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The kidnapping of several U.S. citizens in Algeria on Wednesday was clearly a “terrorist attack” by al-Qaeda affiliated extremist groups in the region, in possible retaliation for the ongoing French counterterrorism offensive in West Africa, according to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.

The Americans were among the nearly 400 hostages taken after gunmen stormed a BP-operated oil field located near Algeria’s border with Libya. Members of Islamic militant “Masked Brigade” and the “Signers in Blood,” claimed responsibility for the raid

Panetta, who is in Italy as part of a week-long goodwill tour through Western Europe, said he has been in contact with his counterparts in Algeria after being briefed on the oil field attack on Wednesday.