Earth may be crashing through dark matter walls

Earth is constantly crashing through huge walls of dark matter, and we already have the tools to detect them. That's the conclusion of physicists who say the universe may be filled with a patchwork quilt of force fields created shortly after the big bang.

Observations of how mass clumps in space suggest that about 86 per cent of all matter is invisible dark matter, which interacts with ordinary matter mainly through gravity. The most popular theory is that dark matter is made of weakly interacting massive particles.

WIMPs should also interact with ordinary matter via the weak nuclear force, and their presence should have slight but measurable effects. However, years of searches for WIMPs have been coming up empty.

"So far nothing is found, and I feel like it's time to broaden the scope of our search," says Maxim Pospelov of the University of Victoria in Canada. "What we propose is to look for some other signatures."

Bubbly cosmos

Pospelov and colleagues have been examining a theory that at least some of the universe's dark matter is tied up in structures called domain walls, akin to the boundaries between tightly packed bubbles. The idea is that the hot early universe was full of an exotic force field that varied randomly. As the universe expanded and cooled, the field froze, leaving a patchwork of domains, each with its own distinct value for the field.

Having different fields sit next to each other requires energy to be stored within the domain walls. Mass and energy are interchangeable, so on a large scale a network of domain walls can look like concentrations of mass – that is, like dark matter, says Pospelov.

If the grid of domain walls is packed tightly enough – say, if the width of the domains is several hundred times the distance between Earth and the sun – Earth should pass through a domain wall once every few years. "As a human, you wouldn't feel a thing," says Pospelov. "You will go through the wall without noticing." But magnetometers – devices that, as the name suggests, measure magnetic fields – could detect the walls, say Pospelov and colleagues in a new study. Although the field inside a domain would not affect a magnetometer, the device would sense the change when Earth passes through a domain wall.

Dark matter walls have not been detected yet because anyone using a single magnetometer would find the readings swamped by noise, Pospelov says. "You'd never be able to say if it's because the Earth went through a bizarre magnetic field or if a grad student dropped their iPhone or something," he says.

Network needed

Finding the walls will require a network of at least five detectors spread around the world, Pospelov suggests. Colleagues in Poland and California have already built one magnetometer each and have shown that they are sensitive enough for the scheme to work.

Domain walls wouldn't account for all the dark matter in the universe, but they could explain why finding particles of the stuff has been such a challenge, says Pospelov.

If domain walls are found, the news might come as a relief to physicists still waiting for WIMPs to show up. Earlier this month, for instance, a team working with a detector in Russia that has been running for more than 24 years announced that they have yet to see any sign of these dark matter candidates.

Douglas Finkbeiner of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, who was not involved in Pospelov's study, isn't yet convinced that dark matter walls exist. But he is glad that physicists are keeping an open mind about alternatives to WIMPs.

"We've looked for WIMP dark matter in so many ways," he says. "At some point you have to ask, are we totally on the wrong track?"

Journal reference: Physical Review Letters, DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevLett.110.021803

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Algeria hostage crisis ends in bloodshed

IN AMENAS, Algeria: Algerian troops stormed a remote gas plant on Saturday to end a hostage crisis that killed 23 foreigners and Algerians, seven of them executed by their Islamist captors in a final military assault.

Twenty-one hostages died during the siege that began when the Al-Qaeda-linked gunmen attacked the In Amenas facility deep in the Sahara desert at dawn on Wednesday, the interior ministry said.

Thirty-two kidnappers were also killed, and special forces were able to free "685 Algerian workers and 107 foreigners," it said.

Among the dead were an unknown number of foreigners -- including from Britain, France, Romania and the United States -- and many were still unaccounted for, including Japanese.

The kidnappers led by Algerian Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a former Al-Qaeda commander in North Africa, killed two people on a bus, a Briton and an Algerian, before taking hundreds of workers hostage when they overran the gas plant.

Belmokhtar's "Signatories in Blood" group had been demanding an end to French military intervention against jihadists in neighbouring Mali.

In Saturday's assault, "the Algerian army took out 11 terrorists, and the terrorist group killed seven foreign hostages," state television said, without giving a breakdown of their nationalities.

A security official who spoke to AFP as army helicopters overflew the plant gave the same death tolls, adding it was believed the foreigners were executed "in retaliation".

As experts began to clear the complex of bombs planted by the Islamists, residents of In Amenas breathed a collective sigh of relief.

"We went from a peaceful situation to a terror situation," said one resident who gave his name as Fouad.

"The plant could have exploded and taken out the town," said another.

Brahim Zaghdaoui said he was not surprised by the Algerian army's ruthless final assault.

"It was predictable that it would end like that," he said standing outside the town's hospital, where coffins were seen arriving in the morning.

Most of the hostages had been freed on Thursday when Algerian forces launched a rescue operation, which was widely condemned as hasty.

But French President Francois Hollande and US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta refused to blame Algeria.

The response by Algiers was "the most appropriate" given it was dealing with "coldly determined terrorists ready to kill their hostages," said Hollande.

Panetta added: "They are in the region, they understand the threat from terrorism... I think it's important that we continue to work with (Algiers) to develop a regional approach."

British Defence Secretary Philip Hammond said the crisis had been "brought to an end by a further assault by Algerian forces, which has resulted in further loss of life".

The deaths were "appalling and unacceptable and we must be clear that it is the terrorists who bear sole responsibility for it," he said.

The hostage-taking was the largest since the 2008 Mumbai attack, and the biggest by jihadists since hundreds were killed in a Moscow theatre in 2002 and at a school in the Russian town of Beslan in 2004, according to monitoring group IntelCenter.

Foreign Secretary William Hague said a total of six British nationals and one resident of the United Kingdom were either dead or unaccounted for.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan said he had received "severe information" about 10 of his country's nationals who were still missing.

The gunmen said on Friday that they were still holding "seven foreign hostages" -- three Belgians, two Americans, one Japanese and a Briton.

However, Brussels said it had no indication any of its nationals were being held.

Algeria was strongly criticised for launching Thursday's assault, which the kidnappers said had left dead 34 of the hostages and 15 of their own fighters.

Belmokhtar also wanted to exchange American hostages for the blind Egyptian sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman and Pakistani Aafia Siddiqui, jailed in the United States on charges of terrorist links.

At least one American had already been confirmed dead before Saturday's assault.

But the State Department said "the United States does not negotiate with terrorists".

France, which said on Saturday that 2,000 of the 2,500 troops it had pledged were now on the ground in Mali, said that no more of its citizens were being held.

President Hollande said French troops would stay in Mali as long as is needed "to defeat terrorism" in the West African country and its neighbours.

Algerian news agency APS quoted a government official as saying the kidnappers, who claimed to have come from Niger, were armed with machineguns, assault rifles, rocket launchers and missiles.

This was confirmed by an Algerian driver, Iba El Haza, who said the hostage-takers spoke in different Arabic dialects and perhaps also in English.

"From their accents I understood one was Egyptian, one Tunisian, another Algerian and one was speaking English or (another) foreign language," Haza told AFP after escaping on Thursday.

"The terrorists said: 'You have nothing to do with this, you are Algerians and Muslims. We won't keep you, we only want the foreigners.'"

- AFP/de

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Police swarm Kardashian home; 'swatting' call suspected

Authorities on Saturday said they were investigating whether the Kardashian family is the latest victim of a celebrity "swatting" incident, in which a crank caller alleges violence is occurring at a star's home.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department responded to a crank call Friday at the Malibu home where the Kardashian family lives.

There was no one home when deputies arrived, but they were able
to eventually confirm that the family was fine and at different
location, officials said.

