking.
This is a fluid situation, and we'll have more as it comes available.