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Algeria hostage crisis brings world to North Africa's anti-Islamist fight (+video)

US confirms it deployed drones to monitor the fast-moving Algeria hostage crisis, which thrust Algeria onto center stage of the regional battle against radical Islamists.

By Staff writer / January 17, 2013

In this undated image, showing the Amenas natural gas field in the eastern central region of Algeria, where Islamist militants raided and took hostages Wednesday.

BP/AP

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Washington

Islamist militants’ mass hostage-taking at a natural gas facility in southern Algeria remains murky, as do the Algerian military’s efforts Thursday to free the captives, but one result of the violence is already clear: The episode expands the scope of the battle with Al Qaeda-affiliated Islamist extremists in North Africa.

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The hostage crisis drags Algeria, a major oil and gas producer with a bloody history of fighting home-grown Islamist militants, onto center stage in the regional battle – a place it has tried to avoid in recent months.

And in part because of the large number of nationalities among the hostages, the international community is now involved in North Africa’s anti-Islamist fight in a way that France’s intervention last week in Algeria’s neighbor Mali – an intervention designed to head off Mali’s fall to radical Islamists – had not immediately provoked.

With reports Thursday afternoon that at least two of perhaps seven American hostages had escaped their captors and were on their way home, the United States was involved in the crisis both on the ground and diplomatically. Pentagon officials confirmed that the US had deployed unmanned drones to monitor and report on the fast-moving crisis, while Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has kept informed through phone conversations Wednesday and Thursday with Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal.

Secretary Clinton said the US wanted to be “helpful” and discussed what assistance the US was prepared to provide, according to State Department officials. The US offered to dispatch specially trained hostage-rescue teams, according to some Pentagon officials, but Algeria reportedly declined.

Algeria dispatched helicopter gunships on Thursday to thwart the militants’ attempt to flee the gas complex with a number of hostages. By Thursday evening Algerian officials claimed that several hundred hostages had been freed – while acknowledging that a number of hostages and their captors had died.

Algeria’s communications minister, Mohand Said Oublaid, said in a radio address that Algeria’s military operation resulted in the “neutralization” of a large number of “terrorists” and the freeing of a “considerable number” of hostages, though he gave no specific numbers. He also said the operation was ongoing as he spoke Thursday evening.

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