US officials have confirmed the death of at least one American and said others are still being held hostage by Islamist militants who seized an Algerian gas facility, but that there will be no negotiations with the captors over demands for the release of two convicted terrorists held in US prisons.The slain hostage was identified as Frederick Buttaccio who lived in Houston, Texas. The circumstances of his death are unclear but he died on Thursday, the day the Algerian military launched its assault on the In Amenas natural gas complex. US officials said his remains have been recovered.
The US state department declined to say if there have been other Americans killed in the attack. Those still held hostage include a 57-year-old industrial engineer, also from Houston, whose brother told the Houston Chronicle that the FBI said the man was still alive on Friday.
An undetermined number of hostages is being held by a group of jihadists holed up in a corner of the gas plant in eastern Algeria, where they are surrounded by government forces following a raid by Algerian special forces in which 30 other hostages were reportedly killed.
Mauritania’s ANI news agency, which appears to be used to make public statements by the group holding the hostages, Signers in Blood, reported that the leader, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, has offered to free the Americans in exchange for the release of two people imprisoned in the US, Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman and Aafia Siddiqui.
Abdel Rahman, the spiritual leader of the radical Jamaa Islamiya group, was jailed for the 1993 attack on the World Trade centre in New York City which killed six people. Siddiqui is a US-educated neuroscientist convited of attempting to murder American officials in 2008 after she was detained in Afghanistan.
Victoria Nuland, the state department spokeswoman, rejected the possibility of an exchange. “The United States does not negotiate with terrorists,” Nuland said. Hilary Clinton, the secretary of state, said the US is “deeply concerned about those who remain in danger”.
US officials decline to discuss how many Americans are still being held and how many may have been killed in the Algerian military raid on the complex, which the Algerian authorities said freed 570 local workers and 100 of 132 foreign contractors before developing into a standoff with a group of jihadists still holding some workers prisoner.
“The situation remains extremely fluid on the ground,” said Nuland.
Officials said two Americans escaped during the Algerian military raid, and were flown out overnight, and five others managed to avoid being taken captive when the jihadists attacked on Wednesday.
Western governments say that confirmed information is still patchy and it is not even clear how many hostages were taken in the first place.
An Algerian worker at the facility who was freed told the Guardian there were “so many deaths” of foreign hostages, Algerian captives and of jihadists.
The Houston Chronicle reported that the Texas man still held is married with two children. He is not being named publicly. “My brother is still alive and still being held hostage,” the hostage’s brother told the Chronicle. “They’re still at the facility is all we know.”
Clinton hinted at concerns about the Algerian assault to free the hostages. “I want to underscore again that the utmost care must be taken to preserve innocent life,” she said.
Nuland said Clinton has spoken to the Algerian prime minister. “We’ve been maintaining open lines with the Algerians all the way through,” Nuland said. “All of us have to put a premium on the safety and security of those hostages that remain and the operation that is going on.”
However, Washington was caught off guard by the Algerian decision to launch a rescue mission without informing foreign governments even after the US offered to send special forces and intelligence assistance.
One American official said that the US was alarmed and frustrated at the Algerian raid using special forces, particularly as reports emerged of large numbers of casualties. But anger was tempered by some understanding for the Algerian decision to act because it appeared the jihadists were attempting to move and perhaps disperse the hostages which would be likely to make any further rescue attempts considerably more difficult.
The British government also offered to send special forces, and was similarly caught unawares by the Algerian raid.
The US defence secretary, Leon Panetta, on a visit to London, said Washington is working “round the clock” with the Algerian and British governments over the crisis. He warned that the hostage takers will have “no place to hide”.
“Regardless of the motivation of the hostage takers, there is no justification, no justification for the kidnapping and murder of innocent people,” he said.
“Terrorists should be on notice that they will find no sanctuary, no refuge, not in Algeria, not in North Africa, not anywhere. Those who would wantonly attack our country and our people will have no place to hide.”
Clinton said the US will step increase counter-terrorism operations in North Africa. “It is absolutely essential that we broaden and deepen our counter-terror cooperation with Algeria and all counter-terror efforts in the region,” Clinton said.
“I made clear that we stand ready to further enhance counter-terror support that we have already supplied. We have been discussing it last year, when I travelled to Algeria in October specifically to discuss counter-terror issues.”
Republican senator Ted Cruz, who has been in contact with the family of the Houston man held hostage, drew parallels with the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi in which the American ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, was killed in September.
“Our first priority must be to secure our fellow citizens. Once this has been achieved, we should look at the attacks on our people in this region as part of a pattern of terrorist activity on the part of al-Qaida-related groups and stop treating them as random events,” he said.
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk
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