By Charles McPhedran, Louise Osborne, Oren Dorell, Alia E. Dastagir, USA TODAY
(USA TODAY) - At least 12 Algerians and foreigners are known dead from the takeover at a natural gas facility in eastern Algeria, the state Algerian Press Service reported Friday, but al-Qaeda-linked militants continued to hold as many as seven hostages.
The news service, noting that its figures are "provisional," said 18 of the kidnappers were also "put out of action."
Reports of casualties -- and even the number of hostages involved -- have fluctuated wildly since more than a dozen al-Qaeda-linked militants attacked the remote desert facility on Wednesday, taking scores of Algerian and foreign hostages.
APS reported earlier Friday that Algerian soldiers freed 573 Algerians and nearly 100 of the 132 non-Algerians in Thursday's raid at the Ain Amenas plant, 800 miles south of Algiers, the capital.
Even with the latest report, however, it remains unclear how many foreign workers died in the raid or of what nationality, and how many escaped the facility.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Friday that she spoke with Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal for the third straight day for an update on the "very difficult situation" and
"to underscore again that the utmost care must be taken to preserve innocent life."
Earlier Friday, leaders of the al-Qaeda-linked terrorist group that took over the plant said it wanted to trade the American hostages it held for two convicted terrorists being held in U.S. jails, Mauritania's ANI news agency reported Friday.
The militants say they want the release of Egyptian Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman and Pakistani Aafia Siddiqui and plan to release a video outlining the offer, according to the news agency, which often reports news from North African extremists.
The 74-year-old Abdel-Rahman, also known as the "Blind Sheikh," is serving a life sentence in North Carolina as the mastermind of the1993 attack on the World Trade Center in New York City.