By Charles McPhedran, Louise Osborne, Oren Dorell, Alia E. Dastagir, USA TODAY
The al-Qaeda-linked terrorist group that took over a natural gas facility in Algeria is offering to free American hostages in exchange for two convicted terrorists being held in U.S. jails, Mauritania's ANI news agency reported Friday.
The militants say they want the release of Egyptian Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman and Pakistani Aafia Siddiqui and plan to release a video outlining the offer, according to the news agency, which often reports news from North African extremists.
The 74-year-old Abdel-Rahman, also known as the "Blind Sheikh," is serving a life sentence in North Carolina as the mastermind of the1993 attack on the World Trade Center in New York City.
Siddiqui, a 40-year-old scientist, was sentenced in 2010 to 86 years in U.S. prison for assault with intent to murder for shooting at two U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan during her detention in 2008.
Asked to comment on hostage takers demands, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said: "The United States does not negotiate with terrorists. We're obviously in consultation with the Algerians."
About 60 foreign workers taken hostage by Islamists remain missing Friday following a raid by Algerian forces that freed hundreds of Algerians, according to the Algeria military.
The state Algeria Press Service says the military freed 573 Algerians and nearly 100 of the 132 non-Algerians in Thursday's raid at the natural gas facility in the remote desert.
It remains unclear how many foreign workers died in the raid or of what nationality, and how many escaped the In Amenas facility.
The Algerian special forces who carried out the raid killed up to 20 hostage-takers, members of an Islamic group known as Qatiba, which translates as Signers in Blood. The forces have surrounded a portion of the facility where more terrorists and some hostages remain, provincial administration sources told APS.
The military is still trying to reach a "peaceful settlement" before "neutralizing" the terrorist group, security sources told APS.
Workers at the facility include citizens of Britain, Ireland, Japan, Netehrlands and the United States British Prime Minister David Cameron said Friday during an address to members of parliament that efforts to free the hostages without violence are continuing.
The exact fate, and number, of hostages kidnapped by Islamic militants remains unclear.
A U.S. official said late Thursday that while some Americans escaped, other Americans remained either held or unaccounted for, the Associated Press reported. The official spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
Earlier Friday, the Reuters news agency, citing local sources, reported that a U.S. plane has landed in Algeria to pick up Americans caught up in the crisis. Reuters also reported that U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, speaking to security specialists in London on Friday, said "Terrorists should be on notice that they will find no sanctuary, no refuge, not in Algeria, not in North Africa, not anywhere."
Cameron and others complained that Algeria went ahead with its raid without alerting Western leaders they were planning an attack.
Reuters, citing an Algerian security source, is reporting that 30 hostages were killed in the assault, including several Westerners. The source also says 11 militants died, including the group's leader, Tahar Ben Cheneb, described as a "prominent commander in the region."
A British official told CNN there was a "significant" number of British victims.
Members of the hostage-takers Qatiba have been in contact with the a news agency in neighboring Mauritania called ANI and told the agency that the raid by Algerian forces killed the leader of their group, Abou El Baraa. At least 14 other terrorists were killed, ANI said.
Qatiba was created in December by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who broke off from the terror group al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) to form his own operation. The kidnappers come from Algeria, Canada, Mali, Egypt, Niger and Mauritania, ANI said.
AQIM is operates out of nearby Mali, where it is fighting the Mali army and French forces to take over that country and impose an Islamic state.
Stephen McFaul, an Irish engineer who escaped, reported seeing Algerian forces attack Jeeps containing hostages who were being moved inside the complex, his brother told Reuters. Four vehicles blew up, and McFaul's vehicle crashed, allowing him to flee.
McFaul said the terrorsts hung explosives around the hostages' necks.
A French hostage tells Europe 1 radio that he hid under his bed for 40 hours before he was rescued by Algerian soldiers.
Alexandre Berceraux, an employee of CIS Catering at the desert gas complex, said the initial attack by militants caught everyone by surprise.
"I heard an enormous amount of gunfire. The alarm telling us to stay where we were was going off. I didn't know if it was a drill or if it was real," he told Europe 1. "Nobody expected this. The site was protected. There were soldiers in place."
The plant is jointly operated with British company BP and the Algerian state energy firm. British oil giant BP's Group Chief Executive Bob Dudley released a statement saying that "Sadly, there have been some reports of casualties, but we are still lacking any confirmed or reliable information."
