Al Qaeda-linked terrorists seized as many as 40 hostages, including an unknown number of Americans, in a deadly attack Wednesday on a natural gas field party operated by BP in Algeria.
The group that carried out the attack — in which two people, including a British subject, were reported killed — said the assault was in retaliation for the French military intervention against Islamist rebels in the West African nation of Mali last week. The French intervention is backed by Britain, the U.S. and Algeria itself.
The attackers said they were Malians from an armed terrorist group led by a former al Qaeda commander. They claimed to be holding 41 hostages from as many as 10 countries, including seven Americans, according to Algerian news reports.
"The best information that we have at this time is that U.S. citizens are among the hostages," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said. "In order to protect their safety, I'm not going to get into numbers. I'm not going to get into names."
In Europe, where he is traveling, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta told reporters that defense officials were consulting with their British and Algerian counterparts about the next steps to be taken.
"I want to assure the American people that the United States will take all necessary and proper steps that are required to deal with this situation," he said.
The attack on the natural gas field outside the town of Ain Amenas near the Algerian border with Libya was carried out by heavily armed men in three vehicles, according to the Interior Ministry in the capital, Algiers.
"Algeria will not respond to terrorist demands and rejects all negotiations," Interior Minister Daho Ould Kablia said on television. Algerian military forces had surrounded the site, according to the state news agency.
In a statement, BP said the site was "attacked and occupied by a group of unidentified armed people," and some of its personnel are thought to be "held by the occupiers."
About 700 people, including 20 foreigners, work at the complex, said the company, formerly known as British Petroleum. Hundreds of native Algerian workers also were taken hostage, but the terrorists released them in small groups throughout the day, Algerian state news reported.
The Japanese, Irish, Norwegian and British governments have separately confirmed that one or more of their nationals are among the hostages.
In claims of responsibility to Algerian and Mauritanian news agencies, extremists variously identified the attack as the work of al Muwaqqi'un bil-Dima — which means "Those Who Sign in Blood" — or the Khaled Abul Abbas Brigade.
"They are the same thing," said Ben Venzke, head of IntelCenter, a firm that tracks extremist messaging for clients, including U.S. government agencies.
Both names refer to a group formed last year by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who had been a regional commander in northwestern Africa for al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Belmokhtar's real name is Khaled Abu al-Abbas, and the group is known by that name as well.
Although the group said the attack was carried out in retaliation for the French intervention in Mali, some analysts were skeptical, pointing out that the size and scale of the attack made it unlikely that it was planned in the five days since French troops arrived in the former French colony.
The issue of international intervention in Mali has been in the headlines since an army coup last summer gave extremists and Tuareg tribal rebels the chance to drive the country's military out of the vast desert north, creating a potential safe haven for al Qaeda terrorists.
In Belmokhtar's message Dec. 5 announcing that he was breaking away from the al Qaeda affiliate in North Africa and forming his own terrorist group, he specifically warned the international community against intervening in Mali, Mr. Venzke said.
Belmokhtar's new group "is believed to still maintain a relationship with AQIM," he said. "However, the exact nature of that relationship is unknown."
AQIM and affiliated terrorist groups, such as Belmokhtar's, have specialized in kidnappings in recent years, generally seizing European tourists or aid workers and other soft targets. They have reaped millions of dollars in ransom to finance their activities.
The al Qaeda group also has global ambitions, but in recent years, security services have broken up its cells in France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Switzerland.
"The network has planted deep roots in Europe," House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Edward R. Royce, California Republican, said Wednesday.
In Mali, where extremists control the desert north, AQIM and associated groups "are imposing the strictest interpretation of Islamic law — banning music and chopping off limbs," he added.
"Large amounts of weapons are flowing into the region," Mr. Royce said.
Mrs. Nuland said Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke by telephone Wednesday morning with Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal and the U.S. ambassador in Algeria, Henry S. Ensher. State Department officials also had been in touch with BP PLC headquarters in London.
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