- By Josh Rogin
The U.S. government is trying to determine now whether or not the seven Americans reportedly being held hostage by Islamic militants in Algeria are still alive.
Several reports Thursday said that 25 hostages escaped and six were killed when Algerian forces mounted an operation to free the hostages in the remote desert gas plant where they were being held.
Three more hostages were reportedly freed by the Algerian army in a subsequent operation. A total of 41 hostages have been held since Wednesday morning, as part of what military groups called retaliation for the French attacks on Islamist groups in Mali that began last weekend, according to a statement by one of the militant groups Al Mulathameen, which has links to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
At Thursday’s White House press briefing, Press Secretary Jay Carney said there’s no definitive information on whether the Americans are among the dead or the living.
"We are in contact with Algerian authorities and our international partners as well as with BP’s security office in London. Unfortunately, the best information we have at this time, as I said, indicates that U.S. citizens are among the hostages. But we don’t have, at this point, more details to provide to you. We’re certainly concerned about reports of loss of life and are seeking clarity from the government of Algeria," he said.
"But at this point you can’t say whether those Americans are alive or dead?" a reporter asked Carney.
"I just can only say that we are deeply concerned about any loss of innocent life and are seeking clarity from the government of Algeria," he said.
Carney declined to confirm reports that at least one unarmed U.S. drone was deployed to the skies above the Algerian gas facility in support of the rescue operations there. He also declined to confirm that the hostage takers have links to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) or say whether or not the Algerian government consulted Washington before carrying out the deadly rescue mission.
"Our priority is determining the status of the Americans involved and gaining a full understanding of what took place," he said. "We are seeking clarity from the Algerian government about this matter, and obviously we are focused most intently on the status of Americans."
The United States is proving intelligence support and airlift support to the French troops operating in Mali, helping them move troops and equipment, Carney said. The French have made several other requests for U.S. support that the administration is still considering.
President Barack Obama is being regularly updated on the Algeria situation but hasn’t gotten involved personally by making any phone calls to world leaders, Carney said. AQIM does not threaten the United States directly but does threaten U.S. interests, he said.
"We work with our allies to counter the activities of AQIM," said Carney. "And clearly, AQIM and affiliated extremist groups do pose a threat to our interests in that region, even if they have not posed a direct threat to the homeland like al Qaeda central in Afghanistan and Pakistan or al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula."Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke with Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal Wednesday and is expected to speak with him again today.
"The phone call was, as you can imagine, a hundred percent about this situation, about our willingness to be helpful about what might be needed, about the desire to keep lines of communication open," State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said today.