Around 30 foreigners are still being held hostage or are missing in Algeria following their capture by Islamist militants at a gas facility in the desert, according to Algerian state media.
Algeria’s state news agency APS is reporting that nearly 100 of 132 foreign hostages have been freed and that the army has rescued 650 hostages in total, 573 of them Algerians.
These are far higher figures than expected: the kidnappers claimed on Wednesday that 41 foreigners had been seized and said the following day that 35 were killed when Algerian military helicopters opened fire.
There are no western journalists in the area and all numbers have to be treated with caution.
With fighting continuing, David Cameron told the Commons today that fewer than 30 Britons were initially thought to have been kidnapped, but this number has now been “quite significantly reduced”.
Ten Britons are thought to be among the 30 cited by APS. Three Britons are reported to have died. Two Scottish hostages are thought to be safe, along with Stephen McFaul from Belfast.
The prime minister was speaking the day after the Algerian military launched a rescue operation at the gas plant in the Sahara near the Libyan border.
The plant, which is operated by the Algerian state oil company, Britain’s BP and the Norwegian company Statoil , was seized on Wednesday by militants led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a former leader of al-Qaeda in north Africa.
The kidnappers have said they carried out the operation in protest at France’s military intervention in Mali, which is aimed at halting an Islamist takeover of the country.
There are also reports from a Mauritanian news agency that the militants are demanding the release of two people jailed in the US, including 1993 World Trade Centre bombing mastermind Omar Abdel Rahman, in return for the release of two American captives.
Those still unaccounted for include 10 Japanese, eight Norwegians and several Americans.
Mr Cameron told MPs he was not consulted by the Algerian prime minister before the operation began.
Japan summoned the Algerian ambassador in protest, while White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said: “We are in constant contact with the government of Algeria and have been clear that our first priority is the safety and security of the hostages.”
The kidnappers have threatened to attack other oil and gas installations in Algeria.