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Algeria prisoner swap shows how Al Qaeda won't leave US alone

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The group proposed exchanging its American hostages for the release of Egyptian Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, serving a sentence in North Carolina for plotting to bomb New York landmarks; and Pakistani Aafia Siddiqui, who is serving a life sentence in federal prison for attempted murder of US soldiers in Afghanistan.

The US was quick to affirm Friday that it would not pursue any kind of deal with the hostage-takers. “The United States does not negotiate with terrorists,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters.

But this position would not be news to the Algerian hostage-takers of AQIM, regional analysts point out. That means that the goal of those publicly proposing such a deal, they add, was really aimed at something else.

“It reminds me of Saddam Hussein saying he’d be happy to leave Kuwait [which he occupied in 1990] as soon as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was settled and the Palestinians had a state,” says Patrick Clawson, director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Not gonna happen, and you know it. But that’s not the point.”

There was still little clarity Friday afternoon about how many hostages remain in the hands of the Islamist militants, and how many of them are Americans. At least one American was killed in the assault, according to the Associated Press. Late Friday, the State Department confirmed the death of US citizen Frederick Buttaccio, according to a statement from Ms. Nuland.

The Algerian state news agency reported Friday that about 100 of more than 130 foreign hostages had been freed, while it claimed that more than 570 Algerians were also freed in the Algerian military’s assault, which began Thursday on the Ain Amenas gas facility in southern Algeria. Other reports claimed that more than 60 hostages remain in the assailants’ control.

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