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Algeria searches desert for 5 missing foreigners

ALGIERS — Algerian forces scoured the Sahara Desert on Tuesday, searching for five foreign energy workers who vanished during a chaotic four-day battle with hostage-taking Islamist militants.

One official said the men might have fled the sprawling complex during the fighting and gotten lost.

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The four-day confrontation that began when Al Qaeda-affiliated militants stormed the remote desert natural gas complex and took hostages early last Wednesday, was punctuated by exploding cars, attacks from helicopters, and a final assault by Algerian special forces.

In all, 37 hostages, including an Algerian security guard, and 29 militants were killed, but five other foreign workers remain unaccounted for.

‘‘Are they dead? Did they attempt to flee the site after the attack like some other expatriates? Are they lost in the desert after taking a wrong turn?’’ an official who is part of Prime Minister Abdemalek Sellal’s office wondered. ‘‘These are all questions we ask ourselves, but one thing is sure, everything is being done to know their fate.’’

The official spoke on condition of anonymity.

The Ain Amenas gas plant, jointly run by BP, Norway’s Statoil, and the Algerian state oil company, is located deep in the Sahara, some 800 miles south of the Mediterranean coast, with few population centers nearby.

More than 700 people work at the facility, including 130 foreigners from 26 countries who were targeted by the militants. The Islamists caught as many of those foreign workers as they could and wrapped some with explosives to use as human shields.

Many foreign and Algerian workers hid and then slipped out into the hard featureless desert, eventually reaching the Algerian soldiers who had surrounded the complex.

This part of the Algerian Sahara has none of the romance of the rolling velvet dunes of the Grand Erg Oriental to the north or the wild, twisted rock formations of Tassili N’Ajjer National Park farther south. Instead it is flat, dry, and bitterly cold in the winter, with temperatures dropping to 37 degrees at night.

The hostages could also have died in the fiery shootouts after being draped with explosive belts. Seven of the bodies recovered have yet to be identified because of their degraded condition, authorities said.

The $2 billion natural gas complex, which went online in 2006, showed signs of life again Tuesday. Dozens of workers swarmed in to clean after experts removed explosives that had been planted.

‘‘I observed the damage and it isn’t very serious,’’ Algeria’s energy minister, Youcef Yousfi, said Tuesday during a visit.

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