Confusion, secrecy, anger define Algerian hostage crisis
Without consulting any government whose citizens were being held hostage, the Algerian government launched a full scale military assault on the gas complex where al-Qaeda affiliated terrorists had captured at least 41 and perhaps as many as 60 westerners.
At least 6 hostages died in the attack so far, which is ongoing according to British Prime Minister David Cameron. The terrorists claim that 35 are dead. And the Algerian government is angering western governments because they refuse to give any details or fill in any gaps.
In short, no one knows who's alive, who's dead, who escaped, how many terrorists are left, or why the Algerians decided to go in.
Nations with hostages in Algeria have reacted with muted anger to the North African country's decision to launch a military rescue mission without consultation.
Privately, diplomats are furious and frustrated, but experts said Friday that their scope to react is limited by Algeria's importance as an anti-terrorist ally and major oil and gas producer.
Algerian special forces stormed a gas plant in eastern Algeria on Thursday to wipe out Islamist militants and free hostages from at least 10 countries. Several hostages and their captors were reported dead or injured, though numbers remained unclear.
The United States, Britain and other countries said they were not told in advance of the raid, which continued Friday.
Japan summoned the Algerian ambassador for a dressing-down, and Britain said Prime Minister David Cameron had urged his Algerian counterpart to act with caution.
Cameron said Friday that in several calls to Algerian premier Abdelmalek Sellal during the crisis, "I urged that we and other countries affected should be consulted before any action was taken" and offered "U.K. technical and intelligence support - including from experts in hostage negotiation and rescue."
The United States also offered hostage rescue teams, according to a senior U.S. military official, but the offer was refused.
Experts said it was no surprise that battle-hardened Algeria - which threw off French rule in 1962 after years of war, and where some 20,000 people died in a 1990s conflict between the government and Islamist rebels - had decided to go it alone.
"The Algerians are very, very prickly about their sovereignty," said Nigel Inkster, a former senior British intelligence official and terrorism expert with the Chatham House international affairs think tank. "I don't think they were remotely inclined to consider or accept any of the advice or capabilities that were on offer."
There's not much governments can do, however annoyed they are. Algeria is vital to Western hopes of containing al-Qaida influence in North and West Africa. Its large oil and gas reserves are crucial both to its own economy and to global energy supply.
We may not learn the fate of all hostages for a couple of days. The Algerians are apparently reluctant to advertise their monumental failure, so they are covering up the number of dead for the moment. Up to 60 hostages are "unaccounted for" say the Algerians which points to a bloodbath precipitated by the Algerian military.
No word yet on the fate of at least 7 Americans who were held.