U.S. Air Force Swoops in on Algeria Plant as Terrorists Demand Hostage Swap

Alexander Abad-Santos
The Atlantic Wire

The Algerian hostage situation is about as serious as its details are hazy, but as it enters its third day reports are emerging that the U.S. Air Force "is in the process of evacuating Americans and other individuals." Algerian state television reported this morning that Thursday's suspect mission by Algeria's military freed 650 hostages — 573 of them Algerian — and that "over half" of the 132 foreign workers held hostage have been freed. That leaves some 60 unaccounted for, with a Mauritanian news site claiming that the militant group behind the attack on a BP gas facility wants to swap two Americans for jailed terror figures.

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The foreign reports, like those on the first and second days of the hostage situation, remain unconfirmed, but the well-placed sources of CNN's Barbara Starr tell her that, a day after the U.S. sent a surveillance drone, help is on the way, with Algerian special forces helping on the ground: 

The U.S. Air Force is in the process of evacuating Americans and other individuals who were involved in the hostage incident at a gas plant in Algeria, a U.S. defense official tells CNN's Barbara Starr. The C-130 is taking the evacuees to Europe, the source said. About 10 to 20 evacuees were expected to be on the flight, according to the source.

And the New York Times's team of Adam Nossiter, Alan Cowell, and Rick Gladstone have a similar account, adding more detail about who might on that plane: 

A United States Africa Command spokesman, Ben Benson, said an Air Force aircraft was in the process of evacuating Americans and people from other countries involved in the hostage event and that they would be flown to an American facility in Europe.

That may be good news, after Algeria's military got in a stand-off Thursday that reportedly included explosive vests strapped to foreign prisoners, though officials in Britain said that the situation was still ongoing as of early Friday. The Times team writes: 

Speaking in Parliament, Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain said the number of Britons at risk was estimated late Thursday at “less than 30.” That number had now been “quite significantly reduced,” but, he said, he could not give details because Algerian officials had told him the crisis was continuing.

There was apparently still a roadblock near the facility as the militant group demanded negotiations — possibly for the release of the so-called "Blind Sheikh" — and there may still be those 60 hostages unaccounted for, but stories were beginning to emerge from those hostages that managed to escape. There were early reports that some hostages did escape including two Americans. And In nearly Argo-like fashion, CNN reports that some quick-thinking hostages dressed themselves as a catering staff. CNN reports: 

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Some hostages held in Algeria disguised themselves to escape, the head of a catering company which had 150 employees captured, told CNN on Friday.

Regis Arnoux, the chief executive of CIS catering, said the kidnappers separated foreigners from locals and tied the foreigners together at the beginning of the siege, then divided the group when they realized Algerian forces had surrounded the site.

Arnoux isn't exactly as trustworthy or as powerful a source as CNN's U.S. defense officials, but like we said, this situation is unfolding in a haze of detail. We'll update you with more information as it comes in.