PARIS — Islamist militants seized a foreign-operated gas field in Algeria early Wednesday and took 20 or more foreign hostages, including Americans, according to an Algerian government official and the country’s state-run news agency, in what appeared to be a retaliation for the French-led military intervention in neighboring Mali.
The Algerian agency said at least two people had been killed in the gas-field seizure, including one British national, and that the hostages included American, British, French, Norwegian and Japanese citizens.
Victoria Nuland, a State Department spokeswoman, told reporters in Washington that an unidentified number of American citizens were believed to be among the hostages, and Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, traveling in Italy, seemed to raise the possibility that the United States might take military action in response.
“By all indications this is a terrorist act,” Mr. Panetta said. “It is a very serious matter when Americans are taken hostage along with others.” He also said: “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.”
The exact number of people being held was still far from certain. A top Algerian government official said 20 Islamist militants had attacked the gas field and that security services had now “encircled the base” so that “no one can leave.” Concerning the number of hostages, he said that “the situation is confused for the moment,” and that there might be as many as 30. “We don’t have precise figures for now.”
As for the 20 attackers, he said, they came heavily armed, in three unmarked vehicles. “That’s how they slipped through,” he said.
All told, up to 40 workers could be held hostage, according to oil company officials with interest in the field. A Japanese official confirmed that Japanese nationals were involved, and the Irish Foreign Ministry said one Irish citizen had been kidnapped. Some news agencies said as many as 41 hostages were seized.
The attack on the gas field appeared to be the first retribution by the Islamists for the French armed intervention in Mali last week, potentially broadening the conflict beyond Mali’s borders and raising the possibility of drawing an increasing number of foreign countries directly into the conflict. Western officials had long warned that a Mali intervention, designed to halt an Islamist militant advance in that country, could incite a backlash far beyond Mali’s borders.
Algeria, which has its own long history of fighting Islamic militancy, suggested it would show no tolerance for the gas-field attackers.
“The Algerian authorities will not respond to the demands of the terrorists and will not negotiate,” Algeria’s interior minister, Daho Ould Kablia, was quoted as saying by the official news agency.
The attack occurred at the fourth largest gas development in Algeria, In Amenas, and at its gas compression plant, which is operated by BP, the Norwegian company Statoil and the Algerian national oil company Sonatrach.
Bard Glad Pedersen, a Statoil spokesman, said that of 17 Statoil employees working in the field, only four were able to safely escape to a nearby Algerian military camp. “There is a hostage situation,” he said. “We do not provide further information how we are dealing with the situation. Our main priority is the safety of our colleagues.”
The Sahara Media Agency of Mauritania, quoting what it described as a spokesman for the militants, said they were holding five hostages in a production facility on the site and 36 others in a housing area, and that there were as many as 400 Algerian soldiers surrounding the operation. But that information could not be confirmed, and the agency’s report on the specifics of where the hostages were held raised questions about its credibility.
Fighters with links to Al Qaeda’s African affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, claimed responsibility for the attack, according to both Mauritanian and Algerian news agencies. They quoted militants claiming that the kidnappings were a response to the Algerian government’s decision to allow France to use its airspace to conduct strikes against Islamists in Mali.
Source: NY times