PARIS -- There were no reporters on hand when Islamist militants emerged from the sands of eastern Algeria last week to storm a gas facility full of international workers, and Algerian security forces cordoned off the site during the hostage crisis that ensued, keeping the news media out.
But two little-known news agencies from Nouakchott, the seaside capital of Mauritania, nearly 2,000 miles west across the desert, nonetheless managed to publish regular updates on the attack, citing the attackers themselves.
Those news outlets, the Agence Nouakchott d'Information, or ANI, and Sahara Media, were the first to identify the Islamist militants responsible for the raid and the first to describe their motives and demands. The agencies, which publish in both Arabic and French, suddenly found themselves at the center of the crisis, which attracted international attention and led to the deaths of at least 38 hostages and 29 attackers.
"In every war there are two sides," said Mohamedi Abdallah, the owner and director of Sahara Media, whose journalists spoke with the militants perhaps a dozen times during the standoff. "One always needs to hear from both camps."
Citing fighters at the In Amenas compound and their spokesmen, the reports by ANI and Sahara Media often contradicted the thin official narrative from the Algerian government, although there was significant suspicion about whether the Web sites were being used for dispensing terrorist propaganda. "We are not spokespeople for the so-called terrorists," Mr. Abdallah said. "We don't share these people's ideas at all."
At one point during the standoff at In Amenas, he said, the fighters requested that Sahara Media record a declaration by one of the militants in English, but the agency refused. "It was for propaganda," Mr. Abdallah said.
"There is no link between us and these groups," said Sidi El Mokhtar, who heads the Arabic-language service at ANI. "They send us information and we publish it. Nothing more, nothing less."
Analysts said that Sahara Media and ANI had published statements and multimedia from the groups for several years, occupying central roles in the communications strategies of the militant groups in northern Mali and throughout the Sahara. The agencies regularly publish videos depicting Western hostages, along with statements and occasional interviews with militant leaders.
The sites are perhaps a bit ragtag in appearance, but they are reputed as reliable, said Alain Antil, a researcher and director of the program on sub-Saharan Africa at the French Institute of International Relations. "You can find far worse."
Many of the fighters in northern Mali speak Hassanya, the same Arabic dialect as Mauritanians, meaning they do not require interpreters, and tribal and familial ties have perhaps engendered a sense of trust with Mauritanian journalists, Mr. Antil said.
As a result, Sahara Media is able to employ a correspondent in Timbuktu, in northern Mali, an area considered far too dangerous for most reporters. Shortly after the beginning of the attack at In Amenas, that correspondent was contacted by a militant spokesman who announced the operation and passed along the number for a satellite phone carried by the fighters, according to Mr. Abdallah, the owner and director.
The fighters' reliance on the agencies also corresponds with the rising influence of Mauritanians in armed groups across the region, analysts say, including Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Religious education is known for its rigor in Mauritania, as is instruction in classical Arabic, and Mauritanians are said to often serve as religious authorities within the militant groups.
Increasingly, however, they have taken on leadership roles, analysts say; a number of groups in the region, including Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, and Al Mulathameen, the group behind the In Amenas attack, use Mauritanians as spokesmen, for instance.
The fact that ANI and Sahara Media publish not only in Arabic but also in French makes them all the more appealing to militant groups seeking a voice, analysts say. "They have every interest in having their words broadcast in a language that can be broadcast in Europe," Mr. Antil said.
Much of the militant communication that appears on the Web sites involves ransom demands for Western hostages. In the latest crisis, the attackers at In Amenas called for a halt to French military action against Islamist fighters in northern Mali, according to reports by ANI and Sahara Media.
The militants recognize that their activity "only has an impact if it's given media coverage," Mr. Antil said. That understanding has compelled other Mauritanian news outlets to decline to publish militant videos or communiqués.
"The jihadists have always wanted to communicate with all the press in Mauritania," said Mohamed Fall Ould Oumeir, a journalist and director of the weekly Nouakchott-based newspaper La Tribune. "Many of us have always held back."
ANI and Sahara Media have not, he suggested, because of a "scoop culture."
Journalists covering conflict elsewhere in the world regularly interact with unsavory characters, of course; in Afghanistan, for instance, reporters maintain frequent contact with Taliban spokesmen.
The authorities in Algiers, as well as Paris, view the agencies as knowing participants in the promotion of violent jihad. Some in the Algerian news media have speculated that the Mauritanian Web sites intend to destabilize Algeria, perhaps with quiet underwriting from Algeria's rival Morocco. Both agencies are said to have close ties to Moroccan intelligence, though they deny it.
"If the Algerians had communicated with us, we would have published what they said," said Ely Ould Maglah, who runs the French edition of ANI. The Web site did publish reports on the siege from APS, the official Algerian news agency, Mr. Maglah noted.
El Watan, an Algerian newspaper, called ANI a "veritable channel of terrorist propaganda." In a recent interview, a senior Algerian official said he was bewildered that Mauritanian authorities tolerated the agencies.
Since a 2005 coup, press freedom in Mauritania has grown quite strong by regional standards; journalists can no longer be jailed for defamation, for instance, and there has been an explosion of newspapers and Web sites.
"There is a great amount of freedom," said Mr. Oumeir of La Tribune. "Algeria is not accustomed to that."
Adam Nossiter contributed reporting from Algiers, and Steven Erlanger from Paris.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.