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In addition to several Americans and Britons, there were Norwegian, Romanian, French, Filipino, Japanese, Malaysian and Irish citizens among the hostages, dozens of whom remained unaccounted for Thursday evening. One Associated Press report Thursday evening, hours after the Algerian raid, said at least some Americans were still held or unaccounted for.

The Algerian government said it was forced to intervene because of the militants’ stubbornness and their desire to escape with the hostages.

“An important number of hostages were freed, and an important number of terrorists were eliminated, and we regret the few dead and wounded,” Algerian Communications Minister Mohand Said Oubelaid told national media, adding that the “terrorists are multinational,” coming from several countries with the goal of “destabilizing Algeria, embroiling it in the Mali conflict and damaging its natural-gas infrastructure.”

The extremists told the Mauritanian news agency that their attack Wednesday on the natural-gas pumping facility was intended to avenge the French intervention in Mali. Al Qaeda-linked terrorists there have wrested control from the Malian military of the country’s vast desert north and are establishing a safe haven for extremists.

Wednesday’s terrorist attack was large and coordinated enough that some security specialists were skeptical it had been planned in the five days since French troops arrived in Mali.

The French troops came at the invitation of the country's government to help defend it from an increasingly threatening Islamic extremist insurgency that already holds the north and was poised to defeat government forces altogether, according to one scholar.

“[The terrorists] have the military capability,” said Michael Shurkin, a political scientist at the Rand Corp., a think tank based in Santa Monica, Calif.

“They probably would have taken down the Malian government if they had wanted to and if the French hadn’t stopped them,” Mr. Shurkin said of the extremists — a coalition of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the terrorist network’s affiliate in Northern Africa, and two indigenous Malian Islamic groups.

AQIM has taken hostages before and has made millions of dollars by ransoming Western tourists and aid workers.

Wednesday’s assault was the terrorists’ largest haul of hostages since 2003, when AQIM snatched 32 Western tourists in southern Algeria. This was also the first time Americans have been involved.

BP, the Norwegian company Statoil and the Algerian state oil company Sonatrach operate the gas field, and a Japanese company, JGC Corp., provides services for the facility.

Wednesday’s attack was on a larger scale and against a harder target, with as many as 50 Algerian police at the gas plant. The heavily armed attackers said they had to fight their way inside.

“They’ve done extremely well for themselves in Mali,” Mr. Shurkin said of AQIM, which mainly consists of veteran Algerian extremists such as Belmokhtar.

The one-eyed veteran of the Afghan jihad against the Soviets “has a new spring in his step,” as demonstrated by the ambitious scale of Wednesday’s attack, the Rand Corp. analyst said.

He added that it is “debatable” whether the terrorism risk in the region and beyond would worsen as a result of the intervention.

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