US, UK vow to pursue Qaeda in north Africa but no troops
The US and British defence ministers on Saturday vowed to hunt down Al-Qaeda-linked militants in north Africa following a deadly Algerian hostage crisis, but said they would not be sending in any ground troops.
After talks in London, Leon Panetta and his British counterpart Philip Hammond refused to criticise the Algerian military operation on a remote gas plant seized by Islamist gunmen, ending one of the bloodiest international hostage crises in years.
Hammond said the loss of life at the In Amenas gas plant was "appalling and unacceptable", but he blamed it solely on the Islamist kidnappers.
"We must be clear that it is the terrorists who bear sole responsibility for it," he told a joint press conference, adding: "We remain determined to defeat terrorism and stand with the Algerian government."
And he warned: "The people behind this attack can be sure that the full force of the United States, the United Kingdom and other allied countries will bear down upon them and they will not find a place to hide."
Panetta, on his final visit to Europe before stepping down, said that after the September 11 attacks, the United States had "made a commitment that we were going to go after Al-Qaeda wherever they are, and wherever they try to hide".
It had done that in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, in Somalia and in Yemen, and north Africa would be no different, he said.
"The one thing we cannot do is be complacent or take for granted that somehow they can exist and establish a base of operations in the world. That is unacceptable," he told reporters.
Both defence ministers said they were supporting a French military operation in Mali, which has been battling an onslaught of Islamist rebels, but they also both confirmed that they would not be sending troops in.
"We're not planning troops on the ground in the area," said Panetta, while Hammond added the equally unequivocal: "We have no plans to involve British troops in combat in Mali."
They both said they would work with regional partners to defeat Islamist militants in north Africa, known as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
"As we face this enemy we have to adapt the best efforts to be able to ensure that we do this effectively, and that involves working with these countries in the region," Panetta explained.
He refused to criticise the Algerian government for the way it handled the hostages crisis.
"They are in the region, they understand the threat from terrorism better probably than a lot of other countries. They developed the capability to try to deal with terrorism," he said.
"It's important that we continue to work with it to develop a regional approach to making sure AQIM does not develop a safe haven in that part of the world."
He added: "Every one of those countries has their approach to dealing with terrorism and I'm not going to make judgements about what's good or bad.
"What I care about is that they do everything they can to make sure that AQIM does not establish a base of operations in that area."
Hammond was also cautious not to criticise the Algerians, saying there was "no doubting their commitment to dealing with Islamist terrorism".
"Different countries have different approaches to dealing with these things," he said.
"The nature of collaboration in confronting a global threat is that we work with people sometimes who do things differently from the way we do them ourselves."