Algeria ‘foils al-Qaida attack on ships’

ALGIERS, Algeria, Jan. 31 (UPI) — U.S. officials say Algerian intelligence foiled an al-Qaida plot to mount suicide attacks against U.S. and European ships in the Mediterranean at a time when the jihadists are driving to expand operations in North Africa.

The Algerian intelligence service, Direction de la Securite Interieure — DSI — caught the plot in its early stages and arrested three suspected members of al-Qaida’s North African affiliate, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.

The Algerian daily newspaper Echorouk broke the story a week ago. U.S. officials said they knew of the plot but the Algerians made the arrests.

Echorouk reported that the men had purchased a boat that they reportedly planned to pack with explosives and ram into a ship in the western Mediterranean. The plot, as outlined by the newspaper, bore a striking resemblance to tactics used by al-Qaida’s Yemeni branch when it badly damaged the U.S. Navy destroyer USS Cole in Aden harbor Oct. 12, 2000, by ramming it with a small boat packed with explosives.

That attack killed 17 U.S. sailors and wounded dozens more.

An earlier attack using similar tactics against another U.S. destroyer, USS The Sullivans, failed when the attacking boat foundered.

Al-Qaida struck again with a seaborne suicide attack against the 157,000-ton French tanker Limburg off Yemen’s coast as it sailed from the Persian Gulf to Malaysia Oct. 6, 2002. The vessel was holed and one crewman killed but it continued its voyage.

In May 2002, Moroccan authorities arrested three Saudi members of al-Qaida who were convicted of planning seaborne suicide attacks on U.S. and British warships in the Strait of Gibraltar.

Moroccan police said in April 2007 they were hunting a jihadist group supposedly planning similar attacks on ships, although no such strikes took place.

In the Algerian crackdown, it wasn’t clear whether the Americans endorsed Algiers’ decision to round up the trio of suspects, rather than wait to see how the plot developed and possibly track down other militants. However, relations between the Americans and Algeria’s security establishment have been strained for some time.

Algeria, the regional military heavyweight, considers itself the leading player in the counterinsurgency campaign against AQIM, which is based in Algeria and is the backbone of the jihadist movement in North Africa.

Until September 2001, Washington and Algiers, which had fought a vicious war against Islamist militants, were greatly at odds, particularly over the Algerians’ ferocious tactics to crush the insurgents. These included battle-hardened Arab veterans of the 1979-89 war in Afghanistan against the Soviet army, from which al-Qaida emerged.

After the Americans also found themselves fighting jihadists, led by al-Qaida, they sought a rapprochement with Algiers. The Algerians remain deeply suspicious of the United States.

The current rift centers on the refusal of Gen. Ahmed Gaid Salah, the Algerian military’s chief of staff, to allow the United States to deploy U.S. Air Force and CIA surveillance drones in Algerian air space.

The Intelligence Online web site quoted a French general that the U.S.-Algeria friction was “a big black hole.” The bottom line is that the Algerians don’t want U.S. or other Western forces on their soil.

The Algerians set up a joint intelligence center at their air base at Tamanrasset, deep in the Sahara Desert, in 2010 with neighboring Mauritania, Niger and Mali.

The Americans have been using a Moroccan air force base in the Sahara to conduct counter-terrorism surveillance operations using drones.

The U.S. Africa Command is running a dozen counterinsurgency training missions, mostly involving Special Forces units, in several North African countries.

The French, who once ruled North Africa, are conducting similar operations. But they’ve also deployed combat forces that have carried out raids, primarily with forces from Mali, on jihadist bases in the region over the last two years. AQIM currently holds several French hostages.

Meantime, the fallout from the 2011 war in Libya continues to plague the region.

Islamist fighters and rogue mercenaries, including many North Africans hired by Moammar Gadhafi to defend his ill-fated regime, along with large amounts of plundered weapons, are worsening the security situation in Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and further south in Mali, Niger and Mauritania.

“AQIM is solidly entrenched across the region and has now entered the arena of interstate politics,” Oxford Analytica reported in a Jan. 25 analysis.

Two to be tried for sex trafficking in Russia

AMURSK, Russia, Jan. 31 (UPI) — Two residents of Amursk, Russia, suspected of selling young women into sexual slavery, will stand trial, officials say.

