LONDON — U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the United States is still working to get a clear picture of the situation at a natural gas facility in Algeria, which Algerian forces attacked on Thursday after militants had taken dozens of foreigners and hundreds of Algerians hostage.
Nearly 24 hours after Algerian forces launched their assault on the joint Algerian-British-Norwegian facility, senior foreign officials did not know its outcome, or the fate of their citizens who had been taken hostage.
During a previously scheduled speech at London’s King’s College Friday, Secretary Panetta said he had just received an update and still needed more information.
“We are continuing to work very closely with the British government and with other nations in order to assess precisely what is happening on the ground," said Panetta. "We are working around the clock to ensure the safe return of our citizens. And we will continue to be in close consultation with the Algerian government.”
After his speech, Panetta held an unscheduled 45-minute meeting with British Prime Minister David Cameron, which officials described as an in-depth discussion of Algeria, Mali and other issues.
Reports indicate some hostages and some terrorists were killed in the Algerian assault, and some hostages were freed. But Prime Minister Cameron also seemed somewhat frustrated during a statement in Parliament Friday, saying he had not been informed of the operation in advance and was not able to give a full accounting of the British citizens at the facility.
“Last night, the number of British citizens at risk was less than thirty. Thankfully, we now know that number has been quite significantly reduced," said Cameron. "And I’m sure the House will understand why during an ongoing operation I cannot say more on this at this stage.”
Mr. Cameron indicated Algerian forces were still trying to gain full control of the gas facility. He also said security is being tightened at other such installations in the region.
The militants said they attacked the Algerian complex in retaliation for the French military action against Islamist rebels in neighboring Mali, and the militants have threatened more such attacks against Western targets. The Algeria hostage-takers are affiliated with the Mali rebels under the umbrella organization Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.
Secretary Panetta condemned the hostage-taking, and said there can be “no justification” for kidnapping and murdering innocent people.
“Terrorists should be on notice that they will find no sanctuary, no refuge, not in Algeria, not in North Africa, not anywhere," he said. "Those who would wantonly attack our country and our people will have no place to hide.”
In Friday’s speech, Panetta urged U.S. allies not to allow financial concerns to reduce their commitment to keep what he called “relentless pressure” on terrorism in Mali, Algeria and around the world.