2 killed, dozens taken as hostages in Algeria

ALGIERS, Algeria -- 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 yesterday. 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 Algeria'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, 800 miles south of Algiers.

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 United States "will take all necessary and proper steps" to deal with the attack in Algeria. He condemned the action as a "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 "security forces have surrounded the area and cornered the terrorists, who are in one wing of the complex's living quarters."

He said a Briton and an Algerian were killed in the attack, and a Norwegian and two 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 specter of a possible armed assault to try to free the hostages.

It was not immediately possible to resolve the discrepancies in the number of reported hostages. Their identities were unclear, but Ireland said they included a 36-year-old Irishman, and Japan, Britain and the United States said their citizens were among them. A Norwegian said her husband called her, saying he had been taken hostage.

Hundreds of Algerians work at the plant and were also taken hostage, but the Algerian state news agency reported they were gradually released unharmed yesterday in small groups.

The Algerian minister said the militants appeared to be hoping to negotiate their departure, which he rejected. He also dismissed theories that the militants came from Libya, just 60 miles away, or from Mali, more than 600 miles 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.

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