Kardashian family members tweeted that numerous sheriff's patrol cars converged on the Malibu home.

The exact nature of the phone call to authorities was not revealed.

Sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore said authorities were trying to determine whether this was another "swatting" incident. Other celebrities have been victimized by such hoaxes, including Tom Cruise and Ashton Kutcher.


California reporting widespread flu illnesses

Manti Te'o hoax: Uncle says linebacker manipulated by 'liar'

Mark Yudof to step down as president of UC system in August

-- Andrew Blankstein

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Attack at Algeria Gas Plant Heralds New Risks for Energy Development

The siege by Islamic militants at a remote Sahara desert natural gas plant in Algeria this week signaled heightened dangers in the region for international oil companies, at a time when they have been expanding operations in Africa as one of the world's last energy frontiers. (See related story: "Pictures: Four New Offshore Drilling Frontiers.")

As BP, Norway's Statoil, Italy's Eni, and other companies evacuated personnel from Algeria, it was not immediately clear how widely the peril would spread in the wake of the hostage-taking at the sprawling In Amenas gas complex near the Libyan border.

A map of disputed islands in the East and South China Seas.

Map by National Geographic

Algeria, the fourth-largest crude oil producer on the continent and a major exporter of natural gas and refined fuels, may not have been viewed as the most hospitable climate for foreign energy companies, but that was due to unfavorable financial terms, bureaucracy, and corruption. The energy facilities themselves appeared to be safe, with multiple layers of security provided both by the companies and by government forces, several experts said. (See related photos: "Oil States: Are They Stable? Why It Matters.")

"It is particularly striking not only because it hasn't happened before, but because it happened in Algeria, one of the stronger states in the region," says Hanan Amin-Salem, a senior manager at the industry consulting firm PFC Energy, who specializes in country risk. She noted that in the long civil war that gripped the country throughout the 1990s, there had never been an attack on Algeria's energy complex. But now, hazard has spread from weak surrounding states, as the assault on In Amenas was carried out in an apparent retaliation for a move by French forces against the Islamists who had taken over Timbuktu and other towns in neighboring Mali. (See related story: "Timbuktu Falls.")

"What you're really seeing is an intensification of the fundamental problem of weak states, and empowerment of heavily armed groups that are really well motivated and want to pursue a set of aims," said Amin-Salem. In PFC Energy's view, she says, risk has increased in Mauritania, Chad, and Niger—indeed, throughout Sahel, the belt that bisects North Africa, separating the Sahara in the north from the tropical forests further south.

On Thursday, the London-based corporate consulting firm Exclusive Analysis, which was recently acquired by the global consultancy IHS, sent an alert to clients warning that oil and gas facilities near the Libyan and Mauritanian borders and in Mauritania's Hodh Ech Chargui province were at "high risk" of attack by jihadis.

"A Hot Place to Drill"

The attack at In Amenas comes at a time of unprecedented growth for the oil industry in Africa. (See related gallery: "Pictures: The Year's Most Overlooked Energy Stories.") Forecasters expect that oil output throughout Africa will double by 2025, says Amy Myers Jaffe, executive director of the energy and sustainability program at the University of California, Davis, who has counted 20 rounds of bidding for new exploration at sites in Africa's six largest oil-producing states.

Oil and natural gas are a large part of the Algerian economy, accounting for 60 percent of government budget revenues, more than a third of GDP and more than 97 percent of its export earnings. But the nation's resources are seen as largely undeveloped, and Algeria has tried to attract new investment. Over the past year, the government has sought to reform the law to boost foreign companies' interests in their investments, although those efforts have foundered.

Technology has been one of the factors driving the opening up of Africa to deeper energy exploration. Offshore and deepwater drilling success in the Gulf of Mexico and Brazil led to prospecting now under way offshore in Ghana, Mozambique, and elsewhere. (See related story: "New Oil—And a Huge Challenge—for Ghana.") Jaffe says the Houston-based company Anadarko Petroleum has sought to transfer its success in "subsalt seismic" exploration technology, surveying reserves hidden beneath the hard salt layer at the bottom of the sea, to the equally challenging seismic exploration beneath the sands of the Sahara in Algeria, where it now has three oil and gas operations.

Africa also is seen as one of the few remaining oil-rich regions of the world where foreign oil companies can obtain production-sharing agreements with governments, contracts that allow them a share of the revenue from the barrels they produce, instead of more limited service contracts for work performed.

"You now have the technology to tap the resources more effectively, and the fiscal terms are going to be more attractive than elsewhere—you put these things together and it's been a hot place to drill," says Jaffe, who doesn't see the energy industry's interest in Africa waning, despite the increased terrorism risk. "What I think will happen in some of these countries is that the companies are going to reveal new securities systems and procedures they have to keep workers safe," she says. "I don't think they will abandon these countries."

This story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

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Algerian army stages "final assault" on gas plant

ALGIERS/IN AMENAS, Algeria (Reuters) - The Algerian army carried out a dramatic final assault to end a siege by Islamist militants at a desert gas plant on Saturday in which 23 hostages were killed, many of them believed to be foreigners, the interior ministry said.

Thirty-two al Qaeda-linked militants were killed in the army operation to recapture the complex, according to a provisional toll from the ministry. A statement said 107 foreign hostages and 685 Algerian hostages had survived.

Militants seized the remote compound in the Sahara desert before dawn on Wednesday, taking a large number of hostages, including foreigner workers, and booby-trapped the compound with explosives.

The crisis marked a serious escalation of unrest in northwestern Africa, where French forces have been in Mali since last week fighting an Islamist takeover of Timbuktu and other towns.

The gas plant near the town of In Amenas was home to expatriate workers from Britain's BP, Norway's Statoil, Japanese engineering firm JGC Corp and others. One American and one British citizen have been confirmed dead.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said on Saturday he feared for the lives of five British citizens still unaccounted for. Statoil said five of its workers, all Norwegian nationals, were still missing. Japanese and American workers are also unaccounted for.

"We feel a deep and growing unease ... we fear that over the next few days we will receive bad news," Statoil Chief Executive Helge Lund said on Saturday. "People we have spoken to describe unbelievable, horrible experiences."

The Islamists' attack has tested Algeria's relations with the outside world, exposed the vulnerability of multinational oil operations in the Sahara and pushed Islamist radicalism in northern Africa to centre stage.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague confirmed that Algerian military operations at the plant had been concluded.

"We understand that the site is not yet fully safe because of hazards such as booby traps and so they are still working on that," Hague said.

Some Western governments expressed frustration at not being informed of the Algerian authorities' plans to storm the complex. Algeria's response to the raid will have been conditioned by the legacy of a civil war against insurgents in the 1990s which claimed 200,000 lives.


As the army closed in, 16 foreign hostages were freed, a source close to the crisis said. They included two Americans and one Portuguese.

BP's chief executive Bob Dudley said on Saturday four of its 18 workers at the site were missing. The remaining 14 were safe.

The captors said their attack on the Algerian gas plant was a response to the French offensive in Mali. However, officials say the elaborate raid would have been planned well before France launched its strikes.

Scores of Westerners and hundreds of Algerian workers were inside the heavily fortified gas compound when it was seized on Wednesday.

Hundreds escaped on Thursday when the army launched a rescue operation, but many hostages were killed.

Before the interior ministry released its provisional death toll, an Algerian security source said eight Algerians and at least seven foreigners were among the victims, including two Japanese, two Britons and a French national. One British citizen was killed when the gunmen seized the hostages on Wednesday.

The U.S. State Department said on Friday one American, Frederick Buttaccio, had died but gave no further details.

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said nobody was going to attack the United States and get away with it.

