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Mali (and Beyond) Live Coverage: France Prepares Ground Operations While Insurgents Seize 41 Foreigners in Algeria

2126 GMT: Algeria. Algerian State Television has confirmed that at least four foreigners have been killed into today's attempted hostage rescue:

Two of the victims were Britons and the other two Filipinos, the report said after the end of the operation was announced late on Thursday.

Communication Minister Mohamed Said said earlier that troops had been forced to act after talks with the kidnappers failed.

He said many fighters had been killed in the operation at the In Amenas gas field.

Sources for Reuters report that the death toll may be much higher:

Quoting an unnamed Algerian security source, Reuters reports that 30 hostages were killed in the gas plant attack, including 7 foreigners. The report does not give the nationalities of the foreigners who died.

Eleven militants from six different countries – including one from France – also were killed, the report says. The militants' nationalities were given as 3 Egyptians, 2 Algerians, 2 Tunisians, 2 Libyans a Frenchman and a Malian.

Meanwhile, David Cameron has cancelled a planned speech, but did say that the UK needs to be "prepared for the possibility of further bad news."

1814 GMT: Algeria. A summary of the press conference at the US State Department:

In other words, it seems like if news is to break about the latest developments in the Algerian hostage standoff, they won't come from the US State Department.

1548 GMT: Palestine. Saudi Arabia will give the Palestinian Authority $100 million to help alleviate a worsening budget crisis.

"The state's budget is facing a large deficit as a result of the docking of Palestinian money by the Israeli government as a punitive step after the UN recognition of Palestine as an observer state," Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said in a statement.

Abbas has struggled to convince Arab countries to deliver a $100 million monthly "safety net" they promised when he secured de facto UN recognition of a Palestinian state in November. Israel imediately withheld $100 million per month in tax revenues collected for the Authority.

Full salaries for public sector workers have not been paid in almost three months, and government initiatives to increase revenue by collecting years worth of electricity and water bills from the public have been hampered by street protests.

The Authority owes more than $1.3bn to Palestinian banks and hundred of millions of dollars in unpaid contracts to the private sector.

1542 GMT: Libya. Saif al-Islam Qaddafi, the son of the former Libyan leader, has appeared in a court on Thursday for the first time since his capture more than a year ago.

The son of the former Libyan leader is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) but his appearance in a criminal court in the western town of Zintan was not part of a war crimes trial.

Instead, Thursday's court hearing was connected to a meeting between Saif al-Islam and his ICC-appointed lawyer last June. The lawyer, Australian Melinda Taylor, was herself arrested and held for three weeks, accused of handing her client documents that could endanger national security.

"He is charged with involvement with the ICC delegation which is accused of carrying papers and other things related to the security of the Libyan state," Taha Baara, spokesman for the prosecutor, said. "Investigations for trying him for war crimes are over and he will be put on trial for that at a later time."

Libya has resisted the ICC's request to extradite Saif al-Islam for trial in The Hague, saying it wants to prosecute him at home, where he could face the death penalty.

1532 GMT: Algeria. According to The Guardian, at least one Irish hostage has been freed and has contacted his family from safety:

Ireland's Department of Foreign Affairs has said the Irishman held hostage in Algeria has made contact with his family and is understood to be safe and freed from captivity, the Press Association reports.

1510 GMT: Algeria. A hostage update - while hostages have been freed, more remain in the custody of militants - or so the latest Algerian State News briefing says:

And those 7 hostages are very much in danger, if this report is true:

1450 GMT: Algeria. Al Jazeera English keeps citing "reports" that 35 hostages and 15 kidnappers have been killed in the military siege of the gas station in eastern Algeria. The only problem - the source for these reports is the group that took the hostages. On the other hand, Algerian State TV has said that 4 hostages have been freed in the operation, though no details or casualty numbers have been given. Yet other sources say that there were different numbers of casualties.

At this point, it may be fruitless to continue to speculate on the number of dead or the number freed until such a time as a more credible source publishes a detailed summary. This is a situation, however, we will watch very closely.

1423 GMT: Algeria. According to the British Foreign Office, a military campaign to free hostages held at a gas station in eastern Algeria is underway:

Algerian soldiers had been surrounding the facility near In Amenas that kidnappers occupied on Wednesday, after killing a Briton and an Algerian.

A local resident told Reuters news agency that a number of people had been killed in the operation.

Reports quoting militants said at least 34 hostages and 14 kidnappers died.

There was no official confirmation of any deaths.

It's important to stress that as far as we know there are no confirmed casualties.

It seems helicopters were also a part of the attack, according to multiple reports.

1254 GMT: Mali. Minister of Defense Jean-Yves Le Drian has said that France now has 1,400 troops on the ground in Mali, more than half the total of 2,500 it plans to deploy.

European Union foreign ministers have formally agreed to send a military mission to train and restructure Mali's army.

Up to 500 non-combat troops, half of them trainers, are involved.

1203 GMT: Algeria. Fifteen foreign hostages have escaped from the gas pumping station where they were held by Malian insurgents, according to Algeria's Ennahar TV.

The Associated Press, citing an Algerian official, says 20 of the hostages are free.

