Militants with possible links to al Qaeda seized about 40 foreign hostages, including several Americans, at a natural-gas field in Algeria, posing a new level of threat to nations trying to blunt the growing influence of Islamist extremists in Africa.
As security officials in the U.S. and Europe assessed options to reach the captives from distant bases, Algerian security forces failed in an attempt late Wednesday to storm the facility.
A French effort to drive Islamist militants from neighboring Mali that began with airstrikes last week expanded on Wednesday with the first sustained fighting on the ground. France’s top target, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, claimed responsibility for the Algeria kidnappings, calling it retaliation. The claim couldn’t be verified, although AQIM has its origins in Algeria and operates across a swath of Africa.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the U.S. would take “necessary and proper steps” in the hostage situation, and didn’t rule out military action. He said the Algeria attack could represent a spillover from Mali.
U.S. and European officials said Wednesday that they received reports that three Americans had been kidnapped, out of a total of nine U.S. staff working at the site, a gas field in east-central Algeria, along the Libyan border operated by BP BP.LN -0.41%PLC, Norway’s Statoil ASA STL.OS -0.56%and Algerian energy company Sonatrach.
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