HOUSTON - One American worker at a natural gas complex in Algeria has been found dead, U.S. officials said Friday as the Obama administration sought to secure the release of Americans still being held by militants on the third day of the hostage standoff at a natural gas complex in the Sahara.
The officials identified the dead American as Frederick Buttaccio, a Katy resident, but said it was unclear how he died. They said U.S. officials recovered Buttaccio's remains on Friday and notified his family. Officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
A spokesman for the Buttaccio family declined to comment.
U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX) represents Buttacio's neighborhood.
"My heart goes out to all of the hostages and especially the American citizens involved in this heinous terrorist attack that has unfolded in Algeria," McCaul said. "The arm of Al Qaeda's terror network in North Africa has now reached into my home state. Mr. Frederick Buttaccio, a resident of Katy, which I have represented my entire congressional career, is among the victims. Al Qaeda in North Africa is a security threat we cannot afford to underestimate. This region is the next frontier in the War on Terror. The mission of these Islamist extremists to kill Americans and disrupt our way of life has not changed, and our efforts to defend the homeland, both at home and abroad, must reflect this reality. I am continuing to monitor the developments on the ground in Algeria and will continue to pray for all of those involved."
A second Houston-area man, a 57-year-old father of two, was one of the hostages taken at the natural gas plant and his fate is unknown. The State Department asked KPRC Local 2 not to reveal his name, but we went to his hometown, Nederland, where worried family members confirmed he was one of the hostages. They're very concerned, but not yet ready to talk.
"He's real quiet," neighbor Laura Holloway said. "He went over there for (about) three weeks, came back -- they gave him a whole month off -- and he was supposed to go back, I think, the 7th."
Mark Cobb, of Corpus Christi, was also one of the hostages. He escaped.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said she spoke by telephone with Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal to get an update on Americans and others in danger at the sprawling Ain Amenas refinery 800 miles south of Algiers. She said the "utmost care must be taken to preserve innocent life."
Clinton talked to reporters after the Obama administration confirmed that Americans were still being held hostage, even as some U.S. citizens were being flown out of the country for recovery in Europe. The Algerian state news agency reported that 12 hostages had been killed since Wednesday's start of an Algerian rescue operation, and world leaders steadily increased their criticism of the North African country's handling of the attack.
Clinton, however, defended Algeria's action. "Let's not forget: This is an act of terror," she told reporters in Washington. "The perpetrators are the terrorists. They are the ones who have assaulted this facility, have taken hostage Algerians and others from around the world as they were going about their daily business."
Earlier Friday, Algeria's state news service reported that nearly 100 of the 132 foreign workers kidnapped by Islamic militants were free. That number of hostages at the remote desert facility was significantly higher than any previous report, but questions remained about the fate of more than 30 other foreign energy workers.
BP evacuated one American, along with other foreign workers, to Mallorca, Spain, and then to London. And an American official said a U.S. military C-130 flew a group of people, including some lightly wounded or injured, from Algiers to a U.S. facility in Europe on Friday. The official wasn't authorized to speak publicly on the matter and requested anonymity.
In London, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta met with British Prime Minister David Cameron at No. 10 Downing St. to assess their governments' understandings of the situation. At King's College, Panetta said the U.S. is "working around the clock to ensure the safe return of our citizens" and that terrorists should be on notice they will find no sanctuary in Algeria or North Africa.
The White House said President Barack Obama was being briefed Friday by his national security team. His top aides were in touch with Algerian officials as well as BP's security office in London. BP jointly operates the natural gas plant.
U.S. officials have refused to confirm the number of Americans still captive or unaccounted for because they say that might compromise their safety.
Still, the U.S. flatly rejected an offer by the militants -- led by a Mali-based al-Qaida offshoot known as the Masked Brigade -- to free two American hostages in exchange for the release of Omar Abdel Rahman, a blind sheikh convicted of plotting to blow up New York City landmarks and considered the spiritual leader of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani scientist convicted of shooting at two U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. Both are jailed in the United States.
"The United States does not negotiate with terrorists," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
The desert siege began Wednesday when the militants attempted to hijack two buses at the plant, were repelled, and then seized the gas refinery. They said the attack was retaliation for France's recent military intervention against Islamist rebels in neighboring Mali, but security experts argue 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.
Clinton stressed that American officials would stay in close contact with their Algerian counterparts. Sellal, she said, made clear that the Algerian operation against the militants "was still ongoing, that the situation remained fluid, that the hostages remain in danger in a number of instances."
Speaking beside Japan's new foreign minister, Fumio Kishida, Clinton said the crisis underscored the threat posed by extremists in North Africa, where al-Qaida-linked militants have seized control of half of Mali and plunged the country into civil war. She vowed to enhance U.S. work with Algeria and other countries in the region to combat terrorists even after the hostage situation ends.
"It is absolutely essential that as we work to resolve this particular terrible situation, we continue to broaden and deepen our counterterrorism cooperation," Clinton said. "We will not rest until we do as much as we can ... to restore security to this vital region, and to bring those who would terrorize and kill innocent people to justice."
BP released a statement Friday morning, saying:
"The serious situation at the In Amenas site in Eastern Algeria remains ongoing. The situation remains unclear and BP continues to seek updates from the authorities. BP's priority is the safety and security of our people. On early Wednesday morning we mobilised our full emergency response system, with teams on the ground in Algeria and in the UK working with the situation and liaising with other parties involved. We are in close contact with the UK government and colleagues in Statoil, in Sonatrach and in the companies that are contractors to the joint venture.
There is a small number of BP employees at In Amenas whose current location and situation remain uncertain. BP is working with the Algerian government and authorities to confirm their status. We do not intend to publicly comment on details of the number, nationalities or identities of these staff.
"BP is in direct contact with the families of all of those staff affected, offering support and providing confirmed information as we can.
"Supporting our colleagues and their families at a time of such extreme concern is essential, and we are seeking to support them in every way we can," said Bob Dudley, BP Group Chief Executive.
"Overnight BP began the staged process of bringing non-essential workers out of Algeria as a precautionary and temporary measure.
"Three flights left Algeria yesterday, carrying a total of eleven BP employees alongside several hundred staff from other companies. The first flight arrived in London yesterday afternoon. The second two flights landed in Palma in Majorca overnight and staff on these planes are expected to transfer on to final destinations during the course of the day. A fourth plane is expected to transport further staff out of the country today and we will arrange further flights as necessary."
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