1158 GMT: Iraq. A series of bomb attacks has killed at least 12 people, most of them Shia pilgrims.

The worst incident was north of Baghdad, where two bombs, detonated within minutes of each other, killed at least seven pilgrims travelling to a shrine in Samarra.

Four more Shia pilgrims were killed in an attack in Hilla, south of Baghdad.

1118 GMT: Turkey. An image of the tens of thousands of mourners in Diyarkabir for the funerals of three Kurdish activists assassinated last Thursday in Paris:

1115 GMT: Algeria. Reuters, citing Algerian State news agency APS, says 30 Algerian workers have escaped from the In Amenas desert gas facility where the 41 hostages are being held.

1045 GMT: Mali and Algeria. Insurgents from northern Mali holding 41 foreign hostages at a gas plant in Algeria have demanded that the Algerian army withdraw from the area before talks begin.

The insurgents also called for the release of Islamists head in Malian prisons --- "Our detainees for theirs," a spokesman said, adding that his group has "contacted our leadership in Mali".

Abu al-Baraa continued, "This is a strong political message to Algeria regarding its intransigent stances towards the jihadists."

He said Algerian snipers had opened fire at the complex where the hostages are being held, injuring a Japanese national.

Abu al-Baraa confirmed that there are "around 41" hostages from Norway, France, the United States, Britain, Romania, Colombia, Thailand, the Philippines, Ireland, Japan, South Korea, and Armenia.

Three of the hostages --- a Briton, a Japanese and an Irishman --- also called on on the Algerian to withdraw to preserve their lives and encourage negotiations.

Meanwhile, the Algerian Government was in talks throughout the night with the US and France over whether an international force can assist in efforts to free the hostages.

An Algerian official said the Government also contacted tribal elders among Algerian Tuaregs, who are believed to have close ties with Islamist insurgents, to help end the crisis.

0835 GMT: Yemen. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, activist and Nobel Prize laureate Tawakkul Karman maintains optimism about the country's future:

"We are in a clash with extremism and terrorism," she said. "The real battle now is for tolerance."...

Karman said the old guard is not inventive enough for new ways; women and youth are the future. "We will create a new power, a new movement. The revolution has changed the way women look at themselves. We will lead the way to change."

0825 GMT: Iraq. AFP summarises Wednesday's attacks in Baghdad and north Iraq, in which at least 42 people were killed and at least 245 were wounded.

The deadliest attacks were in and near Kirkuk in the north, with car bombs --- aimed at offices and officals of the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan --- killing at least 31 people and wounding 230.

Wednesday's overall death toll was the highest since 17 December.

0755 GMT: Palestine. Israeli forces have removed tents from the new village of Bab Al Shams, overrun by the military last weekend after it was established on Palestinian territory by activists.

Bab Al Shams was established in the "E1" area outside the Arab suburbs of East Jerusalem, where planned Jewish settlements could split much of the West Bank.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, defying the spirit of a Supreme Court injunction to postpone action for six days, ordered the removal of the activists last Saturday and stood by the plans to build the settlements.

The tents had remained standing in technical compliance with the court order while judges considered a Palestinian claim of ownership of land. The Supreme Court approved removal of the tents on Wednesday, agreeing with the Government's argument that they could be a magnet for violent Palestinian protests.

0705 GMT: Mali. French troops have reportedly started ground operations against fighters belonging to the insurgent Ansar al-Dine in central Mali.

A spokesman for Ansar al-Dine said the French forces were shelling Diabaly, 400 kilometres (250 miles) north of the capital Bamako.

Last weekend --- just after France had launched air attacks in northern Mali --- insurgents took Diabaly, driving away Malian Government forces.

Edouard Guillaud, France's military chief of staff, confirmed the ground operations, and sources in the Malian army says Paris's special forces were inside the town.

0625 GMT: Mali and Algeria. Insurgents from northern Mali abducted 41 foreign workers on Wednesday after killing at least two people in a raid near a gas plant in southern Algeria.

A spokesperson for the insurgents said, "Forty-one Westerners including seven Americans, French, British and Japanese citizens have been taken hostage. The operation was in response to the blatant interference by Algeria and the opening of its air space to French aircraft to bomb northern Mali."

The spokesperson said the attackers were part of the Khaled Abul Abbas brigade led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, long accused of smuggling and kidnap gangs in the Sahara.

Later on Wednesday, the group claimed to have repelled an attempt by the Algerian army to enter the facility. The military have now surrounded the plant, jointly operated by BP, Statoil of Norway and Algeria's state-run energy company Sonatrach..

The attack began with the ambush of a bus carrying employees from the gas plant to the nearby airport. Three vehicles with heavily-armed men were driven off, according to the Algerian government. 

A Briton and an Algerian were slain, while seven others were wounded.

The insurgents then headed to the complex's living quarters and took a number of workers hostage. The attackers said seven Americans are being held. Thirteen Norwegian Statoil employees are "involved", accoding to Norway's Prime Minister. An Algerian member of parliament said four Japanese and one Frenchmen were kidnapped in the raid. The Irish Foreign Ministry said an Irish citizen was among the hostages, and Britons are also among those held.

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