Algeria's government searched desperately Thursday for a way to end a desert standoff with Islamic militants who have taken dozens of foreigners hostage at a natural gas complex, turning to tribal leaders among Algerian Tuaregs and contemplating an international force.
The government was in talks throughout the night with the U.S. and France over whether international forces could help against the militants, who have said 41 foreigners, including seven Americans, were being held after the assault on one of oil-rich Algeria's energy facilities, 800 miles from the capital of Algiers and 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) from the coast. Two foreigners were killed.
The official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the attack, said Algerian officials also contacted tribal elders among Algerian Tuaregs, who are believed to have close ties with Islamist militants linked to al-Qaida. The official said the government hoped the Tuaregs might help negotiate an end to the standoff.
The group claiming responsibility — called Katibat Moulathamine or the Masked Brigade — said the attack Wednesday was in revenge for Algeria's support of France's military operation against al-Qaida-linked rebels in neighboring Mali. Militants phoned a Mauritanian news outlet to say one of its affiliates had carried out the operation at the Ain Amenas gas field, and that France should end its intervention in Mali to ensure the safety of the hostages.
But the militants themselves appeared to have no escape, cut off by surrounding troops and army helicopters overhead.
BP, the Norwegian company Statoil and the Algerian state oil company Sonatrach, operate the gas field. A Japanese company, JGC Corp, provides services for the facility as well.
In Rome on Wednesday, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta declared that the U.S. "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 "terrorist attack" and likened it to al-Qaida activities in Pakistan, Afghanistan and in the United States on Sept. 11, 2001.
It was not immediately possible to account for the discrepancies in the number of reported hostages. Their identities also were not clear, but Ireland announced that they included a 36-year-old married Irish man. Japan, Britain and the U.S. said their citizens were taken. A Norwegian woman said her husband called her saying that he had been taken hostage.
Hundreds of Algerians work at the plant and were also captured in the attack, but the Algerian state news agency reported they were gradually released unharmed Wednesday.
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."
Kabila said the roughly 20 well armed gunmen were from Algeria itself, operating under orders from Moktar Belmoktar, al-Qaida's strongman in the Sahara.
In Washington, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland confirmed that "U.S. citizens were among the hostages."