Investigators tell ITAR-Tass the suspects recruited and sold 51 young women into slavery abroad. Initially, they were promised jobs as dancers and waitresses, comfortable accomodations and high salaries. They were taken to nightclubs in Israel, Turkey, Greece, Cyprus, South Korea and China. Once abroad, their passports were taken from them and they were forced into prostitution, investigators said.

Suspects were paid about $1,000 for every girl they smuggled abroad.

Russia’s Far Eastern Federal District Police, in collaboration with Greek law-enforcement agencies, freed victims in Athens. In a special operation, 10 strip clubs were shut down, more than 180 people arraigned and 19 members of criminal organizations arrested.

Mexico drought worsened by cold

MEXICO CITY, Jan. 31 (UPI) — What officials call the most severe drought Mexico has ever faced has been worsened by a spate of cold weather.

This week, the government authorized $2.63 billion in aid for 19 of Mexico’s 31 states. With agriculture devastated in nearly half of the country, the money will go to potable water, food and temporary jobs for citizens displaced by the drought.

Freezing temperatures worsened the already rising prices of produce such as corn and beans, and may lead to inflation.

The New York Times reported Tuesday certain areas in need of aid are difficult to reach, delaying the flow of food and water to people in those regions.

The most severely affected are indigenous communities, particularly tribal areas of the Tarahumara community in the Sierra Madre, among Mexico’s poorest citizens.

Authorities say they expect the situation to worsen; however, they do not expect it to have an impact on export prices.

Report: Air Force punished whistleblowers

WASHINGTON, Jan. 31 (UPI) — The U.S. Air Force punished whistleblowers who revealed the improper disposal of human remains, a report released Tuesday said.

The disposal involved body parts handled by the Air Force Mortuary Service at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. It was revealed last year that some of the parts were dumped in a landfill by a contractor after cremation.

Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley, in a statement released by the Air Force, said the Office of Special Counsel has found retaliation against employees who revealed what had happened.

“Reprisals against employees are unethical and illegal and counter to Air Force core values,” Donley said. “We take violations of the law seriously and have appointed a two-star general to review the report and take appropriate action.”

Body parts are now scattered at sea after cremation if families request that the Air Force dispose of them.

Viral video raises money for rickets

WUHAN, China, Jan. 31 (UPI) — A video of a man dancing in front of various Chinese universities in an effort to raise awareness about rickets has become a viral sensation, officials say.

The video depicts Xiao Jian dancing clumsily in a white coat in front of the campuses of over 300 universities throughout 11 cities. The end of the video features pictures of children afflicted with rickets, along with information about the disease.

The disease is often found in children due to a vitamin D deficiency. It causes softening of the bones and can lead to fractures and deformities. Those suffering fro the disease tend to require expensive treatment.

Xinhua reports since the video has made its way around social media channels, donations have poured into the Porcelain Children Rare Disease Center, an organization Xiao included in the video that focuses on rickets treatment.

“Last November, I saw a father and his daughter begging for money on the street, both of whom were suffering from rickets,” Xiao told Xinhua. “Since young people, especially college students, tend to focus on new things on the Internet, I decide to dance at the gates of universities to draw their attention to those who are suffering form the disease.”

No good options for Syria, Turkey says

ANKARA, Turkey, Jan. 31 (UPI) — Syria appears headed down a path of no return and could face foreign intervention, Turkish President Abdullah Gul said.

Arab monitors left Syria last weekend, citing ongoing violence in the country. The mission was in place to ensure Syria was upholding commitments to pull its military forces from the streets, though there’s no sign of the violence abating.

Members of the U.N. Security Council are trying to overcome a veto threat from Syrian ally Russia in an effort to censure Syrian President Bashar Assad for the bloodshed.

An “official source” in the Syrian Foreign Ministry was quoted by the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency as saying Western statements criticizing Damascus “are parallel to the hard strikes that the armed terrorist groups (carried out).”

Gul said that it was unfortunate that Syria was now on a “path of no return.”

“There is no (good) end for this. The end is certain,” he was quoted by Turkish daily newspaper Today’s Zaman as saying. “The question is how painful it will be.”

Gul said “authoritarian rulers” in the Middle East can either reform or face intervention.

“If they do not do that and do not bring order to their lands, foreign intervention will be inevitable,” he said.

Man jailed for swinging light sabers

PORTLAND, Ore., Jan. 31 (UPI) — An Oregon man is sentenced to 45 days in jail for trying to hit customers with toy light sabers at a Portland toy store, police said.

