WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Wednesday the U.S. "will take all necessary and proper steps" to deal with an Islamist attack on a natural gas field in southern Algeria that has resulted in Americans and other foreigners taken hostage.
Panetta would not detail what such steps might be, but he condemned the incident as "terrorist attack" and likened it to al-Qaida activities in Pakistan, Afghanistan and in the United States on 9/11.
A militant group that claimed responsibility says it's holding seven Americans, but State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said she wouldn't provide details to protect those who were kidnapped. Panetta said he didn't know the numbers of those kidnapped.
Militants said they attacked and occupied the field partly operated by the energy company BP because of Algeria's support of France's operation against al-Qaida-linked Malian rebels groups to the southeast.
"It is a very serious matter when Americans are taken hostage along with others," Panetta told reporters in Rome, where he spent the day meeting with Italian leaders, in part to discuss the operations in Mali. "I want to assure the American people that the United States will take all necessary and proper steps that are required to deal with this situation."
Panetta told reporters in Italy that he was briefed Wednesday on the Algeria attack and said the U.S. is in consultation with the Algerians to determine what the situation is and what happened.
He said he did not know if the kidnappings were connected at all to the French military assault in Mali.
"I do know that terrorists are terrorists and terrorists take these kinds of actions," he added, "We've witnessed their behavior in a number of occasions where they have total disregard for innocent men and women. This appears to be that kind of situation."
Nuland said that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke Wednesday by telephone with Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal.
She also said the U.S. Embassy in Algiers issued an emergency message to American citizens encouraging them to review their personal safety.
"We're obviously taking the appropriate measures at the embassy as well," she told reporters.
U.S. authorities also were in contact with BP.
Baldor contributed to this report from Rome.