Algerian hostage drama ends with air strike, unknown casualties

A two-day face-off between Islamic militants and the Algerian military ended Thursday with the death of multiple hostages, the Algerian media reported Thursday.

Al Qaeda-linked militants claimed to have captured seven Americans along with several dozen Algerians and other foreigners when they took over a natural-gas facility at the border with Libya. The militants were demanding an end to the U.S.-backed French military intervention to route Islamists in neighboring Mali.

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Algerian Communications Minister Mohamed Said said Thursday that several hostages were freed in the operation, but that some had been killed, the Agence France-Presse wire service reported. Earlier in the day, militants said Algerian air strikes had killed 35 hostages and several militants as the hostages were being transferred to another part of the facility.

The fate of the Americans held in Algeria is unclear, but in Britain, Foreign Minister Alistair Burt told the BBC to brace for bad news. At least one Briton is believed to have been killed when the militants took over the facility on Wednesday.

“Although details have yet to become final,” he said, “I'm afraid we should be under no illusion that there will be some bad and distressing news to follow from this terrorist attack.”

Some foreign leaders were quick to suggest the Algerian military may have been too heavy-handed.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called his counterpart in Algeria and urged a halt to the operation, citing his “strong concern,” the AFP reported.

And a spokesman for British Prime Minister David Cameron told Reuters that "the Algerians are aware that we would have preferred to have been consulted in advance."

White House spokesman Jay Carney for his part said the administration was “certainly concerned about reports of loss of life and we are seeking clarity from the government of Algeria.”

The administration, however, has stopped short of criticizing Algeria, a crucial partner in the fight against Islamic militants in the region.

“What we are seeing in Mali, in Algeria, reflects the broader strategic challenge first and foremost for the countries in North Africa and for the United States and the broader international community,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Thursday. “Instability in Mali has created the opportunity for a staging base and safe haven for terrorists.

“We've had success ... in degrading al Qaeda and its affiliates,” she added. The U.S. has seen “leadership and actions in Afghanistan and Pakistan. We've seen the great cooperation led by African troops through the UN ... in Somalia. But let's make no mistake: There is a continuing effort, by the terrorists – whether they call themselves one name or al Qaeda – to try to destroy the stability, the peace and security of the people of this region.”