Algeria hostage-takers 'surrounded at In Amenas plant'
Militants holding a group of foreign workers hostage at a gas plant in Algeria are reported to be holed up in a workshop at the remote site, surrounded by Algerian special forces.
The state-run APS news agency says 12 Algerian and foreign workers have died since rescue efforts began on Thursday.
The militants are armed with rocket launchers and machine guns, APS says.
They have told a Mauritanian news agency they are holding seven hostages.
Algeria says the militants are taking orders from Mokhtar Belmokhtar, until last year a senior commander in al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
A statement from the kidnappers said the assault on the gas plant was launched in retaliation for French intervention against Islamist groups, including AQIM, in neighbouring Mali.
About 30 foreigners remain unaccounted for, including about 10 from the UK.
The In Amenas gas field is situated at Tigantourine, about 40km (25 miles) south-west of the town of In Amenas and 1,300km (800 miles) south-east of Algiers.
The plant is jointly run by BP, Norway's Statoil and Algeria's state-owned oil company.
On Saturday morning, Statoil confirmed that two more of its employees "were brought to safety", while the situation of six others remained unclear.
There are no longer any French hostages in Algeria, the French defence minister said on Saturday.
Earlier, 573 Algerians and about 100 of 132 foreigners working at the plant were freed, Algeria said.
An Algerian who was released by the kidnappers told the Associated Press what he witnessed.
"I told them [the hostage-takers] that I was an Algerian Muslim and they said, 'Okay, okay, don't be scared. We haven't come for you."
US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta, who has been on a tour of Europe, told the BBC there could be no hiding place for al-Qaeda.
"Al-Qaeda needs to know that they have no refuge - in Algeria, in Mali, anywhere - we are not going to allow them to have a hiding place from which to conduct these terrorist acts.
The UN Security Council condemned the "heinous" hostage-taking, saying the incident underlined the need to bring its perpetrators, organisers and financiers to justice.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described the situation as "extremely difficult and dangerous".
UK Foreign Secretary William Hague, who will chair a meeting of the government's Cobra emergency committee on Saturday, tweeted that the hostages would "remain top priority until every British national [is] accounted for".
The crisis at the remote In Amenas desert gas facility began on Wednesday when militants attacked two buses carrying foreign workers. A Briton and an Algerian reportedly died in the incident.
The militants then took Algerians and expatriates hostage at the complex. The leader of the hostage-takers is said to be a veteran fighter from Niger, named as Abdul Rahman al-Nigeri by the Mauritanian news agency ANI, which has been in contact with the militants.
The Algerian armed forces attacked on Thursday as militants tried to move some of their captives from the facility.
The installation was put out of action to avoid the risk of an explosion, the state news agency reported.
Information from the siege is hard to come by. No foreign reporters are thought to have been given access to the In Amenas plant.
- Bus attack: 0500 local time 16 January: Heavily armed gunmen attack two buses carrying gas field workers towards In Amenas airfield. A Briton and an Algerian die in the fighting.
- Hostages taken: The militants drive to the installation at Tigantourine and take Algerian and foreign workers hostage in the living area and the main gas facility at the complex.
- Army surround complex: Security forces and the Algerian army surround the hostage-takers. Western leaders, including the UK's David Cameron, urge Algeria to consult them before taking action.
- Army attacks: 1200 (1300 GMT) 17 January: Algerian forces attack as militants try to move some of their captives from the facility. Reports say some hostages escape, but others are killed.
- Response: The Algerians say they are still pursuing the militants in an operation that has now lasted more than 48 hours.