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 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.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called the gas-field attack a terrorist act and said the U.S. was weighing a response. His statement suggested that the Obama administration could be drawn into a military entanglement in North Africa that it had been seeking to keep at arm’s length.