ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) — 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. Two foreigners, one of them a Briton, 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. Algerian Interior Minister Daho Ould Kabila said it seemed the militants were hoping to negotiate their departure from the area — a notion he rejected. He also dismissed theories that the militants had come from Libya, a mere 60 miles (100 kilometers) away, or from Mali, more than 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) away.
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.
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.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague told BBC radio on Thursday that he has dispatched a team to Algeria to help at the British embassy there.
"Excuses being used by terrorists and murderers who are involved — there is no excuse for such behaviour, whatever excuse they may claim," he said.
"It is absolutely unacceptable, of course. It is, in this case, the cold-blooded murder of people going about their business. So there is no excuse, whether it be connected to Libya, Mali or anywhere else."
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.
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.
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."