Bombs strapped to Irish hostage
The overall commander, Algerian officials said, was Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a veteran of Afghanistan in the 1980s and Algeria's bloody civil war of the 1990s. He appears not to have been present and has now risen in stature among a host of Saharan Islamists, flush with arms and fighters from chaotic Libya, whom Western powers fear could spread violence far beyond the desert.
Algeria's government spokesman made clear the leadership in Algiers remains implacably at odds with Islamist guerrillas who remain at large in the south years after the civil war in which some 200,000 people died. Communication minister Mohamed Said repeated their refusal ever to negotiate with hostage-takers.
"We say that in the face of terrorism, yesterday as today as tomorrow, there will be no negotiation, no blackmail, no respite in the struggle against terrorism," he told APS news agency.
British prime minister David Cameron, who warned people to prepare for bad news and who cancelled a major policy speech today to deal with the situation, said through a spokesman that he would have liked Algeria to have consulted before the raid. A Briton and an Algerian had also been killed on Wednesday.
The prime minister of Norway, whose state energy company Statoil runs the Tigantourine gas field with Britain's BP and Algeria's national oil company, said he too was not informed.
US officials had no clear information on the fate of Americans, though a U.S. military drone had flown over the area. Washington, like its European allies, has endorsed France's move to protect the Malian capital by mounting air strikes last week and now sending 1,400 ground troops to attack Islamist rebels.
A US official said today it would provide transport aircraft to help France with a mission whose vital importance, French president Francois Hollande said, was demonstrated by the attack in Algeria. Some fear, however, that going on the offensive in the remote region could provoke more bloodshed closer to home.
The apparent ease with which the fighters swooped in from the dunes to take control of an important energy facility, which produces some 10 per cent of the natural gas on which Algeria depends for its export income, has raised questions, over the value of security measures that are outwardly draconian.
Foreign firms were pulling non-essential staff out of the country, which has recovered stability only in recent years and whose ruling establishment, heirs to fighters who ended French rule 50 years ago, has resisted demands for reform and political freedoms of the kind that swept North Africa in the Arab Spring.
"The embarrassment for the government is great," said Azzedine Layachi, an Algerian political scientist at New York's St John's University. "The heart of Algeria's economy is in the south. where the oil and gas fields are. For this group to have attacked there, in spite of tremendous security, is remarkable."