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Jan. 17, 2013 at 5:00 PM
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Algerian army hits militant-held gas plant

AMENAS, Algeria, Jan. 17 (UPI) -- Algerian forces attacked a natural gas complex Thursday where militants held dozens of hostages, freeing a number of the captives, the Algerian government said.

Communications Minister Mohand Said Oublaid said in a statement broadcast on national radio the military action was still ongoing, The New York Times reported.

"The operation resulted in the neutralization of a large number of terrorists and the liberation of a considerable number of hostages," Oublaid said. "Unfortunately, we deplore also the death of some, as well as some who were wounded. We do not have final numbers."

Oublaid said the government attempted to negotiate a peaceful end to the drama.

"But confronted with the determination of the heavily armed terrorist group, our armed forces were forced to surround the site and fire warning shots," he said. "In front of the stubborn refusal of these terrorists to heed these warnings and confronted with their evident desire to leave Algeria with the foreign hostages to then use them as a bargaining chip, an assault was launched this Thursday at the end of the morning."

Unconfirmed reports earlier in the day indicated 35 hostages and 15 kidnappers had died in the attack, the Times said. ABC News reported five of the 10 Americans being held had been freed, but the fate of the others was unclear.

EU to send training force of 200 to Mali

BRUSSELS, Jan. 17 (UPI) -- Some 200 European Union troops will be sent to Mali to train that country's forces in the fight against Islamic militants, EU foreign ministers said Thursday.

The decision followed a pronouncement last week by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius urging the EU to take "ultra-rapid" action in Mali because all of Europe was threatened by terrorism, The Wall Street Journal reported.

The mission, which is expected to include a protection force of several hundred other troops, should be ready in February, said Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn.

The mission aims to train four combat units of Malian troops.

Nearly 1,000 French troops have been dispatched to Mali, and French warplanes have struck a rebel-held town in central Mali.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said his country would provide logistical help. Germany will send two aircraft but no troops, he said.

Westerwelle said African troops have principal responsibility for the situation in Mali.

The foreign ministers also are expected to consider other financial support for Mali, such as restarting development aid that was suspended after last year's coup.

Panetta: Civilians don't need assault guns

VICENZA, Italy, Jan. 17 (UPI) -- U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told U.S. troops in Italy Thursday he doesn't understand why some people think they need assault weapons.

"I mean, for the life of me, I don't know why the hell people have to have an assault weapon," said Panetta, who is visiting NATO allies in Europe before leaving the Defense Department.

The gun control issue came up during a question-and-answer session with members of the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Vicenza, Italy.

"I believe in the Second Amendment," he said. "I believe people have the right to own weapons. But, you know, when these kids are getting killed in schools -- and I know it's tragic. I know what an impact it must have on those families -- we just have to try to do what we can to make sure that we take some steps here to try to protect those kids."

Panetta, a former California congressman who served as President Bill Clinton's White House Chief of Staff in 1994 when a 10-year ban on the sale of assault weapons passed Congress, said the government can take actions to reduce gun violence that don't undermine gun ownership rights.

He said he also supports prohibitions on armor-piercing ammunition.

"I think there are -- you know, there are areas like armor-piercing bullets -- I mean who the hell needs armor-piercing bullets except you guys in battle?" he asked. Panetta said he has hunted ducks since age 10 and loved "to share that joy with my kids."

"It's going to be a tough debate," he said. "This is not going to be easy."

Polls show Netanyahu losing ground

JERUSALEM, Jan. 17 (UPI) -- Polls of Israeli voters predict gains for Naftali Bennett, leader of the right-wing Jewish Home Party, at the expense of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

Jewish Home is expected to win from 14 to 17 parliamentary seats in Tuesday's election, McClatchy Newspapers reported. Seven to 10 of those seats would be losses for Netanyahu's governing coalition.

Netanyahu formed a coalition government after his Likud Party won 27 seats to 28 for the Kadima Party. The coalition included Yisrael Beitenu, which merged with Likud last year, the Labor Party and Jewish Home.

Chava Mizrachi, who has voted for Netanyahu in the past, told McClatchy he appears to have become "complacent." She said she might vote for Bennett.

"He's fresh and not from the corrupted old political system," she said. "I think his appeal is that he seems like a modern-day success story."

Bennett, whose parents emigrated to Israel from California after the Six-Day War, was born in Haifa. He served in the Israeli military, made a fortune developing anti-fraud software and entered politics as an aide to Netanyahu, serving as his chief of staff from 2006 to 2008.

After resigning from Likud, Bennett joined Jewish Home and was elected party leader last year. He supports Israeli settlement on the West Bank.

Netanyahu's government has become more intransigent on the settlements, under pressure from Jewish Home. One member of the Cabinet recently called for Israel to begin annexing pieces of the West Bank, while one Likud parliamentary candidate suggesting offering Palestinians $500,000 to move elsewhere.

Va. lawmakers shoot down smoking law

RICHMOND, Va., Jan. 17 (UPI) -- Virginia lawmakers Thursday decided to not make smoking in a car with a child present illegal.

The legislation, which would have banned smoking in a vehicle if a child under 13 is present, was proposed by Del. Joe Morrissey, The (Norfolk) Virginia-Pilot reported.

It would have been a secondary offense, meaning the offender could be ticketed only after being stopped for another offense. Those cited would have received a $100 civil penalty.

When arguing for his bill, Morrissey said because children's respiratory systems are not fully developed, they are more susceptible to second-hand smoke. "We need to protect children just like we protect them with a car seat," the Henrico County Democrat said.

Morrissey's bill was shot down by a House subcommittee in a 3-3 tie vote.

"You're crossing a line into regulating it on private property," said subcommittee chairman, Del. Ben Cline, R-Rockbridge County told Morrissey. "I'm not inclined to cross that line myself. It's poor parenting to expose children to second-hand smoke, but is it the state's responsibility to enforce it? I don't think so."

'Dear Abby' columnist dead at 94

LOS ANGELES, Jan. 17 (UPI) -- U.S. newspaper columnist Pauline Phillips has died after a battle with Alzheimer's disease, her publicist said. She was 94.

Phillips was the creator of the "Dear Abby" advice column, which her daughter, Jeanne, took over writing in 2002.

"I have lost my mother, my mentor and my best friend," Jeanne told TMZ after confirming her mother's death Wednesday. "My mother leaves very big high heels to fill with a legacy of compassion, commitment and positive social change. I will honor her memory every day by continuing this legacy."

Pauline's twin sister, Eppie Lederer, was also an advice columnist, writing under the name Ann Landers. She died in 2002 at the age of 83.

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