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July 21, 2007 at 10:00 PM
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Fires, failures disrupt oil refineries

HOUSTON, July 21 (UPI) -- An "invisible hurricane" of oil refinery fires and other failures has helped push U.S. gas prices to current high levels, The New York Times said Saturday.

About one-third of the refineries in the country have been hit by everything from spills to power failures, analysts told the newspaper. The 150 refineries in the country are running at about 5 percent below normal, with one analyst calling the problem an "invisible hurricane," similar to Rita or Katrina in its effect.

"You have a system that is taxed to the limit," said Adam Robinson, an analyst at Lehman Brothers. "This is what happens when spare capacity is eroded."

Some of the problems are caused by maintenance delayed to make up for the dramatic drops in production following the hurricanes that hit the Gulf Coast in 2005.

In the first quarter this year, production was down 1.5 million barrels a day, compared with 700,000 to 900,000 barrels a day between 2001 and 2005. In the first quarter of 2006, with many refineries still recovering from the hurricanes, production was off 1.35 million barrels a day, the newspaper said.

Italian police bust Islamist bomb school

PERUGIA, Italy, July 21 (UPI) -- Police in Italy say they uncovered a bomb school for Islamist militants and arrested three suspects in a raid on a mosque in Perugia.

Police said they found evidence that the facility was used for training in explosives and poisons, as well as instructions for flying a Boeing 747, the BBC reported Saturday.

Investigators said the suspected terrorist cell had links to a group associated with Osama Bin Laden's al-Qaida network. They arrested the mosque's imam and two other men, all Moroccans, and have a warrant for a fourth man, the report said.

The three detainees were brought before a local court but refused to answer questions.

In a related raid, 20 foreign students were arrested and those without residence permits faced deportation.

Perugia is home to Italy's University for Foreigners. Hundreds of students from the Middle East are enrolled in courses at the school, the BBC said.

Italian Interior Minister Giuliano Amato said after the arrests it has become necessary to pay close attention to the use of mosques for activities unrelated to religion.

Ethiopia blockades remote region

NAIROBI, Kenya, July 21 (UPI) -- The Ethiopian government has reportedly blockaded the Ogaden region, an area near the Somali border, keeping food and medical aid from reaching it.

"It's a starve-out-the-population strategy," one Western humanitarian official who wanted to remain anonymous told The New York Times. "If something isn't done on the diplomatic front soon, we're going to have a government-caused famine on our hands."

Relief officials and a member of parliament who defected and is now in Germany also accused the government of siphoning money from aid programs to its own militias.

The government says it is only targeting strongholds of the Ogaden National Liberation Front, a rebel group that killed more than 60 people at a Chinese oil facility last month. However, the Times said thousands of people are sealed into the Ogaden, an area with few roads leading into it.

British Army running out of troops

LONDON, July 21 (UPI) -- Britain is running out of soldiers to fight abroad or defend the homeland if emergencies occur, it was reported Saturday.

"We have almost no capability to react to the unexpected," Gen. Richard Dannatt said in a letter to high-ranking commanders. "Reinforcements are non-existent."

Dannatt said the Army has 3,500 fewer troops than it needs and only one battalion of 500 soldiers is available to deal with emergencies such as a terrorist attack, reported The Daily Mail.

"It is critical that we improve manning as quickly as we can," Dannatt said in his letter, leaked to The Daily Telegraph and the BBC.

The letter emerged Thursday shortly after Defense Secretary Des Browne announced 500 British soldiers will be withdrawn from Iraq this winter, leaving 5,000 in Iraq. Britain also has 6,000 troops in Afghanistan.

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