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Algerian Hostage Rescue Operation Ends, Toll Uncertain

Vehicles parked at Algeria's In Amenas gas field, which is jointly operated by British oil giant BP, Norway's Statoil, and the state-run Algerian energy firm Sonatrach.
An Algerian operation to free hostages seized by militants at a remote desert gas facility has ended but the death toll remains uncertain.

Algerian Information Minister Mohammed Said confirmed on January 17 that there were fatalities but provided no number.

Algerian media say several foreigners were among those killed during the raid on January 17 at the In Amenas installation, 800 miles south of Algiers.

Militants claim that 35 hostages and 15 kidnappers were killed in the rescue operation.

The military operation was launched a day after militants took tens of foreigners and Algerians hostage at the gas facility in the Sahara Desert on January 16.

An Irish engineer who survived said he saw four jeeps full of hostages blown up by Algerian troops. Officials say the troops moved in after the gunmen demanded to take their captives abroad.

The hostage-takers were also demanding that France cease its operation against militants in Mali.

Several Western governments have expressed reservations about the Algerian rescue bid, saying they did not know about it in advance.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said through a spokesman that he would have liked Algeria to have consulted London before the operation.

The prime minister of Norway, Jens Stoltenberg, said he too was not informed.

"It is important to show restraint regarding the use of military force [and] it is important to try to find a solution so no more human lives are lost," Stoltenberg said. "At the same time we need to acknowledge that we here in Norway -- and in other affected countries -- don't have the full picture. They only have that in Algeria."

Norway's state energy company Statoil runs the gas field with Britain's BP and Algeria's national oil company,

In the United States, White House spokesman Jay Carney said on January 17 that he could not confirm the number of casualties or their identities.

"Right now our priority is determining the status of the Americans involved and gaining a full understanding of what took place," he said. "This is a fluid situation. We are seeking clarity from the Algerian government about this matter."

Algerian Interior Minister Daho Ould Kablia said the kidnappers were led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a veteran Islamist guerrilla who fought in Afghanistan and set up his own group in the Sahara after falling out with other local Al-Qaeda leaders.

Belmokhtar's links to those who seized towns across northern Mali last year are unclear.

French President Francois Hollande said the Algerian hostage crisis shows that the French intervention in neighboring Mali was justified.

With reporting by AFP, dpa, Reuters
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