Saturday January 19, 2013

Algeria: 12 hostages killed since start of siege, including Algerian and foreign workers

PARIS (AP) -- The bloody three-day hostage standoff at a natural gas plant in the Sahara took a dramatic turn Friday as Algeria’s state news service reported that nearly 100 of the 132 foreign workers kidnapped by Islamic militants had been freed.

That number of hostages at the remote desert facility was significantly higher than any previous report, but it still left questions about the fate of over 30 other foreign energy workers. It wasn’t clear how the government arrived at the latest tally of hostages, which was far higher than the 41 foreigners the militants had claimed previously.

Algeria’s state news agency also reported late Friday that a "provisional toll" shows 12 hostages have been killed since the start of the Algerian military operation to free workers kidnapped by militants at the plant. The APS news agency quoted an unidentified security source for the new death toll and said the fatalities include both Algerian and foreign workers.

That hostage death toll would be more than double the one APS had reported earlier. The news agency has said 18 militants had been killed.

Yet the report that nearly 100 workers were safe could indicate a breakthrough in the confrontation that began when the militants seized the plant early Wednesday.


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Experts: Overcharged batteries likely culprit in Boeing 787 fires, aviation and battery

WASHINGTON (AP) -- It’s likely that fires on two Boeing 787 Dreamliners were caused by overcharged lithium ion batteries, aviation safety and battery experts said Friday, pointing to developments in the investigation of the Boeing incidents as well as a battery fire in a business jet more than a year ago.

An investigator in Japan, where a 787 made an emergency landing earlier this week, said the charred insides of the plane’s lithium ion battery show the battery received voltage in excess of its design limits.

The similarity of the burned battery from the All Nippon Airways flight to the burned battery in a Japan Airlines 787 that caught fire Jan. 7 while the jet was parked at Boston’s Logan International Airport suggests a common cause, Japan transport ministry investigator Hideyo Kosugi said.

"If we compare data from the latest case here and that in the U.S., we can pretty much figure out what happened," Kosugi said.

In the case of the 787 in Boston, the battery in the plane’s auxiliary power unit had recently received a large demand on its power and was in the process of charging when the fire ignited, a source familiar with the investigation of the 787 fire in Boston told The Associated Press. The plane had landed a short time earlier and was empty of passengers, although crews were working in the plane.

Blast in Aleppo, twin bombing in south cap week with more than 800 killed in Syria

BEIRUT (AP) -- A rocket slammed into a building in Syria’s northern city of Aleppo and two suicide bombers struck near a mosque in the south Friday, capping a particularly bloody week in the country’s civil war with more than 800 civilians killed, including an unusually large proportion in government-held areas.

The residential building struck in Aleppo was in a part of the city controlled by regime forces, as was a university hit earlier in the week in an attack that killed 87 people, mostly students. The government accused rebels in both attacks, saying the hit the locations with rockets, a claim the opposition denies.

But if confirmed it would signal that the rebels have acquired more sophisticated weaponry from captured regime bases and are now using them to take the fight more into government-held areas in an attempt to break a monthslong stalemate in the war.

Rebels have in the past posted videos showing them capturing heavy rockets -- apparently of the style fired from truck-mounted launchers -- at regime military bases that they have overrun. But it is not clear whether the fighters have -- or are able to -- use any of the ballistics. The rebels’ main weaponry are automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.

Rockets would for the first time give them a greater range, an advantage that until now the regime military has overwhelmingly held, with its arsenal of warplanes, helicopters, artillery, rockets and mortars. Regime bombardment has caused heavy civilian casualties -- and if the rebels start blasting back with sometimes inaccurate rockets, the civilian toll would likely rise.

Palestinian president warns of more settlement building if Israeli PM re-elected

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) -- The Palestinians have long complained that Israel’s right-wing government is killing peace prospects by settling the West Bank with Jews, but now there is something new. The Palestinian president is warning that Benjamin Netanyahu’s expected victory in next week’s election could lead to an Arab-majority country in the Holy Land that will eventually replace what is now Israel -- unless he pursues a more moderate path of a two state solution to the conflict.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has been careful not to intervene in Tuesday’s Israeli election, but it is no secret that the Palestinians hope that Netanyahu will either be ousted or at least soften his position in a new term. He has shown no sign of doing so, and opinion polls showing hard-line, pro-settlement parties well ahead days ahead of the vote have led to a sense of despair among the Palestinians.

During Netanyahu’s current term, the Israeli leader has pressed forward with construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, which along with the Gaza Strip were captured by Israel in the 1967 war from Jordan. Abbas says he wants to set up a state in the territories that would exist peacefully next to Israel.

The international community considers settlement construction illegal or illegitimate. And the Palestinians have refused to negotiate with Netanyahu while he continues to allow settlements to be built, saying it is a sign of bad faith.

Israeli backers of creation of a Palestinian state say relinquishing control of the Palestinian territories and its residents is the only way to ensure Israel’s future as a democracy with a Jewish majority.

With Olympic Games approaching, Rio’s love hotels clean up for tourists

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) -- One worker strips mirrored paneling off the ceiling, as another pries up the fiberglass shell of a whirlpool bath. A third man takes a sledgehammer to a life-size statue of Venus de Milo posing topless with a swirl of plaster robes hanging from her waist.

The Shalimar love hotel is going family-friendly.

Like about a third of the city’s 180 hotels that rent rooms by the hour, mostly for amorous rendezvous, the Shalimar is trading its oversized round beds and bondage-ready chairs for proper couches, functional desks and other businesslike furnishings. The goal is reinvention as a standard pay-by-the-day tourist hotel.

With next year’s World Cup soccer tournament and the 2016 Olympic Games arriving in this seaside city, local officials are scrambling to solve a chronic hotel bed shortage so severe that during a UN conference here last year, the mayor had to appeal to residents to open their apartments to visitors.

The plan? Slash property taxes for love hotels, known as "motels" in Portuguese, that agree to tone down the decor and free up 90 percent of their rooms for the tens of thousands of visitors expected to flood the city.

Ex-New Orleans mayor charged with taking bribes, free travel from contractors

NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- Former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin was indicted Friday on charges that he used his office for personal gain, accepting payoffs, free trips and gratuities from contractors while the city was struggling to recover from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.

The charges against Nagin are the outgrowth of a City Hall corruption investigation that already has resulted in guilty pleas by two former city officials and two businessmen and a prison sentence for a former city vendor.

The federal indictment accuses Nagin of accepting more than $160,000 in bribes and truckloads of free granite for his family business in exchange for promoting the interests of a local businessman who secured millions of dollars in city contract work after the 2005 hurricane. The businessman, Frank Fradella, pleaded guilty in June to conspiracy to commit bribery and has been cooperating with federal authorities.

Nagin, 56, also is charged with accepting at least $60,000 in payoffs from another businessman, Rodney Williams, for his help in securing city contracts for architectural, engineering and management services work. Williams, who was president of Three Fold Consultants LLC, pleaded guilty Dec. 5 to a conspiracy charge.

The indictment also accuses Nagin -- who now lives in Frisco, Texas -- of getting free private jet and limousine services to New York from an unidentified businessman who owns a New Orleans movie theater. Nagin is accused of agreeing to waive tax penalties that the businessman owed to the city on a delinquent tax bill in 2006.