"We have made a commitment that we're going to go after al Qaeda wherever they are and wherever they try to hide," he said during a visit to London. "We have done that obviously in Afghanistan, Pakistan, we've done it in Somalia, in Yemen and we will do it in North Africa as well."


Earlier on Saturday, Algerian special forces found 15 unidentified burned bodies at the plant, a source told Reuters.

The field commander of the group that attacked the plant is a fighter from Niger called Abdul Rahman al-Nigeri, according to Mauritanian news agencies. His boss, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a veteran of fighting in Afghanistan and Algeria's civil war of the 1990s, appears not to have joined the raid.

Britain, Japan and other countries have expressed irritation that the army assault was ordered without consultation and officials grumbled at the lack of information.

But French President Francois Hollande said the Algerian military's response seemed to have been the best option given that negotiation was not possible.

"When you have people taken hostage in such large number by terrorists with such cold determination and ready to kill those hostages - as they did - Algeria has an approach which to me, as I see it, is the most appropriate because there could be no negotiation," Hollande said.

The apparent ease with which the fighters swooped in from the dunes to take control of an important energy facility, which produces some 10 percent of the natural gas on which Algeria depends for its export income, has raised questions over the value of outwardly tough Algerian security measures.

Algerian officials said the attackers may have had inside help from among the hundreds of Algerians employed at the site.

Security in the half-dozen countries around the Sahara desert has long been a preoccupation of the West. Smugglers and militants have earned millions in ransom from kidnappings.

The most powerful Islamist groups operating in the Sahara were severely weakened by Algeria's secularist military in the civil war in the 1990s. But in the past two years the regional wing of al Qaeda gained fighters and arms as a result of the civil war in Libya, when arsenals were looted from Muammar Gaddafi's army.

France says the hostage incident proves its decision to fight Islamists in neighboring Mali was necessary. Al Qaeda-linked fighters, many with roots in Algeria and Libya, took control of northern Mali last year.

(Additional reporting by Balazs Koranyi in Oslo, Estelle Shirbon and David Alexander in London, Brian Love in Paris; Writing by Giles Elgood; Editing by Rosalind Russell)

(This story was refiled to correct Algerian hostages)

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High-tech Dreamliner's wings clipped by battery trouble

WHEN it went into service a little over a year ago, Boeing's 787 Dreamliner was hailed as a miracle of cutting-edge innovation – the Chicago-based company used lithium-ion batteries, a carbon-fibre fuselage, and blazing fast computer networks to cut down on fuel consumption and provide passengers with a ride like no other.

But following a series of mostly electrical mishaps - including a battery fire aboard a 787 at Boston's Logan International Airport last week - the current global fleet of 50 planes now sits idle. The US National Transportation Safety Board has launched an investigation into the plane's electrical systems. And the US Federal Aviation Administration, which declared the plane airworthy in 2011, is questioning their own certification process.

The plane's lithium-ion batteries, which also appear to have acted up and forced an All Nippon Airways 787 to make an emergency landing at Takamatsu airport in western Japan this week, store twice the power of nickel-cadmium cells, making them much lighter. However, they are a known fire risk under some operating conditions.

No-one yet knows if the batteries themselves - built by GS Yuasa of Japan and packaged by Thales of France - were at fault, or if there's an issue with the wiring, or electronics, they plug into.

Long-standing concern

The FAA's concern over the batteries goes back as far as 2007, when it warned Boeing that the company could only use lithium-ion batteries if its battery charging, management and failure alarm systems can cope with their unique risks. Li-ion batteries, the FAA said, are susceptible to self-sustaining increases in temperature and pressure if they are overcharged "which leads to formation of highly unstable metallic lithium which can ignite, resulting in a self-sustaining fire or explosion."

Because the Boston battery fire is under investigation by the NTSB, Boeing spokeswoman Lori Gunter cannot yet comment on what happened. But she says the 787 is built to cope with any problem the batteries throw at it. "It is designed to be able to handle any faults that we would expect to see from the battery," she told New Scientist.

Boeing's rival, Airbus of Toulouse, France, uses smaller lithium batteries in its A380 jet to power emergency lighting, but plans to increase its reliance on the batteries in the forthcoming A350. "Lithium ion batteries can be designed in very different ways, with different chemistries, electronic protections, capacities and number of cells," says an Airbus spokesman. "The way a battery is integrated in the aircraft is important, as well as the protections that are put in place."

Better sensors

Smart in-battery sensors could be an answer, say Gi-Heon Kim and colleagues at the National Renewable Energy Center in Golden, Colorado. They are developing a "fail-safe" Li-ion battery that incorporates a passive early warning system (Journal of Power Sources, DOI: 10.1016/j.jpowsour.2012.03.015) that senses the structural defects in a Li-ion battery cell that can lead to the thermal runaway that leads to fires. When it does so, it isolates the cell from the battery long before trouble occurs. Better still, says Kim, "this technology is independent of battery chemistry and cell design" - so could apply to the Li-ion cells used in phones, electric cars and aviation.

The outcome of the investigations into the battery issues will also resonate off-planet, as the International Space Station is about to have its power sources upgraded to more powerful Li-ion cells from GS Yuasa. "NASA is in close communication with Boeing, the FAA, and the cell manufacturer on the ongoing failure analysis, and will apply any relevant lessons learned as appropriate," a NASA spokesman told New Scientist.

If you would like to reuse any content from New Scientist, either in print or online, please contact the syndication department first for permission. New Scientist does not own rights to photos, but there are a variety of licensing options available for use of articles and graphics we own the copyright to.

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US stocks mostly higher; Intel pulls Nasdaq down

NEW YORK: US stocks ended mostly higher on Friday helped by news that Republicans might give way to a short-term rise of the debt ceiling to avoid a new crisis, but poor earnings from Intel pulled the Nasdaq lower.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average was up 53.68 points (0.39 percent) to 13,649.70.

The broad-based S&P 500 added 5.04 points (0.34 percent) at 1,485.98.

But the tech-heavy Nasdaq Composite ended down 1.29 points (0.04 percent) at 3,134.71, dragged lower by chipmaker Intel, which sank 6.3 percent after a poor fourth quarter, with a 31 percent drop in profit and a lowered forecast for this year.

- AFP/de

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Man molested girls, gave them tattoos, police allege

Authorities were looking Thursday for more possible victims of a Mission Viejo tattoo artist arrested for allegedly molesting two teenage girls after giving them free tattoos and alcohol in his apartment, deputies said.

Edder Giovani Nieves-Vera, 29, met one of the 14-year-olds through Facebook and promised to give her a tattoo, alcohol and drugs, said Jim Amormino, a spokesman for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.

In December, authorities believe the girl and a 14-year-old friend went to the man’s apartment, where he supplied them with alcohol and gave them tattoos.

He is suspected of making “sexual advances” toward the teenagers and engaging in “highly inappropriate conduct,” Amormino told the Times.

The girls told authorities, who then posed as one of the 14-year-olds by chatting with him on Facebook, said Gail Krause, a spokeswoman with the Sheriff’s Department.

Nieves-Vera allegedly said he wanted to meet the girl Tuesday at Dana Point Harbor, then take her to his apartment to finish the tattoo and enjoy his Jacuzzi. Instead, Nieves-Vera was met by investigators and taken into custody.

Several years ago, he was deported after serving three years in state prison in connection with a 2004 arrest in a child annoyance case in Riverside County. Investigators do not know when Nieves-Vera re-entered the United States.

The Sheriff’s Department, along with several other agencies, including the Orange County district attorney’s office, the FBI and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, investigated the case.

Anyone with information is asked to call the Sheriff’s Department at (714) 647-7000. Anonymous tippers may call OC Crime Stoppers at (855) TIP-OCCS.


