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Jan. 19, 2013 at 6:00 PM   |   Comments

Reports: Raid ends Algeria gas plant siege

IN AMENAS, Algeria, Jan. 19 (UPI) -- At least 23 hostages and 32 captors are dead after a siege at an Algerian natural-gas plant that ended with Saturday's raid by Algerian forces, officials said.

Citing military sources, Algerian state news said at least 685 Algerian workers and 107 foreign nationals were released during the three-day siege.

CNN said it was unable to confirm the figures reported by Algerian media and Algerian television said the death toll it reported Saturday was subject to revision.

Initial reports by the state news agency said seven hostages who were still being held were executed by their captors as commandos approached the facility Saturday, and 11 remaining hostage takers were killed in the raid.

Citing Algeria's state-run oil company Sonatrach, the Algerian Press Service said military forces had to clear mines planted by the kidnappers.

Sonatrach said Saturday the raid was ordered because it appeared the hostage-takers were planning to escape with their hostages and then blow up the plant, The Washington Post said.

"It was found that the plant had been mined with the intention of exploding it," the statement said. "A major clearance operation is in progress by specialized teams of the Algerian army ahead of the launching of start up operations at the plant."

The breakdown by nationality for the number of people killed, evacuated or missing was incomplete.

Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg said 13 Norwegians were involved and eight have been released but five are unaccounted for.

Five British nationals and one British resident were missing or feared dead, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said. One Briton was killed during the siege.

French officials had said one French national was killed but three others were safe.

The U.S. State Department said Frederick Buttacio, a U.S. citizens, was killed.

The hostage-takers, identified as Islamist militants, stormed the plant this week in apparent retaliation for France's intervention in neighboring Mali. The attackers claimed to be from a group called Signers in Blood and said they were convinced Algeria would assist the French in their Mali campaign, The New York Times reported.

CNN said notorious Algerian jihadist Moktar Belmoktar offered through a spokesman this week to facilitate the release of three American hostages in exchange for Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahmam, the mastermind of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.

Belmoktar is believed to have links to al-Qaida. His role in the gas plant takeover, if any, was not known.


UNHCR: Mali refugees could top 1 million

BAMAKO, Mali, Jan. 19 (UPI) -- Another 700,000 people could be displaced by the fighting in Mali over the next several months, bringing the total to more than 1 million, U.N. officials said.

Nearly 375,000 people have already been uprooted inside Mali and neighboring countries, Voice of America reported Saturday.

About 3,000 people a day are fleeing the fighting and the region occupied by Islamist militants, said Melissa Fleming, a spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Many are leaving because they fear the strict application of Sharia law, Fleming said.

Refugees report witnessing "executions, amputations and they say that also large amounts of money are being offered to civilians to fight against the Malian army and its supporters," she said.

Children have been seen among the rebel fighters, Fleming said, while other refugees claim family members have disappeared.

People are being offered transportation out of the country at fees exceeding a month's wages, she said, while some people are waiting to flee because they hope the fight against the militants will be quickly concluded.


Cairo court orders release of 379 suspects

CAIRO, Jan. 19 (UPI) -- An Egyptian court Saturday ordered the release of 379 suspects detained after clashes between protesters and police in November 2011.

The clashes, which occurred on Mohamed Mahmoud Street near Tahrir Square, resulted in the deaths of 45 protesters and more than 1,000 injuries, the Egypt Independent reported.

Suspects in the incident were accused of using force against civil servants, arms possession and assaulting policemen who were protecting government buildings.

The Cairo Criminal Court ruled that those to be released fell under a pardon issued by President Mohamed Morsi in October.

Morsi's pardon applies to felony convictions or attempted crimes that were "committed to support the revolution and its goals," until he took office June 30, 2012.


Snow and cold disrupt travel in Britain

LONDON, Jan. 19 (UPI) -- At least one person has died and a blast of winter weather in Britain has disrupted air, rail and road travel, officials say.

A woman died in a multivehicle crash on the A1 in Lincolnshire Friday evening, police said.

After a rough Friday, more snow fell overnight, the BBC reported. Drivers were warned of icy roads Saturday as low temperatures added to the misery.

About 300 flights were canceled Friday at Heathrow International Airport outside London, one of the world's busiest hubs. East Midlands Airport suspended all service, although it resumed Saturday.

Heathrow officials announced Saturday about one-fifth of Sunday's departures would be canceled, with more snow and low visibility in the forecast, Sky News reported.

Jamie Methuen told the BBC he waited 4 hours Friday at Heathrow for a flight to Geneva, Switzerland, that never took off, delaying his ski trip to France. He said passengers should have been told earlier the flight was canceled.

Several thousand homes and businesses in Wales and Northern Ireland lost electrical service Friday.

Rail companies reported delays and said service on some lines was suspended because of the weather. Eurostar trains under the English Channel were running a half hour late because of difficult conditions in Europe.

About 20 soccer games and race meetings at Ascot and Haydock were canceled.

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