White House 'seeking clarity' on Algerian hostage situation

White House press secretary Jay Carney on Thursday described the hostage situation in Algeria as “ongoing” and said the White House was “seeking clarity” as reports of the deaths of some hostages emerged.

Carney said the White House was in contact with Algerian authorities and international partners as they gathered information. The al Qaeda-linked hostage-takers told local media that two Americans remained in captivity, along with several other foreign nationals.

“Right now our priority is determining the status of the Americans involved and determining what happened,” Carney said at his briefing Thursday.

The press secretary refused to say whether the United States had been in contact with Algerian officials before they launched an apparent raid to release the hostages at a BP-owned natural gas facility near the Libyan border. The Islamists have said 35 hostages died in Algerian air strikes, but it's not clear whether any Americans died during the rescue attempt.

Carney added that the White House “condemn[ed] in the strongest terms” the initial attack, which he described as terrorism.

“We are certainly concerned about reports of loss of life and we are seeking clarity from the government of Algeria,” Carney said.

The White House is working to avoid American deaths in the shadow the slaying of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi, Libya, last September. The latest attack, which two al Qaeda-linked groups have claimed credit for, risks further undermining the administration's contention that it has decimated the terror group.

Republicans, perhaps wary of being seen as politicizing a developing situation, have only obliquely criticized Obama by suggesting he hasn't kept his eye on the ball in northern Africa.

“I'm glad that the president woke up, finally,” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) told The Hill this week after the White House backed France's intervention in Mali.

“We had been ignoring the violent extremists for so long,” the chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs panel on the Middle East and North Africa added. “If that area tips over to the wild side, as they have, we're going to paying the cost for a long, long time.”

And Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told CNN on Wednesday that the administration still lacks “an overarching policy” for dealing with militants in the region.

“This is what many of us have been talking about. Mali is the first victim of Libya because of the weapon caches that were raided and the inability for anyone to stop those weapons from flying all over,” he said. "You have to have an overarching plan that puts pressure on these groups. You can't just fire a few missiles and pack up and go home and hope for the best. This is a can of worms that's opened. We're going to have to deal with it or it's going to be a safe haven like you see along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.”

Carney briefed reporters as wildly conflicting reports emerged from the remote Algerian natural gas field where the hostages were being held. The role the United States was playing was also unclear, though The Associated Press reported that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta had been in contact with Algerian officials.

In Rome, Panetta denounced the attack.

“The United States strongly condemns these kinds of terrorist acts,” Panetta said. “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.”

On Wednesday, about 20 Islamist militants calling themselves Katibat Moulathamine — the Masked Brigade — attacked the gas complex in Eastern Algeria. The group claimed to have taken a multinational group of 41 hostages that included seven Americans. The group said the attack was revenge for Algeria's assistance in a French military operation targeting al Qaeda rebels in neighboring Mali. In addition to the foreign nationals, the rebels captured several dozen Algerian workers as hostages.

The Algerian military then surrounded the complex, leading to a tense standoff that apparently reached a violent end Thursday morning, as forces moved on the rebel hostage-takers.

Oil conglomerate BP, a part-owner of the facility, released a statement Thursday saying it had “been informed by the UK and Algerian governments that the Algerian army is attempting to take control of the In Amenas site.”

“The situation remains unclear and we continue to seek updates from the authorities,” BP said. “Sadly, there have been some reports of casualties but we are still lacking any confirmed or reliable information. There are also reports of hostages being released or escaping.”

Those reports varied greatly though the morning. The New York Times reported that Algerian news outlets were claiming 30 Algerian hostages and 15 foreigners were able to escape, although there were no independent confirmations of that report. The Associated Press said Algerian helicopter attacks on the natural gas complex had left 35 hostages and 15 captors dead.

Sources at the State Department told CBS News that the militants were armed with AK-47 rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and suicide vests. Paris-based television station France 24 interviewed a man, believed to be a hostage, who claimed the group had also forced several of the captured employees to wear explosive belts.

This story was posted at 12:25 and updated at 2:10 p.m.