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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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Ecuador Expels 2nd U.S. Official

Ecuador's government said it will expel Mark Sullivan, a U.S. Embassy official who allegedly disputed the transfer of a senior police investigator amid a growing diplomatic spat over Washington's aid to the South American nation. It is the second expulsion order against a U.S. Embassy official this month by President Rafael Correa, who has accused American officials of "insolence" for conditioning aid on the right to veto personnel choices.

Israel Ties Blockade to Hostage

Israel declared that it will not open the Gaza Strip's blockaded borders until Hamas insurgents free a captured Israeli soldier, dealing a blow to Egyptian efforts to broker a long-term cease-fire. The decision was condemned by Hamas, which is desperate for border crossings to be opened in order to start repairing destruction from Israel's military offensive in the coastal territory last month.

Iran Announces Range of Drone

Iran has built an unmanned surveillance aircraft with a range of more than 600 miles, Deputy Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi said in remarks published Wednesday. The range would allow the craft to fly over Israel, but Vahidi's assertion could not be independently verified.

All Rescued in North Sea Crash

A transport helicopter crashed into the North Sea, but all 18 aboard were rescued from the chilly waters, British officials said.

Kyrgyzstan to Vote on U.S. Base

Kyrgyzstan's parliament is set to approve a government proposal Thursday to close an American air base that is a vital transit point for U.S.-led troops fighting in nearby Afghanistan. The closing of Manas, the last remaining U.S. air base in Central Asia, would pose a challenge to President Obama's plans to send additional troops to Afghanistan.

From News Services

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