At least 22 foreign hostages remain unaccounted for in Algeria in what is being described as one of the biggest international hostage crises in decades. On Thursday, Algerian forces stormed a gas complex in the Sahara Desert to free hundreds of workers who had been taken hostage. Militants opposed to French military intervention in neighboring Mali had seized the facility on Wednesday. In a statement carried by Mauritanian media, the hostage takers said, “We hold the Algerian government and the French government and the countries of the hostages fully responsible if our demands are not met, and it is up to them to stop the brutal aggression against our people in Mali.” It remains unclear how many people died in Thursday’s raid, but estimates of the foreign casualties range from four to 35. A number of captives were reportedly freed in the offensive. The United States, Britain and Japan were not warned of the Algerian attack even though their citizens were among those captured. Britain said Friday the operation in Algeria is still ongoing and reiterated an earlier claim by Prime Minister David Cameron that the news may be dire. Cameron made the remarks late Thursday.
Prime Minister David Cameron: “We face a very bad situation at this BP gas compound in Algeria. A number of British citizens have been taken hostage. Already we know of one who has died. The Algerian armed forces have now attacked this compound. It is a very dangerous, a very uncertain, a very fluid situation. And I think we have to prepare ourselves for the possibility of bad news ahead.”
The United States ramped up its involvement in Mali’s conflict Thursday amid the hostage crisis, crafting plans to use its cargo planes for shuttling French troops and equipment. Regional forces from West Africa are joining the armed conflict against rebels who have occupied much of Mali’s north since March. The European Union, meanwhile, is planning to send about 500 soldiers and security forces to Mali for a 15-month training mission. EU foreign ministers approved the plan and selected a French general to lead the mission during a special meeting Thursday in Brussels. After the meeting, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said France had European support for its military efforts in the former French colony.
Laurent Fabius: “All the EU countries have expressed their solidarity both with Mali and with France’s intervention. All my colleagues, without exception, have highlighted that they fully support France’s actions, and they are all thankful that France reacted so quickly. To quote the remarks of one of them, 'Without France, there would have been no Mali.'”
Mali gained independence from France in 1960.
More than 100 people have reportedly been shot, stabbed or potentially burned to death during a massacre by government-aligned forces in the Syrian city of Homs. The attack in a poor area near the city’s edge killed 106 people, some of them children, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Many homes were set on fire, and some of the victims’ bodies appeared to have been burned. It was unclear whether the attackers were part of the Syrian army or members of a militia loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. Widespread violence was reported Thursday across Syria, with continued bombings by government planes and clashes between troops and anti-government rebels.
The Obama administration is continuing its push to rally support for a sweeping plan to address gun violence. On Thursday, Vice President Joe Biden called for action before hundreds of U.S. mayors gathered in Washington, D.C., for an annual meeting. In his address, Biden referenced the shooting rampage in Newtown, Connecticut, that claimed the lives of 20 children, six school staff and the shooter’s mother.
Joe Biden: “We have to do something. We have to act. And I hope we all agree there’s a need to respond to the carnage on our streets and in our schools. I hope we all agree that mass shootings, like the ones that we witnessed in Newtown 34 days ago, cannot continue to be tolerated. That tragedy, in all my years in public life, I think, has affected the public psyche in a way that I’ve never seen before.”
A new poll finds the Newtown massacre has affected public opinion on guns more deeply than other shootings. The New York Times/CBS News poll says 54 percent of Americans believe gun control laws should be tightened, up from 39 percent last April. The increased support swept across party lines, with an 18-point rise among Republicans. Nine in 10 people said they favored requiring background checks on all gun purchases.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta expressed his support for gun control Thursday during an address to U.S. troops in Italy. Panetta told the group only soldiers need assault weapons.
Leon Panetta: “I mean, who the hell needs armor-piercing bullets except you guys in battle? I mean, you know, and I—look, I’m a hunter. I go out, and I’ve done duck hunting since I was 10 years old. And I love to hunt. And I love to be able to — you know, to share that joy with my kids. But I don’t — I mean, for the life of me, I don’t know why the hell people have to have an assault weapon.”
