Exclusive: Panetta on Algeria ‘Terrorism,’ Syrian Chemical Weapons
(WASHINGTON) -- The United States will take "all necessary and proper steps" needed to deal with the ongoing hostage situation in Algeria, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told ABC News' Martha Raddatz in an exclusive interview, although he cautioned that American officials fear the information coming out of the African country is "pretty sketchy."
Panetta also provided new details about Syria's mixing of chemical weapons in December and the clearest explanation yet of the Obama administration's red lines if the Assad regime uses the weapons against its own people.
Panetta was interviewed by Raddatz as he traveled to visit U.S. Army soldiers in Vicenza, Italy. The defense secretary is on a European trip that he has characterized as his final trip overseas while in his post.
Panetta described the hostage taking at the gas complex at Ain Amenas as a "terrorist act" undertaken by terrorists affiliated with al Qaeda.
The "United States takes that very seriously, when our citizens are put in jeopardy by terrorists," he said.
Panetta added that he is not certain that the motive of the attack was retaliation for the French military intervention in Mali, as the hostage takers have claimed.
"All I do know is that when you're dealing with affiliates of al Qaeda, that they're terrorists and they will do terrorist acts," he said. "And that's what they've done here."
"They have total disregard for innocent men and women and children," he added. "And it's reflected in what they just did here in Algeria."
Panetta made his comments prior to reports that the Algerian Army had launched a military strike targeting the hostage takers that resulted in an undetermined number of fatalities among both hostages and hostage takers.
Panetta told ABC News that as many as 100 hostages were being held at the facility at Ain Amenas and that there might be seven or eight Americans among them.
He said the U.S. government was looking at "all of the necessary steps that we need to take in order to deal with that situation."
One thing being looked at, he added, was how the U.S. can "bring our military assets to bear in order to deal with it and also basically talk with the other countries that are involved here. There are a number of other countries that are in the same situation with these individuals. How can we address that situation together?"
A U.S. official told ABC News that a Predator drone was providing surveillance over the Ain Amenas facility.
Panetta expressed the belief that Syria has not used chemical weapons against its citizens "as we would imagine chemical weapons being used in that kind of battle."
He added, "We have not seen intelligence that they have deliberately used this against their own people."
U.S. officials have consistently avoided confirming news reports that, in early December, U.S. intelligence determined that elements of the Syrian regime mixed precursors to sarin gas into bombs located near Syrian airfields. At the time, President Obama issued a strong warning to the Assad regime that it could face undetermined consequences should chemical weapons be used against the Syrian people.
At a news conference in December, Panetta said, "There will be consequences if the Assad regime makes a terrible mistake by using these chemical weapons on their own people."
In Thursday's interview, Panetta provided the first confirmation that the Syrians had mixed chemical ingredients into shells or bombs that could be used against the Syrian people.
"Our biggest concern was the intelligence we received -- that they were, in fact, putting together these ingredients into shells that could then be deployed against their own people," he said. "And that's when the president spoke out about it, expressed our concern and made very clear that that's a red line for us."
Panetta said indications are that the chemical material "remains put together." He estimated it would take the Syrians "a matter of hours" to put the weapons into use, depending on "whether they're going to put them on planes or try to load them into artillery."
He said the Obama administration continues to send the clear message to the Assad regime "that they must not deploy these kinds of weapons against their own people."
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