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Thursday, February 19, 2009

EGYPT

Rival of Mubarak Freed From Jail Unexpectedly

A leading Egyptian dissident, Ayman Nour, who was jailed after challenging the country's longtime president in the 2005 elections, was unexpectedly freed Wednesday after years of pressure from the United States.

Nour's jailing has troubled U.S.-Egypt relations for more than three years, and his sudden release may be a gesture to improve ties with the new Obama administration.

Nour said from his Cairo home that he learned he was going to be freed only when a car arrived at the prison to take him home. "Why they did this is unknown," he said.

"I am coming out with an open heart and am ready to work, and nothing has changed. A lot of things have been put on hold over the past years. . . . I am ready to make a change in this country," he said in a telephone interview.

He later told reporters gathered at his home, "I will definitely resume my political activity."

The prosecutor's office said in a statement that Nour was ordered released for health reasons. Nour has complained of heart and eye problems, and his wife petitioned Egyptian courts for his release on health grounds.

ALGERIA

Al-Qaeda Says It Holds U.N. Envoy, 5 Others

Al-Qaeda's North Africa branch asserted Wednesday that it is holding hostage a senior United Nations peace envoy, his aide and four tourists kidnapped in the Sahara Desert in recent weeks.

Robert Fowler, the special U.N. envoy for Niger, and aide Louis Guay, both Canadians, were kidnapped Dec. 14 in the southern Sahara country. Four tourists -- two Swiss, a German and a Briton -- were kidnapped Jan. 22 near the border in neighboring Mali, their tour operator said.

"We announce to the general public that the mujaheddin [holy warriors] reserve the right to deal with the six kidnapped according to Islamic sharia law," the al-Qaeda group's purported spokesman, Salah Abu Mohammed, told the pan-Arab TV station al-Jazeera. The statement's authenticity could not be independently verified, but it was confirmed by SITE Intelligence Group, a U.S.-based organization that monitors radicals' messages.

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