A number of Americans have been seized by militants at a gas field in Algeria, U.S. defense secretary Leon Panetta said Wednesday, in what he described as a terrorist incident.
The militant group that claimed responsibility said it was in revenge for Algeria's support of France's operation against al-Qaida-linked Malian rebels groups far to the southeast. It said it was holding 41 foreigners, including seven Americans.
Both Panetta and the State Department have confirmed that Americans were among the 41 hostages reportedly at the gas field, a joint venture including oil giant BP, Norwegian oil firm Statoil and Algerian state company Sonatrach. "Beyond confirming that there are Americans among the hostages, I will ask you to respect our decision not to get into any further details as we try to secure these people," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told a news briefing.
Sen. Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware, told CNBC, "We believe from reports that I've gotten that this is by al-Qaida in the (Islamic) Mahgreb in retaliation for the French military actions in partnership with the Malian military over recent days to try and stabilize the security situation and fight back against the Islamic extremists that have taken control of all of northern Mali."
BP said in a statement that the site was "attacked and occupied by a group of unidentified armed people."
"We do not yet have confirmed information on the status of personnel at the site but believe some are being held by the occupiers," it added.
BP said earlier that Algerian authorities were "engaged with the incident," and BP had activated its emergency response system.
The nationalities of the kidnapped oil workers were unclear, but the U.K.'s Foreign Office said in a statement that U.K. citizens were involved in some way.
"There is in an ongoing terrorist incident ... at an oil installation near the Algerian border with Libya. We can confirm that British nationals are caught up in this incident," the statement said.
And a spokesman for the Japanese government said it had set up a task force to investigate reports that several Japanese citizens had been abducted, and officials in Ireland issued a statement about the reported kidnapping of an Irish citizen.
"The Government stands ready to use all the resources available to us to ensure that our citizen is released as soon as possible," Eamon Gilmore, Ireland's minister for foreign affairs and trade, said in the statement. "I would ask that the family be allowed privacy at this difficult time."
Kidnappers' Motives 'Unknown'
The statement added that officials were providing consular assistance to the family and were "in close contact with its international partners and a wide range of other contacts in order to establish the facts of the situation."
"At this stage, the identity and motives of the kidnappers is unknown," the Irish statement said.
The raid happened after Islamists promised to retaliate for France's decision to send troops to Mali, which has been fighting al-Qaida-linked militants who have taken over much of the north of the country.
Algeria has allowed France to use its air space during the Mali operation, Reuters said, although officials have yet to make a link between Wednesday's attack and the conflict in Algeria's southern neighbor.
The gas field is around 825 miles from the capital, Algiers, in the east of the country.
Statoil, a minority shareholder in the venture, said it was notified of the incident on Wednesday morning but could not say if any of its fewer than 20 employees were affected, Reuters reported. Statoil described the incident as serious and called it an emergency situation.
A reporter for Japan's NHK television managed to call a Japanese worker in Algeria, Reuters reported. The worker said he got a phone call from a colleague at the gas field.
"It was around 6 a.m. this morning. He said that he had been hearing gunshots for about 20 minutes," the worker said. "I wasn't able to get through to him since."
— Reuters and AP contributed to this report