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Algeria surrounds militant-held plant; Panetta condemns the raid

| Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013, 8:00 p.m.

ALGIERS — As Algerian army helicopters clattered overhead deep in the Sahara desert, Islamist militants hunkered down for the night in a natural gas complex they had stormed Wednesday morning, killing two people and taking dozens of foreigners hostage in what could be the first spillover from France's intervention in Mali.

The Algerian army has surrounded the complex and about 1,000 miles from the coast, there is no obvious way for the kidnappers to escape in their four wheel drive vehicles with their hostages.

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 south of Algiers, the Algerian capital, and that France must cease its intervention in Mali to ensure the safety of the hostages.

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, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta declared that the United States “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 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 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 specter of a possible armed assault to try to free the hostages.

The head of a catering company working on the base told the French Journal de Dimanche that helicopters were flying over the complex and the army waited outside. There were even reports of clashes between the two sides and a member of the militant group told the Mauritanian news outlet they had repelled one assault by Algerian soldiers late Wednesday.

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