Algeria hostage crisis ends; Katy man killed

By Stewart M. Powell and Harry R. Weber

A Houston-area man is dead, the fate of another area resident is unclear and an Austin man escaped following the attack by militants on a natural gas facility in Algeria, a Texas congressman said Friday.

U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R- Austin, told reporters in Washington that Frederick Buttaccio,  58, whose family lives in Katy, was confirmed dead. He cited a briefing he received from the State Department.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland later issued a statement confirming  Buttaccio’s death, but providing no further information.

McCaul said the fate of a second man, a Houston engineer, was unclear. The man’s brother, who had said earlier Friday that the FBI told him his brother was still being held hostage but was alive, declined to provide an update later in the day.

Several members of Buttaccio’s family declined to comment when contacted at their homes.  It is unclear what work he was doing at the plant or how he died.

U.S. officials told The Associated Press that Buttaccio’s remains were recovered Friday. Officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

The latest from The Associated Press:

Algeria’s special forces stormed a natural gas complex in the middle of the Sahara desert in a final assault Saturday, killing 11 militants, but not before they in turn killed seven hostages, the state news agency reported.

The report, quoting a security source, didn’t specify if any hostages or militants remained alive or give the nationalities of the dead.

Algerian authorities estimated that around 30 militants occupied the Ain Amenas site Wednesday and with 18 already reported dead, it appears the hostage crisis involving hundreds of plant workers is finally over.

Read more: Hostage crisis hikes security worries in key oil region

There was no official count of how many hostages were still being held by the final group of militants holed up in the gas refinery on Saturday, but the militants themselves had reported they were still holding three Belgian, two Americans, a Japanese and a Briton.

The plant is jointly run by BP, Norway’s Statoil and Algeria’s state-owned oil company.

An international outcry mounted over the Algerians’ handling of the crisis. Experts noted that this is how they have always dealt with terrorists, refusing to negotiate.

The standoff has put the spotlight on militancy plaguing the region and al-Qaida-linked groups roaming remote areas from Mali to Libya, threatening vital infrastructure and energy interests.

The militants attacked the plant Wednesday morning, creeping across the border from Libya, 60 miles (100 kilometers) from the natural gas plant, and fell on a pair of buses taking foreign workers to the airport. The buses’ military escort drove off the attackers in a blaze of gunfire that sent bullets zinging over the heads of the crouching workers. A Briton and an Algerian, probably a security guard, were killed.

Frustrated, the militants turned to the vast gas complex, divided between the workers’ living quarters and the refinery itself, and seized hostages, the Algerian government said. The gas flowing to the site was cut off, though the circumstances of the cutoff remain unclear.

Previously from The Associated Press:

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Friday she spoke by telephone with Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal to get an update on Americans and others in danger at the sprawling Ain Amenas refinery 800 miles south of Algiers. She said the “utmost care must be taken to preserve innocent life.”

Clinton talked to reporters after the Obama administration confirmed that Americans were still being held hostage, even as some U.S. citizens were being flown out of the country for recovery in Europe. The Algerian state news agency reported that 12 hostages had been killed since Wednesday’s start of an Algerian rescue operation, and world leaders steadily increased their criticism of the North African country’s handling of the attack.

Clinton, however, defended Algeria’s action. “Let’s not forget: This is an act of terror,” she told reporters in Washington. “The perpetrators are the terrorists. They are the ones who have assaulted this facility, have taken hostage Algerians and others from around the world as they were going about their daily business.”

Earlier Friday, Algeria’s state news service reported that nearly 100 of the 132 foreign workers kidnapped by Islamic militants were free. That number of hostages at the remote desert facility was significantly higher than any previous report, but questions remained about the fate of more than 30 other foreign energy workers.

BP evacuated one American, along with other foreign workers, to Mallorca, Spain, and then to London. And an American official said a U.S. military C-130 flew a group of people, including some lightly wounded or injured, from Algiers to a U.S. facility in Europe on Friday. The official wasn’t authorized to speak publicly on the matter and requested anonymity.

In London, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta met with British Prime Minister David Cameron at No. 10 Downing St. to assess their governments’ understandings of the situation. At King’s College, Panetta said the U.S. is “working around the clock to ensure the safe return of our citizens” and that terrorists should be on notice they will find no sanctuary in Algeria or North Africa.

The White House said President Barack Obama was being briefed Friday by his national security team. His top aides were in touch with Algerian officials as well as BP’s security office in London. BP jointly operates the natural gas plant.

U.S. officials have refused to confirm the number of Americans still captive or unaccounted for because they say that might compromise their safety.

Still, the U.S. flatly rejected an offer by the militants — led by a Mali-based al-Qaida offshoot known as the Masked Brigade — to free two American hostages in exchange for the release of Omar Abdel Rahman, a blind sheikh convicted of plotting to blow up New York City landmarks and considered the spiritual leader of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani scientist convicted of shooting at two U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. Both are jailed in the United States.

“The United States does not negotiate with terrorists,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.

The desert siege began Wednesday when the militants attempted to hijack two buses at the plant, were repelled, and then seized the gas refinery. They said the attack was retaliation for France’s recent military intervention against Islamist rebels in neighboring Mali, but security experts argue it must have taken weeks of planning to hit the remote site.

Since then, Algeria’s government has kept a tight grip on information about the siege.

Clinton stressed that American officials would stay in close contact with their Algerian counterparts. Sellal, she said, made clear that the Algerian operation against the militants “was still ongoing, that the situation remained fluid, that the hostages remain in danger in a number of instances.”

Speaking beside Japan’s new foreign minister, Fumio Kishida, Clinton said the crisis underscored the threat posed by extremists in North Africa, where al-Qaida-linked militants have seized control of half of Mali and plunged the country into civil war. She vowed to enhance U.S. work with Algeria and other countries in the region to combat terrorists even after the hostage situation ends.

“It is absolutely essential that as we work to resolve this particular terrible situation, we continue to broaden and deepen our counterterrorism cooperation,” Clinton said. “We will not rest until we do as much as we can … to restore security to this vital region, and to bring those who would terrorize and kill innocent people to justice.”