David Allen Canterbury, who was serving probation for a previous heroin-possession conviction, was also sentenced Monday to two years of probation and a mental-health evaluation, The (Portland) Oregonian reported.

On Dec. 14, Canterbury swung two Star Wars light saber toys, one in each hand, at three customers inside a Toys R Us store on Hayden Island around 9:50 p.m. After carrying the toys outside, he began to swing them at police. Officers attempted to subdue him using a long-range Taser, but Canterbury used the light sabers to bat the wires away. Police wrestled him to the ground and arrested him.

Canterbury pleaded no contest to charges of fourth-degree assault and resisting arrest. He apologized to his victims, the newspaper said.

Thai inquiry launched into attack

NONG CHIK, Thailand, Jan. 31 (UPI) — Theera Mintrasak, governor of the Pattani province of Thailand, said Tuesday he would initiate a formal inquiry into an attack on a military base.

The shooting took place in the Nong Chik district on Sunday night. Lt Gen Udomchai Thammasarorat held a news conference Tuesday to give details of the incident.

Thammasarorat said M79 grenades were fired at the operational base of Ranger Company 4302 early Sunday evening. Assailants quickly fled. The base radioed for assistance and ranger units were dispatched to find the attackers. Rangers stopped a pickup truck for a search when some of the men on-board got out and opened fire on the rangers. The ensuing firefight killed four people and wounded five. Thammasarorat would not comment on how many of the casualties were military personnel.

Bangkok Post reports the families of those killed have been compensated by the provincial government with 100,000 baht (about $3,233). The wounded were given an undisclosed compensation.

The inquiry is expected to take 30 days, and will be followed by legal action against anyone found to be responsible for starting the clashes. Minstrasak said the inquiry committee would find out exactly what happened so as to ensure justice.

Plazas Vega sentence upheld in Colombia

BOGOTA, Jan. 31 (UPI) — A Colombian court upheld an appeal of former Col. Luis Alfonso Plazas Vega’s sentence for his role in the disappearance of 11 people in a 1985 military siege.

The Superior Tribunal of Bogota upheld the 30-year sentence, handed down in 2010, for Plazas Vega’s role in the forced disappearance of the 11 people after the military reclaimed the Palace of Justice from M-19 guerrillas, Colombia Reports said Tuesday.

Plazas Vega had appealed, saying he was not involved in the disappearance of Carlos Horacio Uran, an assistant judge to the Council of State, as well as cafeteria workers, two visitors and guerrilla Irma Franco Pineda. They had survived the siege but were not seen again, and it is believed the military tortured and killed them.

The tribunal also ordered the Colombian government to investigate former President Velisario Betancurt for his alleged role in the offensive.

Plazas Vega is the only person to have been convicted in connection with the siege. Last month, retired Colombian army Gen. Ivan Ramirez Quintero and two fellow soldiers were acquitted.

M-19 guerrillas took over the Palace of Justice, the seat of Colombia’s Supreme Court, Nov. 6, 1985. Judges, staff, and members of the public were taken hostage.

More than 100 people — including 11 of the 25 country’s Supreme Court magistrates, 48 Colombian soldiers and all 35 guerrillas who took part in the occupation of the building — were killed in the occupation and army siege.

Kuwait tribe sets candidate’s tents ablaze

ADAILIYA, Kuwait, Jan. 31 (UPI) — Thousands of Kuwaiti tribe members set fire to the tents of a candidate for parliament after he reportedly insulted a member of their tribe who is also running.

Members of the al Mutair tribe descended on the headquarters of parliamentary candidate Mohammad al Juwaihal, fought with his supporters and set his tents ablaze in Adailiya late Monday, Gulf News reported.

The protesters criticized the candidate and called for him to be barred from running in the elections Thursday.

Al Juwaihal, running in the Third Constituency, had insulted Abaid al Wasmi, a candidate in the Fourth Constituency and member of the al Mutair, the Arabic daily al Qabas reported.

Al Juwaihal was quoted as saying: “Al Wasmi described Kuwaitis as dogs, and I tell him that he is the son of 60. And if he thinks that his tribe will protect him, we will crush you and your tribe.”

After setting ablaze the tents, tribe members prevented fire brigades from reaching them to extinguish the flames.

Al Wasmi was reported to have handed a formal complaint against al Juwaihal to the interior minister.

About 400,000 Kuwaitis are expected to vote Thursday to elect 50 members of parliament.