CBS: Algeria hostage situation "deteriorating"; Update: Terrorists claim helicopter strafing killed 34 hostages

CBS reports that the hostage situation at an Algerian natural-gas facility may be deteriorating — but for whom? Twenty hostages have escaped, according to the AP, including some of the Americans, but the Algerian military wounded two Japanese hostages in an attempt to end the standoff with Islamist terrorists. Al Jazeera spoke with the terrorists, who got some of the remaining hostages to demand that Algerian forces withdraw:

On Thursday, the Al Jazeera television network spoke via telephone to three purported hostages, and to a man identifying himself as Aboul Baraa, who said he was the Katibat Moulathamine commander leading the operation at the Amenas gas field.

“Yesterday, the Algerian army deliberately opened fire and they injured some of the hostages from Japan and South Korea,” Baraa told Al Jazeera. “If the army withdrew from the area, lifted this siege, and abandoned their obstinate approach, this can open the door for negotiations with governments of the hostages’ countries.”

A man identifying himself as a Japanese hostage told the network that he and a Norwegian hostage had been wounded by sniper fire. Two others, who identified themselves as a Briton and an Irish national, said they had communicated to their respective embassies that the situation was “deteriorating,” and urged the Algerian military to pull back from the confrontation and stop engaging the kidnappers.

The Irishman said the “message does not seem to be getting through,” warning that the incoming fire from Algerian troops was continuing, “up until recently, about 10 minutes ago, they were still firing into the camp.”

It was impossible to confirm the identities of the hostages, or whether they were being forced to make their statements under duress. The men said their captors were treating them well.

Actually, from that description it’s difficult to tell whether the situation is deteriorating for the Algerian forces or for the terrorists.  The plea from the terrorists to back off so that negotiations can start on their demands sounds a little desperate.  And it’s possible to overplay the “deteriorating” hand, too, because Western nations won’t stand idly by if they believe that Algerian forces can’t resolve the situation.  It’s a recipe for an intervention by people the terrorists won’t see coming.

Update: The terrorists now claim that an Algerian helicopter attack killed 34 hostages and 14 of the al-Qaeda terrorists:

Thirty-four hostages and 14 of their al Qaeda-linked kidnappers were killed on Thursday in an air strike by the Algerian armed forces, Mauritania’s ANI news agency reported, citing one of the kidnappers holding captives at a desert gas field.

It was not immediately possible to independently verify the information from the agency, which has close contact with the group which has claimed responsibility for the mass kidnapping.

The AP is reporting it as 35 and 15:

Islamist militants have told a Mauritanian news outlet that Algerian military helicopters strafed the gas complex where they are holding hostages, killing 35 of the foreigners and 15 of the kidnappers.

The spokesman for the Masked Brigade, which had earlier claimed responsibility for the assault Wednesday on the gas complex deep in the Sahara desert, said Thursday that Abou El Baraa, the leader of the kidnappers, was also killed in the helicopter attack. …

The militant spokesman said the kidnappers were attacked by Algerian helicopters when they attempted to leave the complex.

There isn’t any independent confirmation, but that last part sounds like a bit of propaganda.

Update II: Here’s a little more fodder for skepticism.  The Washington Post also picked up on the hostage-escape story, and the numbers aren’t adding up:

The state-run Algerian news agency said 30 Algerian workers managed to flee their captors at the In Amenas gas complex. The Associated Press quoted an unidentified Algerian security official as saying at least 20 foreigners, including Americans and Europeans, escaped later in the day. Private Algerian news outlets reported that 15 foreigners were able to escape. …

The militants seized the hostages, including as many as seven Americans, in a brazen attack that they said was in retaliation for France’s military intervention in neighboring Mali, where French forces have joined Malian government troops in battling armed Islamists who have taken over much of northern Mali.

The militants claimed to have seized 41 foreigners at the complex. The Algerian government asserted that a little more than 20 foreigners were captured.

That sounds like almost the entire contingent of hostages had already escaped.  Perhaps a few were left, but even if 41 foreigners had initially been captured, the escape of 15-20 would have left the terrorists with a lot fewer than 35 to be killed in a helicopter attack.