The French military intervention in Mali last week to keep Islamic rebels from overthrowing the central government in Bamako resulted in a dangerous and, ultimately, fatal hostage taking in southern Algeria.
Northern Mali and southern Algeria are among the world's most isolated and inhospitable locales, posing difficulties for the flow of information. On Wednesday, armed Islamic militants ambushed a bus carrying foreign and African workers attached to a gas extraction facility near In Amenas in southern Algeria, close to the Libyan border.
The next day Algerian troops attempted a rescue of the hostages, and conflicting reports followed on how many had been freed or killed during the assault. The hostages reportedly included citizens of the United States, Belgium, France, Japan, Norway and the United Kingdom, as well as Algerian employees of the state oil company, Sonatrach. Their captors were an armed group called Al Mulathameen, which appeared to be led by an outlaw named Moktar Belmoktar.
The gunmen had offered to free the hostages if French military forces stopped their assault, including air strikes, begun last Friday on targets and Islamic forces in northern Mali.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta, who was in Rome calling on the pope, quickly labeled the action "terrorist" and pledged American efforts to resolve the situation in Mali. The U.S. military provides intelligence to the French to help them in targeting their air strikes. It also has provided for years training and other support to the Malian army, which in March overthrew the democratically elected government of the West African state in a coup d'etat led by a captain trained in the United States.
As of now, European Union countries and neighboring African states have pledged to send forces to Mali to try to reverse the disaster. Two possible developments -- the continued progression of Islamic forces in Mali toward the capital or more captures of foreigners in the region -- may make matters worse before they get better.
The tragic hostage situation created by the Islamic forces was reprehensible. But it points up the kind of unexpected consequences that France's intervention, and U.S. involvement, can have in the matter.