Reward offered for 'AK-47 Bandit' who shot Chino officer

Robert Citron, treasurer at center of O.C. bankruptcy, dies

Environmental group pushes for hearing on San Onofre restart

-- Robert J. Lopez and Nicole Santa Cruz

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First Human Contact With Large Emperor Penguin Colony

One of the largest emperor penguin colonies in Antarctica was discovered last month by a team from the International Polar Foundation's Princess Elisabeth station.

The penguin colony had previously been identified through satellite imagery by researchers from the British Antarctic Survey. The penguins themselves didn't show up very clearly, but their excrement stains on the ice did.

Expedition leader Alain Hubert, who has spent seven seasons in Antarctica, long suspected a colony existed somewhere along the vast coast near Princess Elisabeth station. "When you go on the coast," explained the Belgian explorer, "after ten minutes, penguins come out of the water to look at who you are and what you are doing."

The satellite images gave Hubert and his team a rough idea of where to start looking. When ice research brought them within 37 miles (60 kilometers) of the probable location, they hopped on their snowmobiles for a side trip. The team traversed steep crevasses from the continent's cliffs down to the ice shelf, which has been shifting 650 feet (200 meters) toward the sea each year. "We were lucky to find it," said Hubert.

They finally came upon the colony at 11 p.m. on December 3, when the sun was still shining during the Antarctic summer. Spread out on the ice were 9,000 emperor penguins, about three-quarters of them chicks. Despite his polar experience, Hubert had never seen a full colony before. "You can approach them," he said. "When you talk to them, it's like they are listening to you."

Researchers hope penguins will tell them—through population numbers and colony locations—how they are faring with climate change. Emperor penguins breed on the sea ice. If the ice breaks up early, before the chicks can fend for themselves, the chicks die and the future of the colony is imperiled.

Hubert has high hopes for his newly met neighbors because they located their nursery on top of an underwater rift, where the sea ice is less likely to melt. "They are quite clever, these animals."

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Foreigners still caught in Sahara hostage crisis

ALGIERS/IN AMENAS, Algeria (Reuters) - More than 20 foreigners were still either being held hostage or missing inside a gas plant on Friday after Algerian forces stormed the desert complex to free hundreds of captives taken by Islamist militants.

More than a day after the Algerian army launched an assault to seize the remote desert compound, much was still unclear about the number and fate of the victims, leaving countries with citizens in harm's way struggling to find hard information.

Reports on the number of hostages killed ranged from 12 to 30, with anywhere from dozens to scores of foreigners still unaccounted for.

Norway's Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, eight of whose countrymen were missing, said fighters still controlled the gas treatment plant itself, while Algerian forces now held the nearby residential compound that housed hundreds of workers.

Leaders of Britain, Japan and other countries expressed frustration that the assault had been ordered without consultation. Many countries were also withholding information about their citizens to avoid helping the captors.

Night fell quietly on the village of In Amenas, the nearest settlement, some 50 km (30 miles) from the vast and remote desert plant. A military helicopter could be seen in the sky.

An Algerian security source said 30 hostages, including at least seven Westerners, had been killed during Thursday's assault, along with at least 18 of their captors. Eight of the dead hostages were Algerian, with the nationalities of the rest of the dead still unclear, he said.

Algeria's state news agency APS put the total number of dead hostages at 12, including both foreigners and locals.

Norway's Stoltenberg said some of those killed in vehicles blasted by the army could not be identified. "We must be prepared for bad news this weekend but we still have hope."

Northern Irish engineer Stephen McFaul, who survived, said he saw four trucks full of hostages blown up by Algerian troops.

The attack has plunged international capitals into crisis mode and is a serious escalation of unrest in northwestern Africa, where French forces have been in Mali since last week fighting an Islamist takeover of Timbuktu and other towns.

"We are still dealing with a fluid and dangerous situation where a part of the terrorist threat has been eliminated in one part of the site, but there still remains a threat in another part," British Prime Minister David Cameron told his parliament.

A local Algerian source said 100 of 132 foreign hostages had been freed from the facility. However, other estimates of the number of unaccounted-for foreigners were higher. Earlier the same source said 60 were still missing. Some may be held hostage; others may still be hiding in the sprawling compound.

Two Japanese, two Britons and a French national were among the seven foreigners confirmed dead in the army's storming, the Algerian security source told Reuters. One British citizen was killed when the gunmen seized the hostages on Wednesday.

Those still unaccounted for on Friday included 10 from Japan and eight Norwegians, according to their employers, and a number of Britons which Cameron put at "significantly" less than 30

France said it had no information on two Frenchmen who may have been at the site and Washington has said a number of Americans were among the hostages, without giving details. The local source said a U.S. aircraft landed nearby on Friday.

The attackers had initially claimed to be holding 41 Western hostages. Some Westerners were able to evade capture by hiding.

They lived among hundreds of Algerian employees on the compound. The state news agency said the army had rescued 650 hostages in total, 573 of whom were Algerians.

"(The army) is still trying to achieve a ‘peaceful outcome' before neutralizing the terrorist group that is holed up in the (facility) and freeing a group of hostages that is still being held," it said, quoting a security source.


Algerian commanders said they moved in on Thursday about 30 hours after the siege began, because the gunmen had demanded to be allowed to take their captives abroad.

A French hostage employed by a French catering company said he had hidden in his room for 40 hours under the bed, relying on Algerian employees to smuggle him food with a password.

"I put boards up pretty much all round," Alexandre Berceaux told Europe 1 radio. "I didn't know how long I was going to stay there ... I was afraid. I could see myself already ending up in a pine box."

The captors said their attack was a response to a French military offensive in neighboring Mali. However, some U.S. and European officials say the elaborate raid probably required too much planning to have been organized from scratch in the single week since France first launched its strikes.

Paris says the incident proves that its decision to fight Islamists in neighboring Mali was necessary.

Security in the half-dozen countries around the Sahara desert has long been a pre-occupation of the West. Smugglers and militants have earned millions in ransom from kidnappings.

The most powerful Islamist groups in the Sahara were severely weakened by Algeria's secularist military in a civil war in the 1990s. But in the past two years the regional wing of Al Qaeda gained fighters and arms as a result of the civil war in Libya, when arsenals were looted from Muammar Gaddafi's army.

Al Qaeda-linked fighters, many with roots in Algeria and Libya, took control of northern Mali last year, prompting the French intervention in that poor African former colony.

The Algerian security source said only two of 11 militants whose bodies were found on Thursday were Algerian, including the squad's leader. The others comprised three Egyptians, two Tunisians, two Libyans, a Malian and a Frenchman, he said.

The plant was heavily fortified, with security, controlled access and an army camp with hundreds of armed personnel between the accommodation and processing plant, Andy Coward Honeywell, who worked there in 2009, told the BBC.

The apparent ease with which the fighters swooped in from the dunes to take control of an important energy facility, which produces some 10 percent of the natural gas on which Algeria depends for its export income, has raised questions over the value of outwardly tough security measures.

Algerian officials said the attackers may have had inside help from among the hundreds of Algerians employed at the site. The attackers benefitted from bases and staging grounds across the nearby border in Libya's desert, Algerian officials said.

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said those responsible would be hunted down: "Terrorists should be on notice that they will find no sanctuary, no refuge, not in Algeria, not in North Africa, not anywhere.... Those who would wantonly attack our country and our people will have no place to hide."


The kidnappers threatened more attacks and warned Algerians to stay away from foreign companies' installations, according to Mauritania's news agency ANI, which maintained contact with the group during the siege.

