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Three Americans confirmed among dozens killed in Algeria hostage taking

ALGIERS, Algeria — The U.S. State Department on Monday confirmed that three American citizens were among those killed during the hostage-taking by Islamic militants at a gas field in Algeria.

The death toll from the four-day siege deep in the Sahara has risen to at least 67, Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal said Monday on Algerian televsion. The number includes 38 foreign workers and 29 militants who died in the crisis which came to an end in a bloody confrontation with Algerian forces.

Five foreigners remained unaccounted for, Sellal said.

A Japanese government source said the Algerian government had informed Tokyo that nine Japanese had been killed, the highest toll among the non-Algerians working there.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland on Monday identified the three Americans who were killed as Victor Lynn Lovelady, Gordon Lee Rowan and Frederick Buttaccio, who had been named earlier.

"We are also aware of seven U.S. citizens who survived the attack," Nuland said. "Due to privacy considerations, we have no further information to provide.

"We will continue to work closely with the Government of Algeria to gain a fuller understanding of the terrorist attack of last week and how we can work together moving forward to combat such threats in the future," Nuland said.

'Blessed operation'

One-eyed veteran Islamist fighter Mokhtar Belmokhtar claimed responsibility for the attack on behalf of al-Qaida.

"We in al-Qaida announce this blessed operation," he said in a video, according to Sahara Media, a regional website. He said about 40 attackers participated in the raid, roughly matching the government's figures for fighters killed and captured.

The fighters swooped out of the desert on Wednesday and seized the In Anema plant and residential barracks nearby.

About 800 people, including some 700 Algerians and 100 foreigners, managed to escape after militants stormed.

Algerian troops launched their first raids on the site on Thursday, but the standoff continued until Saturday, when government forces captured or killed the remaining militants and ended the siege.

According to Salell, the attackers tried to blow up the gas facility on Friday night by planting explosives in a gas pipe and trying to detonate it. The plant produces about 10 percent of the countries gas exports.

The militants demanded an end to French air strikes against Islamist fighters in neighboring Mali that had begun five days earlier. However, U.S. and European officials doubt such a complex raid could have been organized quickly enough to have been conceived as a direct response to the French military intervention.

On Monday, Salell said that a Canadian was one of the coordinators of the attack. Ottawa said it was investigating reports that Canadian nationals were involved.

The siege turned bloody on Thursday when the Algerian army opened fire saying fighters were trying to escape with their prisoners. Survivors said Algerian forces blasted several trucks in a convoy carrying both hostages and their captors.

Nearly 700 Algerian workers and more than 100 foreigners escaped, mainly on Thursday when the fighters were driven from the residential barracks. Some captors remained holed up in the industrial complex until Saturday when they were overrun.

Sellal said negotiating with the kidnappers was essentially impossible.

"Their goal was to kidnap foreigners," he said. "They wanted to flee to Mali with the foreigners, but once they were surrounded they started killing the first hostages."

The bloodshed has strained Algeria's relations with its Western allies, some of whom have complained about being left in the dark while the decision to storm the compound was being taken. Nevertheless, Britain and France both defended the Algerian military action.

"It's easy to say that this or that should have been done. The Algerian authorities took a decision and the toll is very high but I am a bit bothered ... when the impression is given that the Algerians are open to question,'' said French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius. "They had to deal with terrorists.''

British Prime Minister David Cameron said in a televised statement: "Of course people will ask questions about the Algerian response to these events, but I would just say that the responsibility for these deaths lies squarely with the terrorists who launched this vicious and cowardly attack.

''We should recognize all that the Algerians have done to work with us and to help and coordinate with us. I'd like to thank them for that. We should also recognize that the Algerians too have seen lives lost among their soldiers."

The Islamists' assault has tested Algeria's relations with the outside world and exposed the vulnerability of multinational oil operations in the Sahara.

But physical damage to the gas plant in In Anema was minor, state news service APS reported, citing Oil Minister Youcef Yousfi. The plant would start up again in two days, he said.

Algeria, scarred by the civil war with Islamist insurgents in the 1990s which claimed 200,000 lives, insisted from the start of the crisis there would be no negotiation in the face of terrorism.

France especially needs close cooperation from Algeria to crush Islamist rebels in northern Mali.

Catherine Chomiak, NBC News, Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.