By Karen Parrish
American Forces Press Service
ROME, Jan. 16, 2013 – Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta confirmed that Americans are among those taken hostage in southern Algeria today when terrorists attacked and occupied a natural gas plant.
Panetta said he does not know how many Americans the terrorists are holding, but that U.S. and British authorities -- the natural gas complex is partly owned by British Petroleum -- are in close consultation with their Algerian counterparts to learn as much as possible.
“I want to assure the American people that the United States will take all necessary and proper steps that are required to deal with this situation,” he said.
Panetta said he does not yet know whether there is a link between the attack in Algeria and the French operation in Mali, where France began airstrikes against a dispersed force Panetta has identified as affiliated with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.
While he couldn’t confirm a link, Panetta said, “it is for that reason that we have always been concerned about their presence in Mali -- because they would use it a base of operations to do exactly what happened in Algeria. That’s the kind of thing that terrorists do.”
On the operation in Mali, Panetta said the United States will support the French as soon as legal authorities are clear as to what support can be supplied.
“Frankly, we already are providing assistance in terms of information to … help in this effort,” the secretary added.
Panetta noted he has spoken with European government and defense leaders thus far in Portugal, Spain and now Italy about the way ahead in Mali.
“I believe that there is a consensus that France took the right step here to … deter AQIM from taking even further action there,” he said.
European defense ministers will meet tomorrow to discuss ongoing assistance in Mali, the secretary said.
“The United States is going through the same process,” he added. “The goal, for all of us, is to do what we can to ensure that ultimately, the African nations … come in and play a key role in providing for the security of Mali.”
Panetta has said several times during his travels this week that forces from the Economic Community Of West African States, or ECOWAS, would ideally lead such an effort. He added, however, that he believes terrorism is a threat that the international community as a whole must address.
Of AQIM and al-Qaida in general, the secretary said his background as CIA director and then as U.S. defense secretary has proven to him that “they are a threat.”
“They are a threat to our country. They are a threat to the world,” Panetta said. “And wherever they locate and try to establish a base for operations, … that constitutes a threat that all of us have to be concerned about.”