Militants seize foreign hostages in Algeria; administration confirms Americans taken

By Paul Schemm

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 16 2013 12:07 p.m. MST

ALGIERS, Algeria — 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.

A militant group claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was in revenge for Algeria's support of France's operation against al-Qaida-linked Malian rebels groups far to the southeast. It said it was holding 41 foreigners, including seven Americans.

Algerian forces have surrounded the complex and the state news agency reported a bit more than 20 people were being held, 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.

The Obama administration is condemning the attack and confirming that Americans are among those being held hostage.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters in Italy that Americans were among the hostages and called the incident a "terrorist attack."

A militant group that claimed responsibility says it's holding seven Americans, but State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said she wouldn't provide details to protect those who were kidnapped.

In a statement, BP said the site was "attacked and occupied by a group of unidentified armed people," and some of its personnel are believed to be "held by the occupiers."

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.

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.

Hundreds of Algerians work at the plant and were taken in the attack, but the state news agency reported that they have gradually been released in small groups, unharmed by the late afternoon.

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.

The group's claim could not be independently substantiated and the U.S. embassy said it wasn't "aware of any U.S. citizen casualties."

The caller to the Nouakchott Information Agency, which often carries announcements from extremist groups, did not give any further details, except to say that the kidnapping was carried out by "Those Who Signed in Blood," a group created to attack the countries participating in the offensive against Islamist groups in Mali.

The Masked Brigade was formed by al-Qaida's longtime strongman in the Sahara region, Moktar Belmoktar, a one-eyed Algerian who recently declared he was leaving the terror network's Algerian branch, Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb for his own group.

He said at the time he would still maintain ties with the central organization based out of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

French President Francois Hollande launched the surprise operation in its former West African colony on Friday, with hopes of stopping al-Qaida-linked and other Islamist extremists he believes pose a danger to the world.

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