A new report says students across Mississippi are being expelled and incarcerated for minor offenses due to harsh school policies that mainly affect youth of color. The report by groups including the ACLU and NAACP follows the filing of a Justice Department lawsuit alleging officials in Meridian, Mississippi, have created a “school-to-prison pipeline,” sending disproportionately African-American and disabled students to juvenile detention for violations like flatulence or breaking the dress code. The report says a five-year-old boy in Holmes County was escorted home in a police car for a dress code violation — the school required black shoes, but his mother had tried to cover other colors on his shoes with black marker. Researchers wrote: “Whether it is a dress code violation, profane language, or a schoolyard scuffle, young people are being herded into juvenile detention centers and into the revolving door of the criminal justice system.” The report comes as President Obama is backing a plan to increase police officers in schools, a policy some fear could lead to even higher incarceration rates for students of color.
A former superintendent at a West Virginia coal mine where an explosion killed 29 workers has been sentenced to nearly two years in jail. Gary May had pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government, admitting his role in tipping off miners about safety inspections, falsifying records and disabling a methane detector. Regulators found Massey Energy failed to uphold basic safety standards at the Upper Big Branch Mine, allowing the buildup of coal dust in the mine, which was ignited by a spark from faulty equipment. The 2010 explosion marked the worst coal-mining disaster in 40 years in United States.
A new investigation says the Obama administration cast aside the results of a probe into the effects of gas drilling on drinking water following pressure from the drilling company. The Associated Press reports the Environmental Protection Agency issued an emergency order in 2010 saying a Texas well saturated with flammable methane posed an immediate risk to homeowners. Regulators had scientific evidence against the driller, Range Resources, but backed down after the company threatened not to cooperate with a national study on the drilling process known as fracking. The threats apparently prompted the agency to set aside their investigation, which found drilling could in fact have contaminated the water. One of the affected homeowners said his drinking water is so laced with methane he can set it on fire. Steve Lipsky said, “I just can’t believe that an agency that knows the truth about something like that, or has evidence like this, wouldn’t use it.”
A U.S. soldier accused of massacring 16 Afghan civilians in March has been ordered to undergo a sanity review before his lawyers can wage a defense based on his mental health. Staff Sergeant Robert Bales deferred entering a plea Thursday on charges that could carry the death penalty. He is accused of killing nine children and seven adults during a nighttime attack on two villages in Kandahar province. Lawyers say Bales, who served four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, may have suffered a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. Attorney John Henry Browne discussed Bales’ mental state Thursday.
John Henry Browne: “He’s hanging in there. He’s a strong person. I think that he would agree with what I just said, that he feels a bit abandoned by the Army. But other than that, I think he’s holding up alright.”
A U.S. marine is facing a likely demotion in rank after pleading guilty to urinating on the corpse of a man in Afghanistan. Staff Sergeant Edward Deptola was charged after a video emerged in July 2011 showing U.S. soldiers urinating on dead Afghans. Deptola admitted he failed to supervise other marines, saying, “I was in a position to stop it and I did not.” He was spared from harsher penalties, including a possible six months in jail after reaching a plea deal with military prosecutors.
U.S. House Republicans are continuing their fight to preserve the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, which denies federal recognition of gay marriage. The Obama administration has refused to continue enforcing it after deeming it unconstitutional, but Republicans are seeking to keep it in effect through the courts. The Huffington Post is now reporting House Republicans have allocated nearly $3 million in taxpayer funds toward their legal costs to challenge the administration in court.
The Republican State Leadership Committee has released a shockingly honest report boasting about how it retained the party’s majority in the U.S. House of Representatives by gerrymandering congressional districts in traditionally Democratic states. The report concedes Democratic candidates for the U.S. House received 1.1 million more votes than Republicans in the last election cycle. But the Republicans still won a 33-seat majority in the House. “How?” the report asks. “One needs to look no farther than four states that voted Democratic on a statewide level in 2012, yet elected a strong Republican delegation to represent them in Congress: Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.” It goes on to detail how Republicans spent millions of dollars in those states, fueling state-level victories that allowed Republicans to spearhead redistricting for the 2012 election to their party’s advantage. The group says it raised $30 million for the initiative.
The United Nations is criticizing the U.S.-backed regime in Saudi Arabia for the beheading of a Sri Lankan guest worker. Rizana Nafeek, a 24-year-old housemaid, was decapitated last week over allegations of murdering the baby of her employer. Rupert Colville, the spokesperson for the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, condemned the execution.
Rupert Colville: “We express our deep dismay at the execution of a young Sri Lankan woman in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday. Rizana Nafeek, who arrived in Saudi Arabia from Sri Lanka to work as a housemaid in 2005, was charged with the murder of her employers’ baby a week after her arrival. Despite a birth certificate that allegedly showed she was a minor at the time of the baby’s death and repeated expressions of concern from the international community, she was convicted of murder, sentenced to death and beheaded.”