In this undated image released Wednesday Jan. 16, 2013, by BP petroleum company, showing the Amenas natural gas field in the eastern central region of Algeria, where Islamist militants raided and took hostages Wednesday Jan. 16, 2013.
ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) - In what could be the first spillover from France's intervention in Mali, Islamist militants attacked and occupied a natural gas complex in southern Algeria on Wednesday. Two people were killed and dozens of others, including several Americans, were reportedly taken hostage.
A militant group claimed responsibility for the rare attack on one of oil-rich Algeria's energy facilities, saying it came in revenge for the North African nation's support for France's military operation against al-Qaida-linked rebels in neighboring Mali. The militants said they were holding 41 foreigners from the energy complex, including seven Americans.
The group - called Katibat Moulathamine or the Masked Brigade - phoned a Mauritanian news outlet to say one of its affiliates had carried out the operation at the Ain Amenas gas field, located 800 miles (1,300 kilometers) south of Algiers, the Algerian capital.
BP, together with the Norwegian company Statoil and the Algerian state oil company Sonatrach, operates the gas field. A Japanese company, JGC Corp, provides services for the facility as well.
In Rome, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta declared that the U.S. "will take all necessary and proper steps" to deal with the attack in Algeria. He would not detail what such steps might be but condemned the action as "terrorist attack" and likened it to al-Qaida activities in Pakistan, Afghanistan and in the United States on Sept. 11, 2001.
Algeria's top security official, Interior Minister Daho Ould Kabila, said that "security forces have surrounded the area and cornered the terrorists, who are in one wing of the complex's living quarters."
He said one Briton and one Algerian were killed in the attack, while a Norwegian and two other Britons were among the six wounded.
"We reject all negotiations with the group, which is holding some 20 hostages from several nationalities," Kabila said on national television, raising the spector of a possible armed assault to try to free the hostages.
It was not immediately possible to rectify the discrepancies in the number of reported hostages. Their identities were also unclear, but Ireland announced that they included a 36-year-old married Irish man and Japan, Britain and the U.S. said their citizens were involved as well. A Norwegian woman said her husband called her saying that he had been taken hostage.
Hundreds of Algerians work at the plant and were also taken hostage in the Islamist attack, but the Algerian state news agency reported they were gradually released unharmed Wednesday in small groups.
The Algerian minister said the militants appeared to be hoping to negotiate their departure from the area, something he rejected. He also dismissed theories that the militants came from across the border in Libya, which is just 60 miles (100 kilometers) away, or from Mali, more than 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) away.
Kabila said the roughly 20 well armed gunmen were from Algeria itself, operating under orders from Moktar Belmoktar, al-Qaida's strongman in the Sahara.
In Washington, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland confirmed that "U.S. citizens were among the hostages."
The caller to the Nouakchott Information Agency, which often carries announcements from extremist groups, said 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 Belmoktar, a one-eyed Algerian who recently declared he was leaving the terror network's Algerian branch, Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, to create his own group. He said at the time he would still maintain ties with the central organization based in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The name of his group could be a reference to the nomadic Tuareg inhabitants of the Sahara, known for masking their faces with blue veils.
A close associate of Belmoktar blamed the West for France's recent air and ground intervention against Islamist fighters in Mali.
"It's the United Nations that gave the green light to this intervention and all Western countries are now going to pay a price. We are now globalizing our conflict," said Oumar Ould Hamaha told The Associated Press by telephone Wednesday night from an undisclosed location.
French President Francois Hollande launched the surprise operation in Mali, a former French colony in West Africa, on Friday, hoping to stop the al-Qaida-linked and other Islamist extremists whom he believes pose a danger to the world.
Further kidnappings could well be on the horizon, warned Sajjan Gohel, the international security director for the Asia-Pacific Foundation.
"The chances are that this may not be a one-off event, that there could be other attempts in Africa - especially north and western Africa - to directly target foreign interests," he said. "It's unclear as to what fate these individuals may meet, whether these terrorists are going to want a ransom or whether they'll utilize this for propaganda purposes."
Wednesday's attack in Algeria began with an ambush on a bus carrying employees from the massive gas plant to the nearby airport but the attackers were driven off, according to the Algerian government, which said three vehicles of heavily armed men were involved.
"After their failed attempt, the terrorist group headed to the complex's living quarters and took a number of workers with foreign nationalities hostage," the government said in a statement.
Attacks on oil-rich Algeria's hydrocarbon facilities are very rare, despite decades of fighting an Islamist insurgency, mostly in northern Algeria.
In the last several years, however, al-Qaida's influence in the poorly patrolled desert of southern Algeria and northern Mali and Niger has grown and the group operates smuggling and kidnapping networks throughout the area. Militant groups that seized control of a vast section of northern Mali last year already hold seven French hostages as well as four Algerian diplomats.
Prime Minister David Cameron's office said "several British nationals" were involved, while Japanese news agencies, citing unnamed government officials, said there are three Japanese hostages.
Late Wednesday, Statoil said five employees -four Norwegians and a Canadian - were safe at an Algerian military camp and two of them had suffered minor injuries. It said 12 employees were unaccounted for.
