Algerian forces launched a military assault Thursday at a natural gas plant in the Sahara Desert, trying to free dozens of foreign hostages held by militants who have ties to Mali's rebel Islamists, diplomats and an Algerian security official said.
Yet information on the Algerian operation varied wildly and the conflicting reports that emerged from the remote area were impossible to verify independently. What did leak out prompted governments around the world to express deep concerns about the way Algeria tried to rescue the hostages, who were from at least nine different countries.
News of the bloody Algerian operation caused oil prices to rise $1.08 to $95.32 on the New York Mercantile Exchange and prompted energy companies like BP PLC and Spain's Compania Espanola de Petroleos SA to try to relocate energy workers at other Algerian plants.
The Algerian government said it was forced to intervene due to the militants' stubbornness and their desire to escape with the hostages. The communications minister said there were casualties in the military operation Thursday, but gave no details.
"An important number of hostages were freed and an important number of terrorists were neutralized and we regret the few dead and wounded, but we don't have numbers," minister Mohand Said Oubelaid said on national radio. "The operation to free the rest of the hostages still inside (the plant) is ongoing."
Islamists from the Masked Brigade, who have been speaking through a Mauritanian news outlet, said Algerian helicopters opened fire as the militants tried to leave the vast Ain Amenas energy complex with their hostages. They claimed that 35 hostages and 15 militants died in the strafing and only seven hostages survived.
Algeria's official news service, meanwhile, earlier claimed that 600 local workers were freed in the raid and half of the foreigners being held were rescued. Many of those locals were reportedly released on Wednesday, however, by the militants themselves.
One Irish hostage was confirmed safe: supervising electrician Stephen McFaul, whose mother said he would not be returning to Algeria.
"He phoned me at 9 o'clock to say al-Qaida were holding him, kidnapped, and to contact the Irish government, for they wanted publicity. Nightmare, so it was. Never want to do it again. He'll not be back! He'll take a job here in Belfast like the rest of us," said his mother, Marie.
Dylan, McFaul's 13-year-old son, started crying as he talked to Ulster Television."I feel over the moon, just really excited. I just can't wait for him to get home," he said.
In Washington, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said the Obama administration was "concerned about reports of loss of life and are seeking clarity from the government of Algeria."