02/04/2013 01:55 EST | Updated 04/06/2013 05:12 EDT

John Kerry, John Baird Call Didn't Cover Claim About Canadian Involvement In Algeria Hostage Crisis

OTTAWA - Newly installed U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry didn't express any concerns about allegations that Canadians were involved in last month's terrorist attack on a gas plant in Algeria, says Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird.

Baird said his new U.S. counterpart simply didn't raise the issue Sunday during their 15-minute telephone call.

"Our first challenge is to get to the bottom of it, to get the facts first, and then come to conclusions," Baird said Monday.

"The secretary didn't raise the issue, so it wasn't part of the discussion."

Baird said Canadian officials in Algiers still haven't been able to corroborate the claim by Algeria's prime minister that at least one Canadian was among the terrorists who attacked and took hostages at the Saharan plant.

The Jan. 16 attack led to a four-day siege that killed at least 37 hostages and 29 militants.

Since then, Canadian efforts to find out more have resulted in little progress amid a virtual wall of silence from the government.

Baird was asked for the latest developments at a public appearance Monday. The minister responded by reciting, almost verbatim, the talking points that his spokesman has been emailing to journalists for the last week.

"It's a pretty complex investigation involving forensics and the like," Baird added, before reiterating he had "nothing else I can report to you at this stage."

RCMP officers have arrived in Algiers, but they are having no luck either confirming or debunking the televised claims by Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal.

Sellal told a national television audience that two Canadian nationals were among the band of al-Qaida-linked militants who took hundreds of workers hostage at a natural gas complex.

Ex-members of Canada's spy agency, CSIS, have said that the Mounties' work would likely consist of examining Canadian documents such as passports to see if they are authentic.

They also said the confirmation process would involve the examination of the corpses of the terrorists killed by Algerian soldiers when they stormed the complex.

Baird's remark that the ongoing work involved "forensics" could have referred to either or both — but the minister wasn't saying.

Though Kerry didn't raise the issue directly with Baird, there are indications that U.S. intelligence officials are concerned about the terrorism allegations raised in Algeria. As one unnamed U.S. official in Washington put it last week to Reuters: "We're taking very seriously the reports of the two Canadians' involvement."

NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar said the lack of information from the government could negatively affect how the Americans and other allies view Canada.

"Either it's (that) they have information and they're not sharing it with any of us, or there was incorrect information to begin with. Either way, that needs to be cleared up," said Dewar.

"When you leave it open that leaves question marks, and that leaves question marks with our allies about our competency."

No one wants the government to share sensitive intelligence that would put people in harms' way in the future, said Dewar.

Baird said he used the conversation with Kerry to make the case for State Department approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry Alberta oilsands bitumen to the southern U.S.

"I certainly took the opportunity to raise Keystone and our government's strong support of the project and its importance to the future of Canadian economic growth," Baird said.

Baird said he appreciated Kerry telling him that the State Department's report on the pipeline would soon be completed and ready for public comment.

"We agreed to sit down in short order to have a more fulsome discussion of the issue."

Kerry made clear Monday — his first day on the job at the State Department — that his top priority would be security. He referenced U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three fellow diplomats, all of them killed Sept. 11, 2012, during a terrorist attack in Libya.

"I guarantee you that beginning this morning when I report for duty upstairs, everything I do will be focused on the security and safety of our people," Kerry told the assembled employees.

In addition to Baird, Kerry spoke over the weekend to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and the foreign ministers of Mexico, Japan, South Korea and Turkey.

Baird said he and Kerry also discussed the security situation in Iran, the Middle East and Mali.