Survivors of one of the largest hostage crises in recent memory recounted harrowing tales of their ordeal, as Algerian security forces attempted late Friday to negotiate an end to the standoff at a natural gas facility in the Sahara Desert.
Some workers described being forced to strap on explosives-filled belts when Islamist militants stormed the site Wednesday. Others were shot on the spot.
An unknown number of captives, including Americans, remain trapped at the complex. At least some militants and hostages were killed, including at least one American, with the unverified toll potentially in the dozens.
Survivors on Friday narrated close escapes, even as Algerian military forces continued to sweep the sprawling compound for remaining captives.
As the militants prepared to move hostages to a more secure area later Thursday, one escaped worker, Stephen McFaul, was loaded onto one of four Jeeps, according to the family spokesman. But as the vehicles moved away, Algerian helicopters closed in on the convoy, raining down a barrage of heavy artillery that directly hit and severely damaged three of the vehicles, causing the one that Mr. McFaul was traveling in to overturn.
Mr. McFaul, his family said, then scrambled away from the wreckage through the window, and managed to escape. He was scheduled to land Friday evening in London.
Hundreds of captives appear to have been released, with the first of the British survivors landing late Friday in London.
Algerian TV broadcast images of survivors Friday, with some Turkish and Filipino workers at a hospital bandaged and burned and others jubilantly hugging their compatriots. Weary-looking British workers boarded a bus, where they expressed relief that they were going home.
Algeria's state-run news service on Friday painted a chaotic picture of the ongoing crisis, with militants reportedly taking more than 650 hostages Wednesday.
The Algerian news service said the military had used "missiles, rocket launchers, grenades, machine guns and assault rifles" to free virtually all of the 573 Algerian hostages, along with 100 of 132 foreign nationals from eight different countries, including the United States.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Friday called the militant attack "an act of terror," saying she had spoken with Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal and emphasized that "the utmost care must be taken to preserve innocent life." But she did not criticize Mr. Sellal for his handling of the crisis.
At least one American at the complex, Texas resident Frederick Buttaccio, died at the complex, according to a U.S. law enforcement official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
British Prime Minister David Cameron on Friday laid out the fullest official timeline yet of the crisis that began at dawn Wednesday, saying groups backed by the one-eyed Islamist militant Mokhtar Belmokhtar launched their attack on transit buses on the isolated compound that left two dead. The militants then fanned out, seizing both a residential compound as well as a gas pumping facility, holding a still-unknown number of hostages.
The Mauritanian news agency ANI said the extremist group has offered to release its remaining American hostages in exchange for two high-profile prisoners being held in the United States. ANI said the militants are seeking release of Pakistani scientist Aafia Siddiqui, convicted in a U.S. court in 2010 of the attempted murder of U.S. personnel in Afghanistan, and Egyptian blind sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, convicted on terrorism charges.
The news agency also quoted a spokesman for the "Masked Brigade," the Islamist group allegedly behind the gas complex attack. The group was affiliated with the umbrella organization known as al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, but it reportedly broke with AQIM last month, according to terrorism experts in France.
The spokesman linked the attack to Western efforts to help Mali's government fight Islamist insurgents.