LONDON — Terrorists who attack Americans will have “no place to hide,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said during a speech Friday, shortly before meeting with Britain’s prime minister to discuss the hostage situation in Algeria.
“Terrorists should be on notice that they will find no sanctuary, no refuge,” Panetta said in his speech at King’s College in London. “Not in Algeria, not in North Africa, not anywhere.”
Panetta said he is working very closely with the British government and other countries to determine exactly what is happening in Algeria. He met with British Prime Minister David Cameron after the speech for about 45 minutes, focusing largely on the situation in Algeria and Mali, where French forces have intervened to push back militants who control large swathes of the country.
“Regardless of the motivation of the hostage-takers, there is no justification, no justification for the kidnapping and murder of innocent people,” he said during what may be his last formal speech abroad as the secretary of defense. “We are working around the clock to ensure the safe return of our citizens and we will continue to be in close consultation with the Algerian government.”
Algerian helicopters and special forces on Thursday attacked a gas plant where Islamist militants had taken hostages from at least 10 countries, but the operation went badly awry, with several people killed and dozens still unaccounted for, according to The Associated Press.
A U.S. military aircraft is transporting U.S. and other civilians caught up in the hostage situation to a U.S. military facility in Europe, U.S. Africa Command said Friday.
“They will be flown to a U.S. facility in Europe,” AFRICOM spokesman Benjamin Benson said in a statement. “Due to force protection concerns we are unable to provide any information beyond that.”
AFRICOM offered little detail about who was being transported or whether they were en route to the military’s Landstuhl Regional Medical Center near Ramstein Air Base for medical treatment.
“However, we can say that protecting and securing U.S. citizens within our theater are primary concerns for U.S. Africa Command, and our forces stand ready to assist in any way possible to advance those efforts,” Benson said in the statement.
Panetta was briefed on the evolving situation during his flight Thursday from Venice, Italy, to London, and updated again Friday morning.
Panetta on Wednesday called the hostage situation a terrorist act, and Pentagon spokesman George Little indicated it may be the work of al-Qaida.
“If you’re looking at an attack in this part of the world of this scope and magnitude, then al-Qaida has to be near or at the top of your list of suspects,” he said Thursday evening.
Also in his speech at King’s College, Panetta stressed the importance of NATO and other alliances.
“No one nation can shoulder the burden for our collective security alone,” he said.
He called on NATO leaders to call a session to discuss how to boost defenses against cyber attacks, and said European countries should not be concerned that the new defense pivot to the Pacific means the U.S. is abandoning other parts of the world. He said it is in the best interests of the U.S. and European countries to engage and build stronger security relationships in Asia.
“The bottom line is that Europe should not fear our rebalance to Asia, Europe should join it,” Panetta said.
Stars and Stripes reporter John Vandiver contributed to this story.