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Clinton urges minimal casualties in 'fluid' Algeria crisis

An oil installation near In Amenas on January 18, 2013 in Algeria where Islamist hostage-takers held hundreds of people
An oil installation on the outskirts of In Amenas on January 18, 2013 in Algeria where Islamist hostage-takers at a nearby gas field demanded a prisoner swap and an end to the French military campaign in Mali. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Frid

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Friday urged Algeria to prioritize the lives of civilians as she held talks on the "extremely fluid" hostage crisis, her spokeswoman said.

Clinton spoke Friday by telephone for the third straight day with Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal about the standoff near the Libyan border, where Americans are among those kidnapped at a remote gas field.

"The situation remains extremely fluid on the ground. We are continuing our work with the government of Algeria and other affected nations to try to resolve this issue," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.

Algerian policemen at a checkpoint in In Amena, Algeria on January 18, 2013 near the gas field where hostages were held
Algerian policemen stop cars at a checkpoint in In Amena, Algeria on January 18, 2013 as Islamist hostage-takers demanded a prisoner swap and an end to the French military campaign in Mali.

Clinton "obviously expressed our concern for our citizens. They had some detailed conversation about that," Nuland told reporters.

"As we have throughout this, we urged that we minimize loss of civilian life here," she said.

Nuland appeared to rule out a prisoner swap with the Islamist gunmen, saying: "The United States does not negotiate with terrorists."

Mauritanian news agency ANI reported that jihadist leader Mohktar Belmokhtar was proposing to swap hostages for prisoners held in the United States on terrorism charges, including Egyptian cleric Omar Abdul Rahman and Pakistani neuroscientist Aafia Siddiqui.

Abdul Rahman was convicted for his role in the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center in New York. Siddiqui was convicted of trying to kill US officers in 2008 after she was detained in Afghanistan.

This undated satellite image shows the gas field in Algeria, where Islamist militants held hundreds of hostages
This undated satellite image from DigitalGlobe shows the Amenas Gas Field in Algeria, where Islamist militants held dozens of foreign hostages and hundreds of Algerian workers hostage.

Clinton also promised to Sellal that the United States would do more to "strengthen Algeria's capacity against terror" after the crisis unfolds, Nuland said.

Like other US officials, Nuland has said little about the condition and number of Americans who were seized in the largest kidnapping drama the world has experienced in years.

The Algerian army launched a rescue operation at the site but has revealed little about the outcome, prompting criticism from the governments of captives.

Clinton was meeting Friday with Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan, which has been unusually vocal in its criticism and summoned the Algerian ambassador to demand more information on its nationals.

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