ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) - The militants had filled five Jeeps with hostages and begun to move when Algerian government attack helicopters opened up on them, leaving four in smoking ruins. The fifth vehicle crashed, allowing an Irish hostage inside to clamber out to safety with an explosive belt still strapped around his neck.
Three days into the crisis at a natural gas plant deep in the Sahara, it remained unclear how many had perished in the faceoff between Africa's most uncompromising militant group and the region's most ruthless military.
By Friday, around 100 of the 135 foreign workers on the site had been freed and 18 of an estimated 30 kidnappers had been slain, according to the Algerian government, still leaving a major hostage situation centered on the plant's main refinery.
An unidentified rescued hostage speaks to the press in a hospital in Ain Amenas, Algeria, on Friday.
The government said 12 workers, both foreign and Algerian, were confirmed dead. But the extremists have put the number at 35. And the government attack Thursday on the convoy - as pieced together from official, witness and news media accounts - suggested the death toll could go higher.
In Washington, U.S. officials said one American - a Texan - was known to have died.
Meanwhile, the al-Qaida-linked Masked Brigade behind the operation offered to trade two American hostages for two terrorists behind bars in the U.S., including the mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. The U.S. rejected the deal out of hand.
"The United States does not negotiate with terrorists," declared State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
The Algerian government released few details about the continuing siege at the Ain Amenas plant, which is jointly run by BP, Norway's Statoil and Algeria's state-owned oil company. By Friday, however, the outlines of the takeover by Islamic militants were coming into focus.
The attack had been in the works for two months, a member of the Masked Brigade told an online Mauritanian news outlet that often carries al-Qaida-related announcements. The band of attackers included militants from Algeria, Mali, Egypt, Niger, Mauritania and Canada, he said.
He said militants targeted Algeria because they expected the country to support the international effort to root out extremists in neighboring Mali.
Instead of passing through Algeria's relatively well-patrolled deserts, the attackers came in from southern Libya, where there is little central government and smugglers have long reigned supreme, according to Algeria's Interior Minister Daho Ould Kabila.
He said the attackers consisted of about 30 men armed with rocket launchers and machine guns and under the direct supervision of the Masked Brigade's founder himself, Moktar Belmoktar, a hardened, one-eyed Algerian militant who has battled the Algerian government for years and has built a Saharan smuggling and kidnapping empire linked to al-Qaida.
Early Wednesday morning, they crept across the border, 60 miles 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.