ALGERIA'S battle to free hostages held by an al-Qaeda-linked group in the southern desert is over, the state-run Algerian Press Service reported.
No officials provided information about the fate of the hostages and their captors or the outcome of the fight in a remote area of Algeria, where terrorists stuck at a natural gas complex operated by BP Plc, Statoil ASA of Norway and Algeria’s Sonatrach.
Four foreigners - two from Britain and two from the Philippines - were killed in the effort to free the hostages, Algerian state television reported, according to the Associated Press.
The report, citing a hospital, also said 13 people were wounded, including seven foreigners.
A few hours earlier, British Prime Minister David Cameron had said in a broadcast interview that the country should prepare for the possibility of ‘‘bad news ahead''.
The United States deployed unmanned surveillance drones in an effort to collect more accurate and timely intelligence on the hostage situation, according to two Obama administration officials. Both said the drones being flown over Algeria are unarmed, and they declined to say whether the Algerian government granted permission for the flights.
The attackers said yesterday they were holding 41 foreigners abducted from a natural gas complex operated by BP, Statoil and Sonatrach, while Algerian Interior Minister Dahou Ould Kablia said they numbered ‘‘a little more than 20''.
As many as half of the hostages were freed, according to one early report by APS, which didn’t provide a casualty toll.
‘‘The situation for the hostages is still very unclear,’’ Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg said at a briefing in Oslo today. ‘‘We still have no confirmed information, but look very seriously at the situation.’’
Norwegian authorities weren’t informed until after the military operation had started and had earlier in the day urged Algeria to show restraint, he said, adding that it’s ‘‘too early to judge this operation’’.
The Irish government reported one of its nationals was freed.
And 15 foreigners and 30 Algerian hostages earlier managed to escape from the In Amenas plant, Algerian media reported.
BP said it was evacuating a group of non-essential workers from the country.
Veteran Islamist fighter Mokhtar Belmokhtar, an Algerian jihadist with al-Qaeda ties, has claimed responsibility for launching the attack.
Belmokhtar, dubbed ‘‘The Uncatchable’’ by French intelligence and ‘‘Mister Marlboro’’ for his illicit cigarette smuggling, was until recently one of the leaders of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
But he was pushed out of the group towards the end of last year and set up a group called ‘‘Signers in Blood’’. He has been blamed for previous abductions and the killings of both Algerians and foreigners.
The chief hostage taker on the ground, Abu al-Baraa, was reported killed in the Algerian operation by ANI, which often carries reliable reports from al-Qaeda-linked groups.
‘‘We demand the Algerian army pull out from the area to allow negotiations’’, Abu al-Baraa had earlier told al-Jazeera news channel.
Algeria has insisted it would not negotiate with ‘‘terrorists’’.
The fast-moving hostage drama dragged Algiers and several top Western powers into the Mali conflict, taking the spotlight off French and government troops battling the Islamists controlling the country’s vast desert north.
The UN special envoy for the Sahel, Romano Prodi, said that the French air and ground intervention in Mali was the only way to stop Islamists creating ‘‘a terrorist safe haven in the heart of Africa’’.
In Brussels, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said EU countries may provide troops to help France in its former west African colony.
On Thursday, more French troops poured into the impoverished country, boosting their number to 1400, the defence minister said. At full strength the force will reach 2500 soldiers.
Contingents from Chad, Togo and Nigeria for an African force set to reach over 5000 troops in Mali were making their way to the country.