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Algeria's hostage siege prompts condemnation, rescue operations

Islamist militants took dozens of foreign nationals hostages Wednesday night at a gas plant in the southern Algerian desert, marking the first spillover from French military operation in Mali.

A group of gunmen stormed the natural gas complex and held 41 foreigners in a rare attack that shocked the international community and prompted countries to mull rescue operations.

The militant group said the attack was carried out in retaliation for Algeria's support for a French offensive against Islamist fighters in neighboring Mali, and demanded France end the military action, which has been backed by Western countries.

Six days into air strikes, France on Wednesday ratcheted up firepower and launched its first ground assault against Islamist fighters.

The authorities in the United States, Algeria, Norway, Japan and Ireland have confirmed their nationals were captured by the Islamists, while French President Francois Hollande said he was not sure whether any French nationals had been taken hostage.

The militants warned that the hostages' lives were at risk and any rescue operation would lead to self-destructive actions.

"We hold the Algerian government and the French government and the countries of hostages fully responsible if our demands are not met and it is up to them to stop the brutal aggression against our people in Mali," read one statement carried by Mauritanian media.

Alegria's Interior Minister Daho Ould Kablia said Wednesday that the country's security forces have closed in on the facility and cornered the hostage takers. He had ruled out any negotiating with the rebels.

"Algeria has taken all necessary measures to deal with the impact of the foreign military intervention in Mali," Kablia told the government-run TV channel ENTV.

One Briton and an Algerian had been killed in the attack, while another six had been wounded, said the country's top security official.

In Washington, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland confirmed that American citizens were among the hostages.

Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta condemned the hostage siege as a terrorist attack. "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," he said.

The Norwegian government has sent an emergency team to Algeria after confirming that 13 Norwegian nationals have been taken hostages by the Islamists.

"It's one of the most serious hostage situation Norwegian citizens have been involved in," said Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, adding the current priority was "get our people home safe and sound and that there are few lives lost in the action."

Four of the 13 Norwegians involved in the Algeria hostage crisis are relatively safe after they managed to arrive at a nearby military camp, reported the Norwegian news agency NTB.

An armed group known as Katibat Moulathamine (The masked brigade) telephoned a news channel in Mauritania, saying that 41 people from nine or 10 different countries were taken hostages, according to the Norwegian-language newspaper Aftenposten.

The group reportedly raided a bus carrying mostly foreign workers heading to the airport in Amenas, Algeria, and moved to the gas facility, which was jointly operated by BP, the Norwegian company Statoil, and the Algerian state oil Sonatrach.

[Source: Xinhua, Algiers, 17Jan13]

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