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30 hostages killed? Algerian hostage event over, casualties still uncertain

30 hostages were killed, Reuters is reporting. Other sources have wildly different casualty estimates, but all agree that hostages were killed in the attempt to rescue oil workers.

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An unarmed American surveillance drone soared overhead as the Algerian forces closed in, US officials said. The US offered military assistance Wednesday to help rescue the hostages — whose numbers varied wildly from dozens to hundreds — but the Algerian government refused, a US official said in Washington. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the offer.

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Algerian forces who had ringed the Ain Amenas complex in a tense standoff had vowed not to negotiate with the kidnappers, who reportedly were seeking safe passage. Security experts said the end of the two-day standoff was in keeping with the North African country's tough approach to terrorism.

"I would not be surprised if the death toll was has high as the militants put it, it's a well-known fact that the Algerians never had problems causing a blood bath to respond to terrorist attacks," said Riccardo Fabiani, North Africa analyst for the Eurasia group, who expressed doubt over Algeria's claims that mediation was abandoned in the face of the kidnappers' intransigence. "I wonder whether really in 24 hours you can establish some kind of negotiations with terrorists, I don't think they really tried."

The kidnapping is one of the largest ever attempted by a militant group in North Africa. The militants phoned a Mauritanian news outlet to demand that France end its intervention in neighboring Mali to ensure the safety of the hostages in the isolated plant, located 800 miles south of the capital of Algiers.

Phone contacts with the militants were severed as government forces closed in, according to the Mauritanian agency, which often carries reports from Al Qaeda-linked extremist groups in North Africa.

A 58-year-old Norwegian engineer who made it to the safety of a nearby Algerian military camp told his wife how militants attacked a bus Wednesday before being fended off by a military escort.

"Bullets were flying over their heads as they hid on the floor of the bus," Vigdis Sletten told The Associated Press in a phone interview from her home in Bokn, on Norway's west coast.

Her husband and the other bus passengers climbed out of a window and were transported to a nearby military camp, she said.

"He is among the lucky ones, and he has confirmed he is not injured," she said, declining to give his name for security reasons.

It was then that the militants went after the living quarters of the plant instead of disappearing back into the desert.

Information about the 41 foreign hostages the militants claimed to have — which allegedly included seven Americans — was scarce and conflicting. All were reportedly workers at the plant.

A spokesman for the Masked Brigade told the Nouakchott Information Agency in Mauritania that the seven surviving hostages included three Belgians, two Americans, a Briton and a Japanese citizen.

Earlier in the day before the raid, an Algerian security official said that 20 foreign hostages had escaped. He did not return phone calls after the raid.

The Norwegian energy company Statoil had said three Algerian employees who had been held hostage were safe but the fate of nine Norwegian workers was unclear. Japanese media reported at least 3 Japanese citizens among the hostages and Malaysia confirmed two.

Algerian Interior Minister Daho Ould Kabila said the roughly 20 well-armed gunmen operating under orders from Moktar Belmoktar, Al Qaeda's strongman in the Sahara, who is now based in Mali.

It is certainly the largest haul of hostages since 2003, when the radical group that later evolved into Al Qaeda in North Africa snatched 32 Western tourists in southern Algeria. This is also the first time Americans have been involved.

BP, the Norwegian company Statoil and the Algerian state oil company Sonatrach, operate the gas field and a Japanese company, JGC Corp, provides services for the facility.

Mali and Al Qaeda specialist Mathieu Guidere said Algeria's refusal to accept help was also normal.

"They never accept any military help," he said. "They want to do it their way."

Associated Press writers Karim Kabir in Algiers, Kimberly Dozier and Robert Burns in Washington, Lori Hinnant and Elaine Ganley in Paris, Bjoern H. Amland in Oslo, Norway, Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo and Cassie Vinograd and Jill Lawless in London contributed to this report.

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