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Algeria Confirms Abduction of Seven Diplomats in Mali

Armed Islamists seized the Algerian consulate in Gao in northeastern Mali on Thursday and abducted seven diplomats, Algeria's foreign ministry and witnesses said.

"The consul and six members of the Algerian consular mission have been taken to an unknown destination," the foreign ministry said in a statement published by the APS news agency.

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U.N. Team Arrives in Syria as Security Council Backs April 10 Deadline

The U.N. Security Council on Thursday gave formal backing to an April 10 deadline that U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan agreed with the Syrian government to end its military offensive on protest cities, as a U.N. team dispatched by Annan to pave the way for eventual observers arrived in Damascus.

A statement, in which the council "calls upon the Syrian government to implement urgently and visibly its commitments" was adopted at a meeting on Thursday.

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Suleiman Rules Out Presidency Bid, Shater Registers Candidacy

Egypt's former spy chief and vice president Omar Suleiman on Thursday ruled out running for the presidency in the upcoming election, ending weeks of speculation, as Khairat el-Shater, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, registered his candidacy.

Suleiman, who served as Hosni Mubarak's vice president before the strongman's overthrow last year, said in statement on Wednesday that he would sit out the election because getting the nomination was too difficult.

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Syria to Give Red Cross Access to Detention Facilities

The Syrian regime has agreed to provide access to detention facilities throughout the country, the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross said on Thursday.

Jakob Kellenberger, who concluded a two-day visit to Damascus on Wednesday, said in a statement that Syrian authorities had agreed on procedures for visits to places of detention.

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France 'Not Optimistic' on U.N. Syria Peace Plan

France is not confident Syrian strongman Bashar Assad will fully implement a ceasefire deal brokered by U.N. envoy Kofi Annan before an April 12 deadline, Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said Thursday.

"Can we be optimistic? I'm not," Juppe said, when asked by journalists about hopes that Annan's plan might bring an end to the Syrian regime's violent repression of a popular revolt against Assad's rule.

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Fugitive Iraq VP Accuses Maliki of Targeting Sunnis

Iraq's fugitive Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi has accused Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite government of waging a systematic campaign against Sunni Arabs in Iraq.

In an interview with the pan-Arab al-Jazeera network aired late on Wednesday, Hashemi said the accusations against him of running a death squad "have a sectarian dimension," noting that he is the "fifth Sunni figure to be targeted" by Iraq's Shiite-led government.

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At Least 38 Dead as Syria Says Troop Withdrawal Began

At least 38 people, half of them civilians, were killed in violence across Syria on Thursday, monitors said, with fierce fighting between regime troops and insurgents in the rebel provinces of Idlib and Homs, as a spokesman for Kofi Annan said the U.N.-Arab League envoy expects both the Syrian government and the opposition to fully implement a ceasefire agreement by April 12.

The violence came despite the arrival in Damascus of a U.N. team dispatched by Annan to pave the way for a possible observer mission in Syria.

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Report: Damascus Sees No Deadline to Withdraw Troops

The Syrian regime is not bound by a deadline to withdraw its troops from strife-torn areas, pro-government daily al-Watan on Thursday quoted a government official as saying.

"There is no set date or deadline," the unnamed official said.

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Russia Warns West against Ultimatums on Syria

Russia on Thursday warned the West against using threats and ultimatums in its approach to Syria's regime as the United Nations prepared a statement on the protracted conflict.

"Russia proceeds from a deep conviction that any steps around Syria should be aimed at facilitating the success of U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan's mission," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.

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Israeli, Palestinian Negotiators Meet in Jorda

Jordan has nudged Israeli and Palestinian negotiators back to discussions on the peace process, a government official said on Thursday, adding that the two sides had met in Amman during the night.

"Israeli and Palestinian officials met last night in Amman for discussions," the official told Agence France Presse, speaking on condition of anonymity.

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