Apparently in revenge for France’s intervention in neighboring Mali, an Islamist group attacked a foreign-run gas field in southern Algeria on Wednesday morning and reportedly kidnapped an undetermined number of Americans and dozens of other foreign workers.
Two others reportedly were killed in the attack, including a Briton, and scores of Algerians also were captured, though some were released throughout the day, according to Algerian state television.
The kidnapping could lead to more U.S. intervention in the region than American officials had planned just a day ago, when the United States vowed to provide only logistical support to the six-day French-led offensive to rid Mali of al Qaida control over large swaths of the west African nation.
That terrorist activities bled into southern Algeria portended further instability from the French-led effort to stop al Qaida in Mali, which two years ago was limited to criminal activity but has since spread into a major terrorist group that dominates northern Mali. It also suggested that the NATO-led operation to remove former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi had created a new kind of instability in the region.
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Al Qaida and its affiliates expanded operations in Mali after Gadhafi’s overthrow as weapons and fighters poured over the porous border last year, just as the government in Bamako collapsed. As a result half of Mali, a U.S.- and French-allied country, became a terrorist haven. Until Wednesday, it had appeared that Algeria had largely been spared the instability in Libya and Mali.
BP, Statoil and Sonatrach, the Algerian national oil company, operated the In Amenas gas field in southern Algeria, 38 miles from the Libyan border and 500 miles from Mail.
Calling the attack a “terrorist act,” Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told reporters traveling with him in Rome that the United States "will take all necessary and proper steps" in response, but he offered no specifics.
Indeed, it appeared that U.S. officials were still figuring out what happened. At the Pentagon, officials said no imminent military response was planned to the purported kidnapping, which the State Department and FBI are investigating.
“We are trying to figure out what happened and are assessing an appropriate response. Whatever we do would be in close coordination with the State Department, FBI and the Algerians,” said Air Force Maj. Rob Firman, a Pentagon spokesman.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland confirmed that Americans were among the hostages but she wouldn’t say how many.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke to Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal and the U.S. ambassador in Algeria, Nuland said. Officials at BP, which owned the field with two other companies, said the company was still determining what happened at the remote field and which of its personnel were involved, according to a statement on its website.
BP officials said they thought the attackers had shut down the gas field, which employed hundreds.
Details of the kidnapping emerged from Katibat Moulathamine, or the “Masked Brigade,” which told a Mauritanian news service that the abduction was retaliation for the French offensive. Katibat Moulathamine, thought to be an al Qaida-affiliated group, said it was holding 41 employees of at least nine nationalities.
Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg said 13 Norwegians employed at the gas field were among the kidnapped. The Japanese government confirmed that one of its citizens was among thosee kidnapped, as did Ireland.
In Algiers, officials rejected negotiating with terrorists. "The Algerian authorities will not respond to the demands of the terrorists and will not negotiate," official news agency APS quoted Interior Minister Daho Ould Kablia as saying.
Meanwhile, al Qaida-linked rebels and French ground troops engaged in intense fighting Wednesday in the town of Diabaly in central Mali as French troops worked to oust the militants, the Los Angeles Times reported, citing reports in French news media.
Gen. Carter Ham, the head of U.S. Africa Command, told The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday that he expects the fight to regain control of Mali to be protracted.
"My sense is that the French are committed and understand this will not be a short-term campaign," Ham told the Journal.
Johnnie Carson, the assistant secretary of state for African affairs, told journalists Wednesday that the situation in Mali is a complex crisis with four main issues: returning the country to democratic governance after a coup, addressing the political grievances of the northern Tuareg, defeating al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and dealing with the region’s humanitarian problems.
Carson said the United States was committed to carrying out pre-deployment training of African troops who are expected to enter Mali and fight alongside the French-backed forces.
"What we will not do is to provide salaries for those troops and we will not provide any lethal weapons to them, but we will train them to be able to do the kinds of jobs that are necessary and help with a variety of important equipment that will help sustain and make their operations more effective," Carson said.
Hannah Allam contributed to this report from Washington.