US confronts new north Africa crisis
Washington desperately sought news of hostages caught in the crossfire of an Algerian rescue bid Thursday, ordering US firms to boost security in north Africa plagued by rising militant groups.
Just four months after Al-Qaeda-linked extremists overran a US diplomatic outpost in Libya in a deadly assault, the administration of President Barack Obama was confronting a new crisis in the volatile region.
Countries stretching from Egypt on the Red Sea, through Libya and Algeria and further south to Mali in western Africa have been caught up in the maelstrom unleashed by the Arab Spring uprisings.
"What we are seeing in Mali, in Algeria, reflects the broader strategic challenge, first and foremost for the countries in North Africa, and for the United States and the broader international community," US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Thursday.
"There is a continuing effort by the terrorists, whether they call themselves one name or al-Qaeda, to try to destroy the stability, the peace and security of the people of this region."
Clinton, who next week will testify to lawmakers about the attack on the Benghazi mission in Libya in which four Americans died, swiftly urged all US embassies and US firms operating in north Africa to review security.
Even once the crisis in Algeria is resolved, "we know we face a continuing, ongoing problem. And we're going to do everything we can to work together to confront and disrupt al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb," she said.
US officials have repeatedly stressed that US military operations have squeezed Al-Qaeda out of safe havens in countries such as Yemen, leaving them seeking fresh strongholds in some of the world's remotest areas.
Algerian officials announced late Thursday that the military operation to free the hostages had ended, but they gave no figures, saying only some had been freed, but that there were also dead and injured.
White House officials said they were seeking "clarity" about the fate of the American hostages seized on Wednesday when Islamist militants attacked a remote gas complex in Algeria, close to the border with Libya.
The attack appeared to be retaliation for a week-old French military campaign against Islamist rebels in neighboring Mali, which has been strongly backed by the United States.
But US officials refused to provide any details of the unfolding events. "The situation is extremely fluid on the ground," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland warned reporters, stressing caution was necessary to protect the hostages.
So far the United States has also refused to confirm exactly how many Americans were among those seized during the militants dawn raid on the In Amenas gas field.
The audacious attack -- one of the largest hostage-takings ever in the region -- has triggered fears that Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), known to be sheltering in Mali, could launch even larger kidnapping operations.
"The AQIM is known for trying to kidnap Westerners. That's how they fund themselves, is through ransoming and that kind of thing," Nuland said.
"So the concern is that groups operating in the region may be trying to do larger-scale operations."
After months of delay in trying to put together a UN-backed, African-led force for Mali, Washington has supported the French intervention launched after Islamist rebels in the north began an offensive on the south.
The US is providing intelligence and airlift help to move French troops into the region, and the first US trainers being deployed to other African nations in support of ECOWAS will leave this weekend.
"We're concerned that any time Al-Qaeda establishes a base of operations, that while they might not have any immediate plans for attacks in the United States and in Europe, that ultimately that still remains their objective," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said earlier this week on a trip to Europe.
"It's for that reason that we have to take steps now to ensure that AQIM does not get that kind of traction."