13 customs agents killed in Algeria

ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) – Gunmen attacked a convoy of customs agents traveling through the desert in southern Algeria on Friday, killing 13 and wounding eight others, the official APS news agency reported.

One other person was reported to have disappeared in the attack in the Ghardaia region, 745 miles south of the capital of this North African nation, APS reported, citing local security sources.

The attackers opened fire with machine-guns on vehicles transporting the customs agents to a seminar, then set the vehicles afire, according to a report on daily Liberte’s Web site. The gunmen, whose numbers were not immediately known, then fled in two four-wheel drive vehicles.

The vast desert region of southern Algeria is known as a transit area for arms trafficking and attacks by Islamic insurgents who have waged a battle with authorities for nearly 15 years.

Violence, which has killed up to 200,000 people since 1992, has plummeted drastically in recent years.

Spain court voids terror convictions

MADRID, Spain (AP) – Spain’s Supreme Court on Friday threw out the convictions of three men found guilty last year of being part of an al-Qaida-linked group after prosecutors agreed there was not sufficient evidence to jail them, a court official said.

The men – Driss Chebli, Sadik Merizak and Abdelaziz Benyaich – had received sentences of between six and eight years – Chebli for collaboration with an al-Qaida-linked terror group, and the others for belonging to a terror organization. They were among 18 people convicted in a high-profile trial last year linked to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Prosecutors this week acknowledged there was not sufficient evidence to jail the three and the Supreme Court agreed, said the court official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because his office’s ground rules prohibit him from being identified.

The court was hearing appeals by all 18.

On Thursday, prosecutors also urged the court to throw out a conviction for murder conspiracy against the leading suspect in the case, Syrian-born Spaniard Imad Yarkas, 46.

Yarkas is alleged to have founded and led an al-Qaida cell in Spain, which investigators say was a staging ground for the Sept. 11 attacks, along with Germany.

The three-judge Spanish panel that handed down the ruling against Yarkas in September said he was innocent of a more serious charge of being accomplice to mass murder, but guilty of “conspiracy with the suicide terrorist” Mohamed Atta and other members of the Hamburg, Germany-based cell suspected of staging the Sept. 11 attacks.

The sentence said Yarkas “knew of the sinister plans” for Sept. 11 and “assumed them as his own, receiving regular updates on the preparations that preceded the attacks.”

Yarkas got 15 years on the conspiracy count and 12 years for being a leader of a terrorist organization.

But prosecutors acknowledged this week that there was no firm evidence to back up claims that he took part in Sept. 11 planning.

Prosecutors have argued that the convictions of the other 14 men – mainly of Syrian and Moroccan origin – should stand.

U.S. car pelted by eggs

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) – Supporters of President Hugo Chavez threw eggs, fruit and vegetables at the U.S. ambassador’s car Friday, and a group of motorcyclists chased his convoy for miles, at times pounding on the vehicles, a U.S. Embassy official said. No one was hurt.

Embassy spokesman Brian Penn said Venezuelan police escorts did not intervene as the car carrying Ambassador William Brownfield was pounded and pelted.

“We’re being attacked by groups of motorcyclists while we’re traveling in an embassy car,” Penn told The Associated Press by cell phone shortly before the motorcycles stopped chasing the four-car convoy.

“It’s a very violent demonstration by a small group of people who appear to be organized by the mayor’s office,” Penn said.

The Caracas mayor’s office, however, denied any involvement. “No official authorized by the mayor’s office participated,” said Luis Martinez, a spokesman for Mayor Juan Barreto.

Brownfield has faced protests at recent appearances. Chavez has repeatedly accused Washington of conspiring to overthrow him, an accusation U.S. officials have denied. The U.S. Embassy has asked the Venezuelan government to improve security for the ambassador, saying it’s legally bound to do so, Penn said.

He said the protest began when Brownfield visited a baseball stadium in southern Caracas to hand out bats and other donated equipment to a youth league.

During the event, a Chavez supporter who wore an identification badge of the pro-Chavez mayor’s office walked up and said the people in the area wanted Brownfield to leave, Penn said.

He stayed and finished the event, by which time a protest by a few dozen people had formed outside, chanting “Go home! Go home!”

Penn said the barrage of tomatoes, eggs and other items began when the convoy pulled out and drove through an adjacent market. He said National Guard troops were on hand and pushed the crowd back as the cars passed through.

“Our car is stained all over,” Penn said. “They were pounding on the cars, including pounding on the ambassador’s car while they were driving. There was no one stopping them.”

He said the motorcyclists chased the convoy for three or four miles.

“The motorcyclists were throwing things at us for at least 10 minutes, and the police did nothing,” Penn said. “It was serious.”