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  |   Jan. 14, 2013 at 8:17 AM
U.S. said close to backing France in Mali

WASHINGTON, Jan. 14 (UPI) -- The Obama administration is close to offering limited support for France's military campaign in Mali, U.S. and European officials told The Wall Street Journal.

The Pentagon is preparing reconnaissance drones and other air-intelligence equipment for possible deployment within days, the officials told the newspaper in a story published Monday, as French jet fighters struck Islamist training camps and other militant positions in Mali's north.

Washington earlier warned a Western assault on Mali could rally jihadists and prompt terrorist attacks as far away as Europe, The New York Times reported.

But militant gains in Mali took on added urgency for Washington after the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S. mission and intelligence facilities in Benghazi, Libya, the Journal said.

U.S. intelligence agencies have said militants linked to Mali's al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb took part in those attacks.

The Pentagon has no plans to send ground troops to Mali, a landlocked West African country south of Algeria, and any U.S. aircraft would not conduct airstrikes, unless militants there are found to be plotting attacks against the United States, the officials said.


Report says Assad residing on warship

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia, Jan. 14 (UPI) -- Syrian President Bashar Assad and his family have been living on a warship, with security provided by Russia, intelligence sources told a Saudi newspaper.

An Al-Watan report Monday says the family and Assad aides are residing on the ship in the Mediterranean Sea and that he travels to Syria by helicopter to attend official meetings and receptions.

Otherwise, he stays on the warship, the sources told the Arabic language newspaper.

When he flies to his embattled country, the president lands at undisclosed locations and is transported to the presidential palace under heavy guard, the sources said.

The Russian-guarded warship provides a safe environment for Assad, who has lost confidence in his own security detail, the report said.

Assad's presence on the warship suggests he has been granted political asylum by Russia but there has been no official comment from Moscow, the newspaper said.


Preacher leads Pakistan protest convoy

LAHORE, Pakistan, Jan. 14 (UPI) -- A Pakistani-Canadian preacher led a human rights convoy-march from Lahore to Islamabad, accompanied by tens of thousands of supporters, authorities said.

The Express Tribune reported the convoy, expected to draw up to 200,000 people Sunday, was led by Tahirul Qadri, head of the Tehrik-i-Minhajul Quran International, who vowed to stay on in Islamabad until his objectives were met.

Organizers have said the campaign along the 234-mile route would remain peaceful.

Protesters road in buses, vans and other vehicles and many joined as walkers as the convoy passed through their areas, CNN reported.

"Our march will prove to be a march for human rights and true democracy ... ," Qadri told his followers prior to starting from Lahore, Pakistan's second-largest city and capital of Punjab province.


Saudis defend woman's beheading

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia, Jan. 14 (UPI) -- Saudi officials defended the beheading of a Sri Lankan woman for the death of a baby in her care, denouncing international criticism the country received.

"The kingdom of Saudi Arabia categorically rejects any interference in its affairs or in the provisions of its judiciary under any justifications," a statement broadcast Sunday by the government-backed Saudi Press Agency said.

Human rights groups and the Sri Lankan government lobbied for leniency for Rizana Nafeek, who was beheaded by sword Wednesday on the conviction of killing her employers' son in 2005. The family said she strangled the boy; Nafeek said the infant accidentally choked on milk.

Human rights groups, the European Union and the United Nations condemned the execution. But in Sunday's statement, Saudi Arabia said the condemnations were based on false information, CNN reported.

The Saudi statement denied allegations by Nafeek's supporters that she was 17 years old, a minor, when the boy died. The Sri Lankan government said she was 17 but the Saudi statement said her official passport indicated she was 21.

"As it is universally recognized, the passport is an official document issued by her government," the statement said. "Moreover, the legal regulations of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia do not allow the recruitment of minors."

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