In what could be the first spillover from France's intervention in Mali, Islamist militants attacked and occupied a natural gas complex partly operated by energy company BP in southern Algeria on Wednesday.
Two foreigners were killed and possibly dozens of others, including Americans, were taken hostage.
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A militant group claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was in revenge for Algeria's support of France's operation against al-Qaeda-linked Malian rebels groups far to the southeast. It said it was holding 41 foreigners, including seven Americans.
The Algerian interior ministry said: "A terrorist group, heavily armed and using three vehicles, launched an attack this Wednesday at 5 am against a Sonatrach base in Tigantourine, near In Amenas, about 60 miles from the Algerian and Libyan border."
"The Algerian authorities will not respond to the demands of the terrorists and will not negotiate," Interior Minister Daho Ould Kablia was quoted as saying by official news agency APS.
The BP complex (Photo: Reuters)
Algerian forces have surrounded the complex and the state news agency reported that 41 people were being held hostage, including Americans, Britons, Norwegians, French and Japanese, citing the local authorities.
"Algeria will not respond to terrorist demands and rejects all negotiations," announced Algeria's top security official, Interior Minister Daho Ould Kablia on television.
BP said in a statment that armed men were still occupying facilities at the gas field: "The site was attacked and occupied by a group of unidentified armed people at about 5am UK time. Contact with the site is extremely difficult, but we understand that armed individuals are still occupying the In Amenas operations site," it said.
The number and identities of the hostages were still unclear, but Ireland announced that a 36-year-old married Irish man was among them, while Japan and Britain said their citizens were involved as well. A Norwegian woman said her husband called her saying he had been taken hostage.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Wednesday the US "will take all necessary and proper steps" to deal with an Islamist attack on a natural gas field in southern Algeria that has resulted in Americans and other foreigners taken hostage. Panetta would not detail what such steps might be in response to what he called a "terrorist attack."
In addition to those killed – one of them a Briton – six were wounded in the attack, including two foreigners, two police officers and two security agents, the state news agency reported.
A group called the "Katibat Moulathamine," or the "Masked Brigade," called a Mauritanian news outlet to say one of its affiliates had carried out the operation on the Ain Amenas gas field, taking 41 hostages from nine or 10 different nationalities, including the seven Americans.
A member of an Islamist group styling itself the "Blood Battalion" was quoted by Mauritanian media as saying that five of the hostages were being held at the gas facility and 36 were in a housing area. APS said the Islamist raiders had freed Algerians working at the gas facility.
"The operation was in response to the blatant interference by Algeria and the opening of its air space to French aircraft to bomb northern Mali," the Islamist spokesman told Mauritania's ANI news agency.
ANI, which has regular direct contact with Islamists, said that fighters under the command of Mokhtar Belmokhtar were holding the foreigners.
Belmokhtar for years commanded al-Qaeda fighters in the Sahara before setting up his own armed Islamist group late last year after an apparent fallout with other militant leaders.
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