Algeria attack planned before French strike in Mali-officials

* Cash ransom or prisoner release possible motives

* Incident highlights Islamic militants in North Africa

WASHINGTON Jan 17 (Reuters) - Algerian militants planned

their hostage-taking attack on a remote desert gas plant well

before a French military operation against militants in

neighboring Mali, European and U.S. national security officials

said on Thursday.

Intelligence indicates that the hostage takers, believed to

be members of a breakaway faction of al Qaeda's North African

affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), had planned

to capture the hostages and take them to a hideout where it

would be harder to mount a rescue attempt, a European security

official said.

Representatives of the hostage takers told a news service in

nearby Mauritania that the attack was a response to the French

military operation to clear out Islamic fighters who have taken

control of a large swathe of territory in northern Mali. The

French operation began on Friday, Jan. 11.

However, U.S. and Western security sources said they

believed it was more likely that the motivation behind the

hostage-taking was to obtain a ransom, most likely in cash, but

also possibly to seek a release of militant prisoners.

The standoff began when gunmen stormed the gas facility on

Wednesday. They said they were holding 41 foreigners and

demanded a halt to the French military operation in

Mali.

Twenty-five foreign hostages escaped and six were killed on

Thursday when Algerian forces launched an operation to free them

at a remote desert gas plant, Algerian sources said, as one of

the biggest international hostage crises in decades unfolded.

The operation was said to be continuing, however, and there

were conflicting and confused reports from the region.

More than five Americans were believed to be among the

hostages along with around 10 Britons, as well as citizens of

other countries, Western sources said.

Several Western security sources said that although details

about the hostage-taking remain murky, available evidence

suggests the attack was too sophisticated to have been organized

in the wake of the French operation in Mali.

The sources said it was more likely the hostage-takers had

seized on news of that operation as a pretext for their attack.

Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst who has advised President

Barack Obama on counterterrorism policy, said the hostage-taking

could fuel criticism that U.S. authorities should have been

paying closer attention to the threat posed by Islamic militants

in north Africa.

Some of Obama's political opponents for months have been

raising similar questions about the U.S. security and

intelligence posture in Benghazi, Libya, where militants

launched a deadly attack on two U.S. official installations last

Sept. 11.

U.S. and European sources said the reported leader of the

Algerian militant faction that took workers from BP and Statoil

hostage, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, is a former leading member of AQIM.

He either split from, or was thrown out of, the al Qaeda

affiliate because he was regarded as too difficult to work with

and too interested in self-promotion, they said.

A 2008 State Department cable classified "secret" and made

public by WikiLeaks said an associate of Belmokhtar may have

been involved in handling two Canadian diplomats taken hostage

by AQIM in Mali in December of that year. They were later freed.

The cable also alleged that Belmokhtar allegedly once

targeted a German diplomat in Mauritania for

kidnapping-for-ransom. The cable said that as of 2008, however,

Belmokhtar had "specifically ordered his operatives to avoid

targeting Am Cits (American Citizens) for fear of retribution

from the government."

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