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Bamako, Mali - The French military assault on Islamist extremists in Mali escalated into a potentially much broader North African conflict Wednesday when, in retribution, armed attackers in unmarked trucks seized an internationally managed natural gas field in neighboring Algeria and took at least 20 foreign hostages, including Americans.
Algerian officials said at least two people, including a Briton, were killed in the assault, which began with a predawn ambush on a bus attempting to ferry gas-field workers to an airport. Hundreds of Algerian security forces were sent to surround the gas-field compound, creating a tense standoff, and the country's interior minister said there would be no negotiations.
Algeria's official news agency said at least 20 fighters had carried out the attack and mass abduction. There were unconfirmed reports late Wednesday that the security forces had tried to storm the gas-field compound and had retreated under gunfire from the hostage takers.
Many details of the assault on the gas field in a barren desert site near Libya's border remained murky, including the precise number of hostages, which could be as high as 41, according to claims by the attackers quoted by regional news agencies. U.S., French, British, Japanese and Norwegian nationals who worked at the field were known to be among them, officials said.
A terrorist act
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta called the gas-field attack a terrorist act and said the United States was weighing a response.
A senior Algerian official said the militants, who claimed to have come from Mali, had breached the gas-field facility, outside the town of In Amenas, through the use of three unmarked trucks that had escaped detection.
The facility is the fourth-largest gas development in Algeria, a major oil producer and OPEC member. The In Amenas gas compression plant is operated by BP of Britain, the Norwegian company Statoil and the Algerian national oil company Sonatrach.
Bard Glad Pedersen, a Statoil spokesman, said that of 17 Statoil employees who had been working in the field, four managed to escape to a nearby Algerian military camp, but he would not say how.
The Sahara Media Agency of Mauritania, quoting what it described as a spokesman for the militants, said they were holding five hostages in a production facility on the site and 36 others in a housing area, and that there were as many as 400 Algerian soldiers surrounding the operation. But that information could not be confirmed.