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Thursday that U.S. officials were still gathering details. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton ordered a security review for diplomats, civilians and business across North Africa.
The Algerian military's handling of the hostage situation fits their overall approach to terrorists, says Geoff Porter of North Africa Risk Consulting, a political risk consultancy that specializes in North Africa.
"They don't negotiate with terrorists, and they don't pay ransoms," Porter said.
One of the reasons oil installations have never been attacked before is any attack would be a suicide mission, Porter said. The oil facilities are so remote and in such barren terrain, that attacks are doable, "but the Algerians would deploy helicopters and kill everybody," he said.
Escape would be impossible, but a suicide mission "becomes more feasible, which is what we saw today," Porter said.
In recent months, the United States has been courting Algeria; Clinton has twice visited Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
Algerian leaders, however, have repeatedly warned against Western intervention in the region. Algeria warned that the NATO operation in Libya, which defeated former leader Moammar Gadhafi, would destabilize the region, and that the French intervention in Mali would do the same, Porter said.
"They (Algerians) are likely to feel vindicated, and to reject any criticism for their reaction to a domestic crisis they feel were brought about by Western actions they advised against," Porter said.
Algeria's priority is "to restore stability and deter future incidents," Porter said.
A Qatiba spokesman, pictured in a black turban and an automatic weapon in front of a jihadist flag, told Mauritanian news website Sahara Media Agency that the attack on the gas facility was in retaliation for Algeria's decision to allow French aircraft to use its airspace in its intervention in Mali. Experts doubted that, saying the attack must have been planned for a while, well before the French air assault that began only six days ago.
The United States military has a quick reaction force capable of deploying quickly to Algeria, according to a military official who declined to be named because they are not authorized to speak about the issue. The Pentagon also has "capabilities" to watch over the region, though officials would not specify whether that involves manned aircraft or drones.
Wednesday's attack began with the ambush of a bus carrying employees from the plant to the nearby airport but the attackers were driven off, according to the Algerian government, which said three vehicles of heavily armed men were involved.
"After their failed attempt, the terrorist group headed to the complex's living quarters and took a number of workers with foreign nationalities hostage," said the statement.
Al-Qaeda's influence in the poorly patrolled desert wastes of southern Algeria and northern Mali and Niger has grown. The group operates smuggling and kidnapping networks throughout the area. Militant groups that seized control of northern Mali already hold seven French hostages as well as four Algerian diplomats.
Algeria's security forces have struggled for years against Islamist extremists, and have in recent years managed to nearly snuff out violence by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (northwest Africa) around its home base in northern Algeria. In the meantime, AQIM moved its focus southward.
AQIM has made tens of millions of dollars off kidnapping in the region, abducting Algerian businessmen or political figures, and sometimes foreigners, for ransom.
Algerian leaders adopted an eradication policy against Islamist insurgents in a war that cost more than 100,000 lives. The insurgents eventually accepted amnesty and renounced violence. Remnants of the insurgency have been fighting for an Islamic state in northern Mali, Porter said.
All three AQIM factions in North Africa and the Sahara were "on a downward trend" until 2012, Porter said. The collapse of Libya, which allowed weapons from Gadhafi's vast arsenal to be seized by extremists, "helped them gain power in northern Mali and the group has transformed from 2011 and 2012," he said.
While not all the jihadi factions involved in violence across the region call themselves al-Qaeda or are officially affiliated with the group, their goals tend to be the same, Porter said.
"The goal is still spread radical Islam, attack the near enemy, attack the far enemy, create a sharia state - it's just no longer called al-Qaeda," he said.
Aaron Zelin, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that while al-Qaeda central is "probably the weakest it's ever been," the jihadist movement has adapted and has strengthened in North Africa.
"The central organization has been weakened, but the branches have gotten stronger because a lot of them are more embedded within the local milieu," he said.
In its new form, al-Qaeda and its jihadi affiliates and sympathizers are less able to launch attacks on the USA or Europe, where security is better than a decade ago, and more focused on "setting up little emirates" and threatening U.S. and Western interests in their own countries, Zelin said.
"They want to bleed the U.S. and its allies dry and exhaust them over a long period of time," he said.
Contributing: Jim Michaels; John Bacon; Michael Winter; Kim Hjelmgaard