Unidentified rescued hostages pose for the media in Ain Amenas, Algeria, in this image taken from television Friday Jan. 18, 2013. Algeriais state news service says nearly 100 out of 132 foreign hostages have been freed from a gas plant where Islamist militants had held them captive for three days. The APS news agency report was an unexpected indication of both more hostages than had previously been reported and a potentially breakthrough development in what has been a bloody siege. (AP Photo/Canal Algerie via Associated Press TV) ** TV OUT ALGERIA OUT **
AIN AMENAS, Algeria -- The bloody three-day hostage standoff at a natural gas plant in the Sahara took a dramatic turn Friday as Algeria's state news service reported that nearly 100 of the 132 foreign workers kidnapped by Islamic militants had been freed.
That number of hostages at the remote desert facility was significantly higher than any previous report, but it still left questions about the fate of more than 30 other foreign energy workers. It wasn't clear how the government arrived at the latest tally of hostages, which was far higher than the 41 foreigners the militants had claimed previously.
Yet the report that nearly 100 workers were safe could indicate a breakthrough in the confrontation that began when the militants seized the plant early Wednesday.
The militants, meanwhile, offered to trade two captive American workers for two terror figures jailed in the United States, according to a statement received by a Mauritanian news site that often reports news from North African extremists.
The U.S. State Department confirmed that some Americans are still being held hostage in Algeria. Asked about a militant offer to trade two American hostages for jailed terror figures in the United States, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said, "The United States does not negotiate with terrorists."
The Friday report from the Algerian government news agency APS, citing a security official, did not mention any casualties in the battles between Algerian forces and the militants. But earlier it had said that 18 militants had been killed, along with six hostages -- two in the initial attack Wednesday and four on Thursday.
It was not clear whether the remaining foreigners were still captive or had died during the Algerian military offensive to free them that began Thursday.
The desert siege erupted Wednesday when the militants attempted to hijack two buses at the plant, were repulsed, and then seized the sprawling refinery, which is 800 miles south of Algiers. They had claimed the attack came in retaliation for France's recent military intervention against Islamist rebels in neighboring Mali, but security experts have said 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.
The militants had seized hundreds of workers from 10 nations at Algeria's remote Ain Amenas natural gas plant. The overwhelming majority were Algerian and were freed almost immediately.