Hundreds of workers from international oil companies were evacuated from Algeria on Thursday and many more will follow, said BP, which jointly ran the gas plant with Norway's Statoil and the Algerian state oil firm.

The overall commander of the kidnappers, Algerian officials said, was Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a one-eyed veteran of Afghanistan in the 1980s and Algeria's bloody civil war of the 1990s. He appears not to have been present.

Algerian security specialist Anis Rahmani, author of several books on terrorism and editor of Ennahar daily, told Reuters about 70 militants were involved from two groups, Belmokhtar's "Those who sign in blood", who traveled from Libya, and the lesser known "Movement of the Islamic Youth in the South".

Britain's Cameron, who warned people to prepare for bad news and who canceled a major policy speech on Friday to deal with the situation, said he would have liked Algeria to have consulted before the raid. Japan made similar complaints.

U.S. officials had no clear information on the fate of Americans. Washington, like its European allies, has endorsed France's military intervention in Mali.

(Additional reporting by Ali Abdelatti in Cairo, Eamonn Mallie in Belfast, Gwladys Fouche in Oslo, Mohammed Abbas in London and Padraic Halpin and Conor Humprhies in Dublin; Writing by Philippa Fletcher and Peter Graff; Editing by Andrew Roche)

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Matching names to genes: the end of genetic privacy?

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Are we being too free with our genetic information? What if you started receiving targeted ads for Prozac for the depression risk revealed by your publicly accessible genome? As increasing amounts of genetic information is placed online, many researchers believe that guaranteeing donors' privacy has become an impossible task.

The first major genetic data collection began in 2002 with the International HapMap Project – a collaborative effort to sequence genomes from families around the world. Its aim was to develop a public resource that will help researchers find genes associated with human disease and drug response.

While its consent form assured participants that their data would remain confidential, it had the foresight to mention that with future scientific advances, a deliberate attempt to match a genome with its donor might succeed. "The risk was felt to be very remote," says Laura Lyman Rodriguez of the US government's National Human Genome Research Institute in Bethesda, Maryland.

Their fears proved to be founded: in a paper published in Science this week, a team led by Yaniv Erlich of the Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, used publicly available genetic information and an algorithm they developed to identify some of the people who donated their DNA to HapMap's successor, the 1000 Genomes Project.

Anonymity not guaranteed

Erlich says the research was inspired by a New Scientist article in which a 15-year-old boy successfully used unique genetic markers called short tandem repeats (STRs) on his Y chromosome to track down his father, who was an anonymous sperm donor. Erlich and his team used a similar approach.

First they turned to open-access genealogy databases, which attempt to link male relatives using matching surnames and similar STRs. The team chose a few surnames from these sources, such as "Venter",and then searched for the associated STRs in the 1000 Genomes Project's collection of whole genomes. This allowed them to identify which complete genomes were likely to be from people named Venter.

Although the 1000 Genome Project's database, which at last count had 1092 genomes, does not contain surname data, it does contain demographic data such as the ages and locations of its donors. By searching online phonebooks for people named Venter and narrowing those down to the geographic regions and ages represented in the whole genomes, the researchers were able to find the specific person who had donated his data.

In total, the researchers identified 50 individuals who had donated whole genomes. Some of these were female, whose identity was given away because of having the same location and age as a known donor's wife.

Matter of time

Before publishing their findings, the team warned the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other institutions involved in the project about the vulnerability in their data. Rodriguez says that they had been anticipating that someone would identify donors, "although we didn't know how or when".

To prevent Erlich's method from being used successfully again, age data has been removed from the project's website. Erlich says that this makes it difficult, although not impossible, to narrow the surnames down to an individual.

"The genie's out of the bottle," says Jeffrey Kahn of Florida State University in Tallahassee. "It's a harbinger of a changing paradigm of privacy." A cultural zeitgeist led by companies such as Facebook has led to more information sharing than anyone would have thought possible back in 2002 when HapMap first began, he says.

Recurring problem

This is not the first time genome confidentiality has been compromised. When James Watson made his genome public in 2007, he blanked out a gene related to Alzheimer's. But a group of researchers successfully inferred whether he carried the risky version of this gene by examining the DNA sequences on either side of the redacted gene.

While someone is bound to find another way to identify genetic donors, says Rodriguez, the NIH believes it would be wrong to remove all of their genome data from the public domain. She says that full accessibility is "very beneficial to science", but acknowledges that the project needs to strike a careful balance between confidentiality and open access.

It is especially pertinent, says Kahn, because genetic data does not just carry information from the person from whom it was taken. It can also reveal the genetic details of family members, some of whom might not want that information to be public. A relative's genome might reveal your own disease risk, for example, which you might not want to know or have an employer learn of. While laws prohibit health insurers and employers from discriminating against people based on their genetic data, it would not be difficult to give another reason for denying you a job.

An individual's relatives could not prevent that individual from learning about themselves, says Rodriguez, but researchers should encourage would-be genome donors to discuss the risks and benefits with their families.

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Amazon says music catalogue open to Apple users

SAN FRANCISCO: Amazon said Thursday its 22-million song music catalogue was now "optimised" for users of Apple devices, making it easier for iPhone owners to circumvent the iTunes store.

The move is part of a new initiative by the Internet retail giant challenging Apple's dominance of the digital music market.

"For the first time ever, iPhone and iPod touch users can discover and buy digital music from Amazon's 22-million song catalogue using the Safari browser," Amazon said in a statement.

"Music purchases are automatically saved to customers' Cloud Player libraries and can be downloaded or played instantly from any iPhone, iPod touch, iPad, Kindle Fire, Android phone or tablet, Roku, Sonos home entertainment system, or any Web browser, giving customers the freedom to enjoy more music, from more devices than any other major cloud music service."

The move comes a week after Amazon launched a service that gives compact disc buyers instant copies of music in the Internet "cloud" in a challenge to iTunes.

Amazon AutoRip provides free MP3 versions of music on CDs bought from the online retail titan.

In the newest announcement, Amazon said its MP3 mobile website for iPhone and iPod touches is built on HTML5, which means customers can make purchases directly from the website.

Amazon offers some deals, including US$5 albums, 69-cent songs, and free songs from artists on the rise.

According to research firm NPD, iTunes last year held a 64 per cent share of the digital music market and 29 per cent share of all music sold at retail. Amazon had 16 per cent of the digital market, according to NPD's September survey.

- AFP/jc

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Woman repeatedly raped inside Nordstrom, police allege

 Police officers stand outside Nordstrom Rack following take-over style robbery. Credit: Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times

Prosecutors said one of the five people charged in connection with the
take-over robbery at a Nordstrom Rack department store in Westchester raped one of the female hostages.

Prosecutors offered no details. But a district attorney's office spokeswoman said the victim was sexually assaulted "multiple times."

Five charged in Nordstrom Rack take-over robbery

Raymond Sherman Jr., 34, who authorities said was the most violent in the group, was charged with two counts
of forcible rape, one count of
oral copulation, one count of kidnapping for rape, one count of assault
with a
deadly weapon and 14 counts of second-degree robbery.

DOCUMENT: Read the criminal complaint 

Troy Marsay Hammock, 29, and Everett Oneal Allen, 24, face 14 counts
each of second-degree robbery and one count each of assault with a
deadly weapon, identified as a knife, according to the Los Angeles
County district attorney's office.

Rochelle Monique Sherman, 33; and Paula Roneshia Bradley, 29, were charged with one count each of accessory after the fact.

The complaint also alleges Sherman, who is awaiting extradition from Phoenix, where he was
arrested Saturday, used a handgun in the commission of the crimes.

