WASHINGTON, Jan 18, 2013 (AFP) – The United States confirmed Friday that an American hostage has died in Algeria, after armed militants stormed a remote natural gas plant, amid reports that two other US citizens escaped unharmed.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland identified the dead American as Frederick Buttaccio. He was among dozens of hostages the attackers seized during their assault on the In Amenas plant in eastern Algeria on Wednesday.
“We express our deepest condolences to his family and friends,” Nuland said in a statement. “Out of respect for the family’s privacy, we have no further comment.”
NBC News cited US officials as saying that a total of five Americans had been initially taken hostage in Algeria. In addition to Buttaccio, two escaped unscathed after hiding when the attack began. The television network reported that the fate of two others remains unclear.
It said Buttaccio’s remains have been recovered from the plant, although the circumstances surrounding his death are uncertain.
One American who escaped — Mark Cobb — told CNN via text message that he was “safe” after escaping with some Algerian staff.
The Al-Qaeda-linked gunmen group known as “Signatories in Blood” want an end to the French intervention in neighboring Mali, according to Mauritania’s ANI news agency, which quoted sources close to their leader, Mokhtar Belmokhtar.
The gunmen said they were still holding three Belgians, two Americans, one Japanese and a Briton, although Belgium said there was no indication that any of its nationals were being held. An Algerian security official put the number of hostages at 10.
ANI said Belmokhtar, a veteran Algerian extremist with Al-Qaeda ties who has claimed responsibility for the attack, also proposed exchanging the remaining two US hostages for the Egyptian blind sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman and Pakistani Aafia Siddiqui, jailed in the United States on charges of terrorist links.
More workers remain unaccounted for, and the fate of at least 10 Japanese nationals and eight Norwegian hostages was still unknown.
Algerian news agency APS quoted a government official as saying the kidnappers, who claimed to have come from Niger, were heavily armed with machine guns, assault rifles, rocket launchers and missiles.
International criticism has been mounting over the haste with which Algeria launched a dramatic military assault to rescue the hostages. An Algerian security official said the operation claimed the lives of 12 hostages and 18 kidnappers.
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