Breakthrough in crisis: 100 of 132 foreign hostages freed

INT
The bloody three-day hostage standoff at a Sahara natural gas plant took a turn on Friday as Algeria's state news service reported that nearly 100 of the 132 foreign workers kidnapped by Islamic militants had been freed.

The number of hostages at the remote desert facility was significantly higher than any previous report, with reports saying over 650 had managed to leave the site. Yet it indicated a potential breakthrough in the confrontation that began when the militants seized the plant early Wednesday.

However, many were still left unaccounted for, adding to global concern about the fate of the hostages, who come from as many as 10 different nations. Estimates of foreign casualties have ranged from 4 to 35, though the Algerian government has still not released any official tallies, leaving governments around the world scrambling for information.

Intensifying the uncertainties, a spokesman for the militants, who belong to a group called Al Mulathameen, Friday said they planned further attacks in Algeria, according to a report by the Mauritanian news agency ANI, which maintains frequent contact with militant groups in the region. The spokesman called upon Algerians to "keep away from the installations of foreign companies, because we will suddenly attack where no one would expect it," ANI reported.

The militants, meanwhile, offered to trade two captive Americans for two terror figures — Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind sheikh considered the spiritual leader of the 1993 World Trade Centre bombing, and Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani scientist convicted of shooting at two US soldiers in Afghanistan— jailed in the US, according to a statement received by ANI.

It was not clear whether the remaining foreigners were still captive or had died during the Algerian military offensive to free them that began Thursday.

Speaking in Parliament, UK PM David Cameron said number of Britons at risk was estimated late Thursday at "less than 30", which later was "quite significantly reduced."

US Defence Secretary Panetta also met with Cameron in London as Pentagon officials continued to try and learn details about the raid.

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