Police have not detailed the roles of the suspects in the
robbery and hostage situation. But those in law enforcement familiar with
the investigation said there is strong evidence linking the crimes to those charged, including physical evidence and security video.

The incident began about 11 p.m. Thursday at the Promenade at Howard
Hughes Center, near the 405 Freeway. Sherman, Hammock and Allen
allegedly confronted the employees as they were leaving the store, which
had just closed.

As the incident was unfolding, one of the employees called her
husband and told him to call 911. The LAPD called a tactical alert and
closed off the area around the shopping center. When the police
department's SWAT officers arrived, they surrounded the store.

At one point, one of the suspected burglars exited, saw the police and ran back inside. A
second suspected burglar walked out with an unidentified woman, saw police and
also headed back inside. The officers entered the store at 3:30 a.m. and
freed the captives.

At least three of the employees were injured, including at least one
woman who was sexually assaulted. Another woman was stabbed in the neck
and sustained non-life-threatening injuries, and a third employee was
pistol-whipped, police said. LAPD Chief Charlie Beck praised the
employees for their bravery and composure.

Beck would not discuss whether the robbers hid in the store or gained
entrance after it closed. Nor would he say how long they remained in the
store before fleeing in a white SUV, or discuss how much cash was taken
in the robbery.


House catches fire during East L.A. SWAT standoff

Galt police mourn officer fatally shot responding to burglary

Talk back: Can clinicians help pedophiles quell their desires?

--Andrew Blankstein

Photo: Police officers stand outside Nordstrom Rack in Westchester following take-over style robbery. Credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times

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Opinion: Lance One of Many Tour de France Cheaters

Editor's note: England-based writer and photographer Roff Smith rides around 10,000 miles a year through the lanes of Sussex and Kent and writes a cycling blog at:

And so, the television correspondent said to the former Tour de France champion, a man who had been lionised for years, feted as the greatest cyclist of his day, did you ever use drugs in the course of your career?

"Yes," came the reply. "Whenever it was necessary."

"And how often was that?" came the follow-up question.

"Almost all the time!"

This is not a leak of a transcript from Oprah Winfrey's much anticipated tell-all with disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong, but instead was lifted from a decades-old interview with Fausto Coppi, the great Italian road cycling champion of the 1940s and 1950s.

To this day, though, Coppi is lauded as one of the gods of cycling, an icon of a distant and mythical golden age in the sport.

So is five-time Tour winner Jacques Anquetil (1957, 1961-64) who famously remarked that it was impossible "to ride the Tour on mineral water."

"You would have to be an imbecile or a crook to imagine that a professional cyclist who races for 235 days a year can hold the pace without stimulants," Anquetil said.

And then there's British cycling champion Tommy Simpson, who died of heart failure while trying to race up Mont Ventoux during the 1967 Tour de France, a victim of heat, stress, and a heady cocktail of amphetamines.

All are heroes today. If their performance-enhancing peccadillos are not forgotten, they have at least been glossed over in the popular imagination.

As the latest chapter of the sorry Lance Armstrong saga unfolds, it is worth looking at the history of cheating in the Tour de France to get a sense of perspective. This is not an attempt at rationalisation or justification for what Lance did. Far from it.

But the simple, unpalatable fact is that cheating, drugs, and dirty tricks have been part and parcel of the Tour de France nearly from its inception in 1903.

Cheating was so rife in the 1904 event that Henri Desgrange, the founder and organiser of the Tour, declared he would never run the race again. Not only was the overall winner, Maurice Garin, disqualified for taking the train over significant stretches of the course, but so were next three cyclists who placed, along with the winner of every single stage of the course.

Of the 27 cyclists who actually finished the 1904 race, 12 were disqualified and given bans ranging from one year to life. The race's eventual official winner, 19-year-old Henri Cornet, was not determined until four months after the event.

And so it went. Desgrange relented on his threat to scrub the Tour de France and the great race survived and prospered-as did the antics. Trains were hopped, taxis taken, nails scattered along the roads, partisan supporters enlisted to beat up rivals on late-night lonely stretches of the course, signposts tampered with, bicycles sabotaged, itching powder sprinkled in competitors' jerseys and shorts, food doctored, and inkwells smashed so riders yet to arrive couldn't sign the control documents to prove they'd taken the correct route.

And then of course there were the stimulants-brandy, strychnine, ether, whatever-anything to get a rider through the nightmarishly tough days and nights of racing along stages that were often over 200 miles long. In a way the race was tailor-made to encourage this sort of thing. Desgrange once famously said that his idea of a perfect Tour de France would be one that was so tough that only one rider finished.

Add to this the big prizes at a time when money was hard to come by, a Tour largely comprising young riders from impoverished backgrounds for whom bicycle racing was their one big chance to get ahead, and the passionate following cycling enjoyed, and you had the perfect recipe for a desperate, high stakes, win-at-all-costs mentality, especially given the generally tolerant views on alcohol and drugs in those days.

After World War II came the amphetamines. Devised to keep soldiers awake and aggressive through long hours of battle they were equally handy for bicycle racers competing in the world's longest and toughest race.

So what makes the Lance Armstrong story any different, his road to redemption any rougher? For one thing, none of the aforementioned riders were ever the point man for what the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency has described in a thousand-page report as the most sophisticated, cynical, and far-reaching doping program the world of sport has ever seen-one whose secrecy and efficiency was maintained by ruthlessness, bullying, fear, and intimidation.

Somewhere along the line, the casualness of cheating in the past evolved into an almost Frankenstein sort of science in which cyclists, aided by creepy doctors and trainers, were receiving blood transfusions in hotel rooms and tinkering around with their bodies at the molecular level many months before they ever lined up for a race.

To be sure, Armstrong didn't invent all of this, any more than he invented original sin-nor was he acting alone. But with his success, money, intelligence, influence, and cohort of thousand-dollar-an-hour lawyers-and the way he used all this to prop up the Lance brand and the Lance machine at any cost-he became the poster boy and lightning rod for all that went wrong with cycling, his high profile eclipsing even the heads of the Union Cycliste Internationale, the global cycling union, who richly deserve their share of the blame.

It is not his PED popping that is the hard-to-forgive part of the Lance story. Armstrong cheated better than his peers, that's all.

What I find troubling is the bullying and calculated destruction of anyone who got in his way, raised a question, or cast a doubt. By all accounts Armstrong was absolutely vicious, vindictive as hell. Former U.S. Postal team masseuse Emma O'Reilly found herself being described publicly as a "prostitute" and an "alcoholic," and had her life put through a legal grinder when she spoke out about Armstrong's use of PEDs.

Journalists were sued, intimidated, and blacklisted from events, press conferences, and interviews if they so much as questioned the Lance miracle or well-greased machine that kept winning Le Tour.

Armstrong left a lot of wreckage behind him.

If he is genuinely sorry, if he truly repents for his past "indiscretions," one would think his first act would be to try to find some way of not only seeking forgiveness from those whom he brutally put down, but to do something meaningful to repair the damage he did to their lives and livelihoods.

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Some foreign hostages said killed in Algeria assault

ALGIERS (Reuters) - Algeria said several hostages were killed on Thursday when its forces stormed a remote desert gas plant occupied by Islamist militants in retaliation for French intervention in Mali, and local sources said six foreigners were among the dead.

Amid reports of many more casualties in one of the biggest international hostage crises in decades, Western leaders expressed anger they had not been consulted before the operation and scrambled for word of their citizens. Some eight hours after the army assault began, Algerian state media said it was over.

Americans, Britons, Norwegians, French, Romanians and an Austrian, were among those taken, their countries said.

Algeria said its troops had been forced to act to free them due to the "diehard" attitude of their captors.

