20 hostages escape from Islamist militants at Algerian gas plants

ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) - An Algerian security official said at least 20 foreigners have escaped from the natural gas plant deep in the Sahara desert where Islamist militants are holding dozens of hostages.

The official said those escaping included Americans and Europeans. He did not give any further details.

Militants attacked the Ain Amenas gas complex 1,300 kilometres south of Algiers on Wednesday, taking dozens of foreign workers hostage. Those being held included Japanese, Britons, French, Americans, Malaysians and Norwegians, among others.

The gas plant has been surrounded by the Algerian army and there's now a tense standoff with the militants.

Algerian officials scrambled Thursday for a way to end the armed standoff , turning to tribal Algerian Tuareg leaders for talks and contemplating an international force.

The government was in talks throughout the night with the United States and France over whether they could help against the militants, who say they attacked the natural gas plant in retaliation for France's military intervention against al-Qaeda-linked rebels in neighboring Mali.

The group claiming responsibility - called Katibat Moulathamine or the Masked Brigade - says it has captured 41 foreigners, including seven Americans, in the surprise attack.

Two people, one a Briton and the other Algerian, were killed in the initial assault, which the US defense secretary has called "a terrorist attack."

The kidnapping is one of the largest ever attempted by a militant group in North Africa.