WRAPUP 7-Algerian army stages "final assault" on gas plant

Sat Jan 19, 2013 9:33am EST

* Algerian forces clearing mines from site

* Fifteen charred bodies found - source

By Lamine Chikhi and Abdelaziz Boumzar

ALGIERS/IN AMENAS, Algeria, Jan 19 (Reuters) - The Algerian army on Saturday carried out a "final assault" on al Qaeda-linked gunmen holed up in a desert gas plant, killing 11 of the Islamists after they took the lives of seven foreign hostages.

"It is over now, the assault is over, and the military are inside the plant clearing it of mines," a local source familiar with the operation told Reuters.

The state oil and gas company, Sonatrach, said the militants who attacked the plant on Wednesday and took a large number of hostages had booby-trapped the gas complex with explosives.

The exact death toll among the gunmen and the foreign and Algerian workers at the plant near the town of In Amenas close to the Libyan border remained unclear.

Earlier on Saturday, Algerian special forces found 15 burned bodies at the plant. Efforts were underway to identify the bodies, the source told Reuters, and it was not clear how they had died.

Sixteen foreign hostages were freed on Saturday, a source close to the crisis said. They included two Americans, two Germans and one Portuguese.

Britain said fewer than 10 of its nationals at the plant were unaccounted for.

The attack on the plant swiftly turned into the biggest international hostage crises in decades, pushing Saharan militancy to the top of the global agenda.

Reports earlier put the number of hostages killed at between 12 to 30, with many foreigners still unaccounted for, among them Norwegians, Japanese, Britons and Americans.

The U.S. State Department said on Friday one American, Frederick Buttaccio, had died but gave no further details. The French defence minister said he understood there were no more French workers among the hostages.

Two Norwegians were released overnight, leaving six unaccounted for, while Romania said three of its nationals had been freed. A number of Japanese engineering workers were still unaccounted for.

Scores of Westerners and hundreds of Algerian workers were inside the heavily fortified compound when it was seized before dawn on Wednesday by Islamist fighters who said they wanted a halt to a French military operation in neighbouring Mali.

Hundreds escaped on Thursday when the army launched its operation, but many hostages were killed.

A couple walks along the rough surf during sunset at Oahu's North Shore, December 26, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

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