"When the terrorist group insisted on leaving the facility, taking the foreign hostages with them to neighboring states, the order was issued to special units to attack the position where the terrorists were entrenched," the government spokesman, Communication Minister, Mohamed Said told the state news agency.

The standoff began when gunmen calling themselves the Battalion of Blood stormed the natural gas facility early on Wednesday morning. They said they were holding 41 foreigners and demanded a halt to a French military operation against fellow al Qaeda-linked Islamist militants in neighboring Mali.

Said said the military operation, which Western officials were told had begun around noon (6:00 a.m. EST) on Thursday, resulted in "the liberation of a large number of hostages and the destruction of a large number of terrorists".

The raid increased fears jihadist militants could launch further attacks in Algeria, a vast desert country with large oil and gas reserves that is only just recovering from a protracted conflict with Islamist rebels during the 1990s which cost an estimated 200,000 lives.

A local source told Reuters six foreign hostages were killed along with eight captors when the Algerian military fired on a vehicle being used by the gunmen.

He said 40 Algerians and three foreigners were freed by the army as it continued its operation into Thursday evening. An Algerian security source said earlier that 25 foreign hostages had escaped.

Algeria's official APS news agency said about half the foreign hostages had been freed and about 600 Algerian workers at the site, under less tight guard, had managed to escape.


In a rare eyewitness account of Wednesday's raid, a local man who had escaped from the facility told Reuters the militants appeared to have good inside knowledge of the layout of the complex and used the language of radical Islam.

"The terrorists told us at the very start that they would not hurt Muslims but were only interested in the Christians and infidels," Abdelkader, 53, said by telephone from his home in the nearby town of In Amenas. "We will kill them, they said."

Mauritanian agency ANI and Qatar-based Al Jazeera said that 34 of the captives and 15 of their captors had been killed when government forces fired from helicopters at a vehicle.

Those death tolls, far higher than confirmed by the local source, would contradict the reports that large numbers of foreigners escaped alive. On Thursday evening, ANI said it had lost its previously regular contact with the kidnappers.

Britain and Norway, whose oil firms BP and Statoil run the plant jointly with the Algerian state oil company, said they had been informed by the Algerian authorities that a military operation was under way.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said people should prepare for bad news about the hostages. He earlier called his Algerian counterpart to express his concern at what he called a "very grave and serious" situation, Cameron's spokesman said.

"The Algerians are aware that we would have preferred to have been consulted in advance," the spokesman added.

Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg said he had been told by his Algerian counterpart the action had started at around noon. He said they had tried to find a solution through the night, but that it had not worked.

"The Algerian prime minister said they felt they had no choice but to go in now," he said.


The incident dramatically raises the stakes in the French military campaign in neighboring Mali, where hundreds of French paratroopers and marines are launching a ground offensive against Islamist rebels after air strikes began last week.

"What is happening in Algeria justifies all the more the decision I made in the name of France to intervene in Mali in line with the U.N. charter," French President Francois Hollande said, adding that things seemed to have taken a "dramatic" turn and he was still seeking details.

He said earlier that an unspecified number of French nationals were among the hostages. A French national was also among the hostage takers, a local source told Reuters. A large number of people from the former French colony live in France.

Algerian Interior Minister Daho Ould Kablia said the kidnappers were led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a veteran Islamist guerrilla who fought in Afghanistan and set up his own group in the Sahara after falling out with other local al Qaeda leaders.

A holy warrior-cum-smuggler dubbed "The Uncatchable" by French intelligence and "Mister Marlboro" by some locals for his illicit cigarette-running business, Belmokhtar's links to those who seized towns across northern Mali last year are unclear.

A local source told Reuters the hostage takers had blown up a petrol filling station at the plant.


The precise number and nationalities of foreign hostages could not be confirmed, with some countries reluctant to release information that could be useful to the captors.

Britain said one of its citizens was killed in the initial storming on Wednesday and "a number" of others were held.

The militants had said seven Americans were among their hostages. The White House said it believed Americans were among those held but U.S. officials could not confirm the number. "This is an ongoing situation and we are seeking clarity," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters, expressing concern about the reported loss of lives.

Statoil said it had no word on nine of its Norwegian staff who had been held but that three Algerian employees were now free. BP said some of its staff were held but would not say how many or their nationalities.

Japanese media said five workers from Japanese engineering firm JGC Corp. were held, a number the company did not confirm. Vienna said one hostage was Austrian, Dublin said one Irish hostage had been freed and Bucharest said an unspecified number of those held were Romanian.

BP, Statoil and Spanish oil company Cepsa all said they had begun to evacuate personnel from elsewhere in Algeria, an OPEC member.

Hollande has received public backing from Western and African allies who fear that al Qaeda, flush with men and arms from the defeated forces of Libya's Muammar Gaddafi, is building a desert haven in Mali, a poor country helpless to combat fighters who seized its northern oasis towns last year.

However, there is also some concern in Washington and other capitals that the French action in Mali could provoke a backlash worse than the initial threat by militants in the remote Sahara.

The militants, communicating through established contacts with media in neighboring Mauritania, said on Wednesday they had dozens of men armed with mortars and anti-aircraft missiles in the compound and had rigged it with explosives.

They condemned Algeria's secularist government for letting French warplanes fly over its territory to Mali and shutting its border to Malian refugees.

The attack in Algeria did not stop France from pressing on with its campaign in Mali. It said on Thursday it now had 1,400 troops on the ground in Mali, and combat was under way against the rebels that it first began targeting from the air last week.

The French action last week came as a surprise but received widespread international support in public. Neighboring African countries planning to provide ground troops for a U.N. force by September have said they will move faster to deploy them.

Nigeria, the strongest regional power, sent 162 soldiers on Thursday, the first of an anticipated 906.

A day after launching the campaign in Mali, Hollande also ordered a failed rescue in Somalia on Saturday to free a French hostage held by al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab militants since 2009. Al Shabaab said on Thursday it had executed hostage Denis Allex. France said it believed he died in the rescue.

(Additional reporting by Ali Abdelatti in Cairo, Gwladys Fouche in Oslo, Mohammed Abbas in London and Padraic Halpin in Writing by Peter Graff, Giles Elgood and Philippa Fletcher; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)

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NASA buys blow-up habitat for space station astronauts

NASA wants to blow up part of the International Space Station – and a Las Vegas firm is eager to help.

The US space agency has signed a $17.8-million contract with Bigelow Aerospace of Nevada to build an inflatable crew habitat for the ISS.

According to details released today at a press briefing , the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM, will launch in 2015. Astronauts on the ISS will test the module for safety and comfort.

BEAM will fly uninflated inside the trunk of a SpaceX Dragon capsule. Once docked and fully expanded, the module will be 4 metres long and 3 metres wide. For two years astronauts will monitor conditions inside, such as temperature and radiation levels.

Bigelow hopes the tests done in orbit will prove that inflatable capsules are safe and reliable for space tourists and commercial research, an idea almost as old as NASA itself. The space agency began investigating the concept of expandable spacecraft in 1958. Space stations like this would be easier to launch and assemble than those with metal components, so would be cheaper. But research ended after a budget crunch in 2000, and Bigelow licensed the technology from NASA.

Stronger skin

The company has made progress, developing shielding that resists punctures from space debris and micrometeorites. BEAM's skin, for instance, is made from layers of material like Kevlar to protect occupants from high-speed impacts. The craft's skin has been tested in the lab alongside shielding used right now on the rest of the ISS, says Bigelow director Mike Gold.

"Our envelope will not only equal but be superior to what is flying on the ISS today. We have a strong and absolute focus on safety," he says.

