Dozens of Hostages Reportedly Killed in Algeria

Thirty-four hostages and 15 kidnappers have been killed in southern Algeria, according to the group holding the hostages.

Thursday's reported deaths came a day after dozens of foreigners and Algerians were taken hostage by heavily armed fighters near the In Amenas gas field.

The fighters said they seized the hostages in retaliation for Algeria letting France use its airspace to launch operations against rebels in northern Mali.

The spokesman for the Masked Brigade, which had claimed responsibility for the abductions on Wednesday, told Mauritanian ANI news agency that the deaths were a result of an Algerian government helicopter attack on a convoy transporting hostages and kidnappers.

A local source confirmed to Reuters news agency that six foreign hostages and eight fighters were killed. The source said some hostages were still being held, and 180 Algerian citizens had escaped.

The official Algerian APS news agency later said the army had freed four foreign hostages: two Britons, a Frenchman and a Kenyan.

The Irish foreign ministry said an Irish man had also been freed.

Refusal to negotiate

Algerian media, citing officials, reported that 15 foreigners and 30 Algerians had managed to escape.

The Masked Brigade spokesman said Abou el-Baraa, the leader of the kidnappers, was among those killed in the helicopter attack. He said the fighters would kill the rest of their captives if the army approached.

Algeria has refused to negotiate with what it says is a band of about 20 fighters.

Algerian Interior Minister Daho Ould dismissed theories that the fighters had come from Libya, 100km away, or from Mali, more than 1,000km away. He said the well-armed gunmen were from Algeria itself, operating under orders from Moktar Belmoktar, al-Qaeda's strongman in the Sahara.

ANI, which has been in constant contact with the al-Qaeda-affiliated kidnappers, said seven hostages were still being held: two Americans, three Belgians, one Japanese and one British citizen.

A Briton was among two people killed on Wednesday, after fighters launched an ambush of a bus carrying employees from the gas plant to the nearby airport.Norwegians, French, Romanian and Malaysian citizens were also among those taken hostage.

The In Amenas gas field is jointly operated by British oil giant BP, Norway's Statoil and Algeria's Sonatrach.

BP said in a statement on Thursday that "sadly, there have been some reports of casualties but we are still lacking any confirmed or reliable information. There are also reports of hostages being released or escaping."

France launched a major offensive against the rebel group Ansar al-Dine in Mali on January 11 to prevent them from advancing on the capital, Bamako.

Algeria had long warned against military intervention against the rebels, fearing the violence could spill over the border.

Al Jazeera's Paul Brennan, following the hostage situation from London, said Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has allied himself with the West in the fight against al-Qaeda.

"As recently as last year it seemed that he was turning the last stronghold of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the mountains up in the north where the Berber people are natives, against those Arabs that have been coming in from outside," he said. "The Algerian authorities have been enjoying significant successes in targeting al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb leaders."

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