The Norwegian newspaper Bergens Tidende said a 55-year-old Norwegian working on the site called his wife to say he had been abducted.
Algeria had long warned against any military intervention against the rebels in northern Mali, fearing the violence could spill over its own long and porous border. Though its position softened slightly after Hollande visited Algiers in December, Algerian authorities remain skeptical about the operation and worried about its consequences on the region.
Algeria, Africa's biggest country, has been an ally of the U.S. and France in fighting terrorism for years. But its relationship with France has been fraught with lingering resentment over colonialism and the bloody war for independence that left Algeria a free country 50 years ago.
Algeria's strong security forces have struggled for years against Islamist extremists, and have in recent years managed to nearly snuff out violence by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb around its home base in northern Algeria. In the meantime, AQIM moved its focus southward.
AQIM has made tens of millions of dollars off kidnapping in the region, abducting Algerian businessmen or politicans, and sometimes foreigners, for ransom.
Sunday, May 19 2013 4:05 PM EDT2013-05-19 20:05:05 GMT
Police are on the lookout for a man accused of hitting and seriously injuring a Sheriff's deputy with his car.Police say Josh Baldridge hit a Knox County, Ohio deputy early this morning.Baldridge is drivingMore >>
Police are on the lookout for a man accused of hitting and seriously injuring a Sheriff's deputy with his car.More >>
Sunday, May 19 2013 11:21 AM EDT2013-05-19 15:21:41 GMT
A very lucky lottery player in the Sunshine State is a multi-millionaire this morning! Powerball lottery officials say someone in Florida bought a winning ticket for Saturday night's record $590 millionMore >>
A very lucky lottery player in the Sunshine State is a multi-millionaire this morning! Powerball lottery officials say someone in Florida bought a winning ticket for Saturday night's record $590 million drawing. Right now, the winner hasn't been identified.More >>
Sunday, May 19 2013 3:50 PM EDT2013-05-19 19:50:15 GMT
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - The state of Ohio has received a $2.1 million federal grant to improve criminal background checks for those home health care workers who directly serve the disabled and elderly. TheMore >>
The state of Ohio has received a $2.1 million federal grant to improve criminal background checks for those home health care workers who directly serve the disabled and elderly.More >>
Sunday, May 19 2013 3:41 PM EDT2013-05-19 19:41:11 GMT
CLEVELAND (AP) - Police made regular crime runs to the Cleveland street where three women were held captive in a house over a decade before escaping.Since the 2002 abduction of the first victim, MichelleMore >>
Police made regular crime runs to the Cleveland street where three women were held captive in a house over a decade before escaping.More >>
Sunday, May 19 2013 3:22 PM EDT2013-05-19 19:22:35 GMT
Photo/Sleepy Hollow High School). In this photo copied from the 2010 Sleepy Hollow High School yearbook, high school student Andrea Rubello is shown.
NEW YORK (AP) - The police officer who accidentally killed a Long Island college student along with an armed intruder faced the most harrowing decision of a law enforcement career: choosing the split-secondMore >>
The police officer who accidentally killed a Long Island college student along with an armed intruder faced the most harrowing decision of a law enforcement career.More >>
Sunday, May 19 2013 12:08 PM EDT2013-05-19 16:08:48 GMT
CLEVELAND (AP) - Two state legislators want to end the requirement for two license plates on vehicles in Ohio and require only one per vehicle. The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer reports that state Reps. TerryMore >>
Two state legislators want to end the requirement for two license plates on vehicles in Ohio and require only one per vehicle.More >>
Sunday, May 19 2013 8:55 AM EDT2013-05-19 12:55:26 GMT
It has been a slow severe weather season up to this point, but this weekend will be the busiest of the season so far. There were more than 20 tornado reports on Saturday and over 200 severe reports totals.More >>
More than 200 severe weather reports and 20 tornadoes were observed in the plains on Saturday.More >>
Saturday, May 18 2013 10:50 PM EDT2013-05-19 02:50:34 GMT
Three suspects are still on the loose after an-early morning home invasion and murder in Waterville Township and investigators say the death of 34-year-old James Safadi was not a random act of violence.More >>
Investigators say the home invasion death of 34-year-old James Safadi in Waterville was not a random act of violence. They believe the local business owner was targeted.More >>
Sunday, May 19 2013 3:45 PM EDT2013-05-19 19:45:51 GMT
EOUL, South Korea (AP) - North Korea fired a projectile into waters off its eastern coast Sunday, a day after launching three short-range missiles in the same area, officials said. North Korea routinelyMore >>
North Korea fired a projectile into waters off its eastern coast Sunday, a day after launching three short-range missiles in the same area, officials said.More >>
Sunday, May 19 2013 3:16 PM EDT2013-05-19 19:16:21 GMT
LOS ANGELES (AP) - "Star Trek: Into Darkness" has warped its way to a $70.6 million domestic launch from Friday to Sunday, though it's not setting any light-speed records with a debut that's lower thanMore >>
Star Trek: Into Darkness" has warped its way to a $70.6 million domestic launch from Friday to Sunday, though it's not setting any light-speed records with a debut that's lower than the studio's expectations.More >>