And we have to be sure that inflatable craft are safe, says William Schonberg, an engineer specialising in orbital debris protection at Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla. "The overall risk to the ISS is the sum of the risks of its individual components," he says.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but a flexible, inflatable design is just as likely to survive punishment from space debris as metal shielding, says Schonberg. "Certain composite cloth materials have been shown to be highly effective as shields against [high-speed space] impacts. So depending on what material is used, and in what combination it is used with other materials – such as thermal insulation blankets – the final design could be just as effective and perhaps better than the more traditional all-metal shields used elsewhere on the station."

Gold hopes BEAM will also demonstrate that fabric shielding can limit radiation risks. This is a major worry on missions to the moon or an asteroid say, where astronauts have to spend weeks or months outside Earth's protective magnetic field.

High-energy particles called cosmic rays constantly fly through the solar system, and when they strike metal shielding, they can emit secondary radiation in the form of X-rays. This doesn't happen with Kevlar-based fabric shields and so expandable habitats could be more desirable for travellers heading deeper into space, says Gold.

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Chavez to troops: thanks for the 'loyalty and love'

CARACAS: Lying in a Havana hospital bed as he recovers from cancer surgery, President Hugo Chavez thanked Venezuela's military for their loyalty and love, the vice president said Wednesday.

Nicolas Maduro told a military audience the president expressed this message to Science Minister Jorge Arreaza, who is also Chavez's son-in-law and with him in Cuba.

"He told us to pass on to the armed forces, from the bottom of his heart, all of his gratitude for so much loyalty from you toward the commander, a humble soldier of this country," said Maduro, who saw Chavez over the weekend in Havana.

"Thanks to everyone for so much loyalty and so much love," Maduro said, quoting Arreaza as quoting Chavez, a former paratrooper who is now 58.

Chavez underwent a fourth cancer operation on December 11 in Havana and remains there recovering. His latest complication is a pulmonary infection.

He has not been seen in public since before he left Caracas.

But before he left, he warned the armed forces to be on the lookout for any attempt, "from outside or from within," to destabilise the country, which has the world's largest proven oil reserves.

At Wednesday's ceremony at a military academy, Defence Minister Diego Molero said the armed forces remain faithful "now more than ever" to Chavez.

And they will respect a Supreme Court ruling upholding a parliamentary vote last week that indefinitely postponed Chavez's inauguration to a new six-year term following his re-election win back in October.

Chavez's absence and silence -- he is a garrulous, larger-than-life character -- has unsettled many Venezuelans. Some in the opposition complain that the country is in effect, and illegally, being ruled from Cuba and with Cuban influence.

No gesture goes unnoticed as a nation so thoroughly dominated by the populist and champion-of-the-poor comandante goes without him and ponders an uncertain future.

For instance, the opposition seized on just a few words -- Chavez's stamped signature on a decree -- Wednesday to demand he clarify how sick he is and what he can and cannot do.

The official government gazette published a decree in which Elias Jaua was named as Venezuela's new foreign minister.

The decree is dated Caracas and carries the stamped signature of Chavez.

Henrique Capriles, a state governor whom Chavez beat in Venezuela's October presidential election, said it was puzzling that the decree on the new foreign minister carried the president's name.

"If the president of the republic can sign decrees, I call on him to appear, speak to Venezuela and tell us what is happening in this government, because what Venezuela has is 'dis-government'," Capriles said.

The government has been releasing only minimal information on the condition of Chavez, who first came to power in 1999.

Many in Venezuela find it hard to believe the flamboyant Chavez, a near fixture on television and radio for more than a decade -- would not address the nation in some way if he were able to do so.

Chavez's absence, combined with his decision to be treated in secrecy in strictly-controlled communist Cuba, has fuelled questions about his health and the future of his leftist "Bolivarian Revolution."

- AFP/jc

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L.A. councilman seeks ban on large-capacity gun magazines

Los Angeles City Councilman Paul Krekorian wants the city to explore the feasibility of banning the possession of high-capacity gun magazines, the first step toward instituting stricter city gun and ammunition laws.

Although the California penal code now prohibits the manufacture and sale of magazines that hold more than 10 bullets, Krekorian said in a council motion Tuesday that a ban on the possession of the magazines within city limits could further improve public safety.

"The element missing from the state prohibition on high-capacity magazines is possession," Krekorian said in an interview with The Times

High-capacity gun magazines: An earlier online version of this article, and its headline, incorrectly stated that Councilman Paul Krekorian has asked the city to consider banning ammunition for high-capacity gun magazines. Krekorian has requested that the city research a ban on the high-capacity magazines themselves, not their ammunition.

Although gun rights advocates frequently describe high-capacity magazine bans as "feel-good" steps, Krekorian said prohibiting their possession would give police a way to stop potential mass shooters before a tragedy can take place.

"I'm not interested in doing something that will have no effect," Krekorian said. "I'm interested in doing something that will prevent the kinds of slaughters we experience too often -- whether it's school shootings, shootouts with the police or drive-bys by gangbangers."

Krekorian's motion cited the 1997 North Hollywood shootout -- during which two bank robbers fired thousands of automatic weapon rounds at responding officers -- as well as the recent Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newtown, Conn.

The motion asks that the Los Angeles Police Department, the city attorney and the city legislative analyst look into the feasibility, effectiveness and benefits of such a ban.

It marks the first formal request by a council member to look into a potential ban, according to Krekorian's spokesperson.

Second Amendment advocates have widely decried city, state and federal high-capacity magazine bans. Representatives from both the Gun Owners of America and National Rifle Assn. have previously said the bans restrict the ability of law-abiding gun owners from defending themselves.

"If the city of Los Angeles is looking to find new ways to waste taxpayer money, a proposal along the lines of banning the possession of instruments currently legal to own would certainly be one way to do it," said Brandon Combs, executive director of Calguns Foundation, a California-based 2nd Amendment advocacy group.

Although Combs said it's reasonable to consider bans on "true high-capacity magazines" holding more than 30 bullets, bans on 10- to 20-bullet magazines being pushed into law across the country are infringing on the rights of gun owners to protect themselves.

Meanwhile, a ban would do nothing to curb the behavior of criminals, who probably will continue to use high-capacity magazines even where they are illegal, he said.

"These criminals who commit mass shootings are not interested in listening to the Los Angeles City Council," Combs said. "I'd like to see some evidence that suggests a ban on high-capacity magazines has any effect on crime at all."

He noted that other California cities -- including San Francisco and San Jose -- have also pushed new gun and ammunition restrictions in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting.

While other Los Angeles City Council members have supported a national ban on assault weapons and called for city investment funds to sell any stock they might hold in companies that make or sell such guns, the request for this report is the first step toward curbing high-capacity magazine possession at the city level since the mass shooting in Connecticut.

The December shooting in Newtown, which left 27 dead, including 20 children and the gunman, and last week's shooting at Taft Union High School in Kern County have re-energized discussions of gun control measures among Los Angeles politicians.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and LAPD Chief Charlie Beck bumped up the annual gun buyback program and have increased the police presence in schools. The mayor has also scheduled a news conference Wednesday to further address gun violence.

Meanwhile, all four mayoral hopefuls -- including current council members Jan Perry and Eric Garcetti -- have called for the renewal of the federal assault weapons ban.

Combs said if there was going to be a renewed conversation about gun control, he hopes the politicians who have added gun safety measures to their platforms and stump speeches open the discussion to 2nd Amendment advocates.

"Are these city officials going to invite us to the table? Or is this just going to be them passing restrictive gun laws they've already decided they want to see pass?" Combs said. "Hopefully, our elected officials are reaching out to gun rights organizations if they're truly interested in having a conversation."

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