Some 15 foreign hostages and 30 Algerians have reportedly escaped from their captors - a group reportedly linked to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. The Islamists claimed to have captured 41 people.
Fifteen foreigners and 30 Algerians who were held at a gas field in Algeria were able to escape on Thursday, according to media sources.
"Fifteen foreigners, including a French couple, have escaped from their captors," the private Ennahar television station reported.
Earlier, the APS news agency said 30 Algerian workers had managed to escape.
Armed attackers took over the gas field, close to In Amenas, in the early hours of the morning on Wednesday, later claiming in radio interviews with regional media that they were holding 41 hostages.
Algeria's state-run APS news agency reported that two people, one of them British, were killed in the dawn attack on the In Amenas gas field.
The British Foreign Office could not confirm this, however, saying only that "British nationals are caught up in this incident."
The gas field is a joint project, run by British Petroleum (BP), Norway's Statoil and the state-run Algerian energy firm Sonatrach.
BP confirmed that there was an ongoing security incident at the field.
"The site was attacked and occupied by a group of unidentified armed people at about 0500 UCT. Contact with the site is extremely difficult, but we understand that armed individuals are still occupying the In Amenas operations site," BP said late Wednesday. The Algerian Interior Ministry said the attack was launched a little earlier.
Mali as a motive?
BP said that it believed some staff were being held hostage, but that it did not yet have confirmed information on the matter.
French news agency AFP cited one of the attackers, speaking by telephone, as saying that the group were al Qaeda loyalists who had entered Algeria from northern Mali. France on January 11 launched an air offensive against Malian rebels in the north of the country, with ground troops now set to engage there as well.
"We are members of al Qaeda and we came from northern Mali," the militant said in the phone call. "We belong to the Khaled Abul Abbas Brigade." The group, sometimes called Mokhtar Belmokhtar, is named after a notorious Algerian fugitive militant nicknamed "The Uncatchable," who has repeatedly been sentenced to lengthy prison terms, including life, in absentia in his native Algeria.
Mauritanian state media said the supposed attacker called Wednesday's gas field strike "a reaction to Algeria's flagrant interference in allowing French planes into its airspace to launch raids on northern Mali."
msh/hc (AFP, AP, Reuters)