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Air Algerie Loses Contact with Plane Carrying 116 People


iStock/Thinkstock(OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso) -- French jets are scouring a vast desert area searching for an Algerian airliner that disappeared from radar and has "probably crashed," the French foreign minister said on Thursday.

The Air Algerie jetliner had 110 passengers and six crew members when it took off from Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, en route to Algiers, the airline said.

Air navigation services lost track of the plane, an MD-83 model, about 50 minutes after it took off.

French forces, which are stationed in Mali to help combat al Qaeda and tribal separatists, sent two planes searching for the airliner.

"Despite an intensive search, no traces of the aircraft have been found yet. It has probably crashed," French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said.

"The search is at this stage focused on a vast area in the Gao region of Mali," he said.

Much of the region is desert with few roads and an average high temperature of 101 degrees Farenheit (38.5 C) at this time of the year.

"The French Ministry of Defense has deployed resources in the region to find the plane," Fabius said. "Algeria and U.N. forces have done the same. Two French Mirage 2000 based in Niamey have been carrying out reconnaissance flights since this morning."

The airline said that among the passengers were 51 French nationals along with 24 Burkina Faso nationals, six Lebanese, five Canadians, four Algerians, two Luxemburg nationals, one Swiss, one Nigerian, one Cameroonian and one Malian. The six crew members were Spanish.

News of the plane's disappearance came when Swiftair, the Spanish company that operated the plane, released a statement saying the plane had not arrived at its destination.

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Official: Terrorists in Syria Now as Dangerous to US as Those in Yemen


iStock/Thinkstock(ASPEN, Colo.) -- Syria has risen as a top threat to the U.S. homeland that rivals Yemen's al Qaeda affiliate known for its innovative bombs successfully smuggled aboard airplanes, a top Pentagon official said on Thursday.

"Syria is probably the number one threat -- or, with... threats out of Yemen -- to the American homeland right now and elsewhere in the west," said Michael Vickers, the Pentagon’s under secretary for defense intelligence.

In answer to a question by moderator Brian Ross of ABC News at a panel at the Aspen Security Forum, an annual gathering of national security veterans, Vickers, himself a former Special Forces operator, said that the foreigners flocking to Syria are hard to track and are a "serious problem."

"Foreign fighters who are western passport holders, including Americans, a subset of that, numbers in the four digits," Vickers said.

Since 2010, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen has held the top spot in the minds of counter-terrorism officials after the terror group tried unsuccessfully to use four different improvised explosive devices, hidden in underwear on a bomber or inside printer cartridges, in an effort to blow up U.S.-bound commercial passenger and cargo jets.

But a portion of the thousands of foreign fighters joining extremists for training and jihad against Syria's embattled dictator Bashar al Assad over the last few years are viewed as likely to eventually try to attack western targets, many officials have said.

Top U.S. officials have spoken more openly about the threat emanating from Syria this year.

John Carlin, the assistant attorney general for national security at the Justice Department, has established a prosecutors unit to focus on Americans fighting in Syria or aspiring to, because of the enormity of the threat.

"The number of foreign fighters that are already in place in Syria, and a number of other westerners in that group, is one that is unprecedented, and is a larger number than we ever saw in ungoverned spaces in Pakistan and Afghanistan," Carlin said during the panel discussion.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said it's all his European colleagues want to discuss, their fears are so pronounced.

"It's number one on the list of discussion topics," he told the security conference.

The tactical threat still remains rooted in the disturbing expertise provided by AQAP's master bomb maker Ibrahim al-Asiri, officials said.

Transportation Security Administrator John Pistole, on a separate panel, said that the type of device he worries about most, "from everything I'm aware of, [is] still a non-metallic IED."

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UN Shelter in Gaza Comes Under Fire


iStock/Thinkstock(JERUSALEM) -- The United Nations body responsible for Palestinian refugees  -- UNRWA -- reported Thursday that one of its designated shelters in Northern Gaza was hit.

Initial reports suggest at least 15 Palestinian civilians were killed and scores more were injured.  

UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness said the explosion tore through the courtyard of a school in Beit Hanoun filled with Palestinian civilians waiting to obey evacuation orders.

Eyewitnesses blamed the bloodshed on an Israeli tank shell.

Gunness said Israel knew the coordinates of the school and had not granted his requests for safe passage.  

But the Israeli Army denied this. It said a Hamas rocket may have been responsible and it has opened an investigation.

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Sudanese Woman Condemned to Hang Reportedly Flies to Italy


iStock/Thinkstock(ROME) -- A woman sentenced to death for marrying a Christian has flown to Italy, according to a report from the BBC.

Meriem Ibrahim, 27, was sentenced to be flogged and hanged to death in Sudan for marrying a Christian and converting from the Muslim faith to Christianity. Ibrahim's story drew outrage from people across the globe as her story went viral on social media under the "#savemeriam" hashtag and world leaders condemned the harsh sentence.

Ibrahim, who was raised by her Christian mother, was eight months pregnant at the time of her sentence and has since given birth.

Ibrahim and her family flew on an Italian government plane, accompanied by Italian minister Lapo Pistelli, the BBC reports. Pistelli posted a photo to Facebook showing the group with the caption, “With Miriam, Maya, Martin and Daniel, in a few minutes of Rome. Mission accomplished.” 

Pope Francis reportedly met with Ibrahim and her family for about 30 minutes in his private residence at the Vatican. The pope thanked Ibrahim for "her steadfast witness of faith," a Vatican spokesman said, according to the Catholic News Service.

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Hockey Player Shares Story Behind Queen Elizabeth's Photobomb


@_JaydeTaylor/Twitter(LONDON) -- Photobombs happen all the time. A photobomb by Queen Elizabeth -- smiling no less -- does not.

Jayde Taylor, an athlete competing in the Glasgow Commonwealth Games with the Australian women's hockey team, was warming down with her teammate Brooke Peris when the Queen stopped by to say hello. It was at that point that Taylor snapped the photo.

"Brooke and I planned it so that when she came out the door she would be behind us. And then she came out and smiled at the camera!" Taylor told ABC News. "We were in the right spot at the right time."

However, meeting the royal may have surpassed the experience of taking a photo with her.

"She asked us a bit about the pitch, how we were going and told us to enjoy our time here," Taylor said. "She was lovely. Really, really lovely."

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Seven Hundred Dead or Missing this Year in Plane Tragedies


Purestock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- The numbers are stark, and chilling.

Four commercial planes have crashed or disappeared in just four months this year and, perhaps more startlingly, 700 lives have been lost.

The latest news of tragedy in the skies came Thursday morning, when an Air Algerie plane flying over Africa with 116 aboard disappeared off radar.

The disappearance comes on the heels of two other high-profile incidents: the crash of TransAsia Flight 222 in Taiwan Wednesday, which killed 47, and the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in Ukraine last week, which had 298 aboard.

Earlier this spring, the world was stunned when Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared, taking 239 people with it. It has not yet been found.

The countries hit hardest by these plane tragedies have been the Netherlands, with 193 dead or missing, and China, with 153 dead or missing.

Malaysia had a high number of passengers on both MH370 and MH17, and lost 81 of its residents this year.

France, Taiwan, Indonesia and Australia have all lost dozens of citizens in the tragedies.

The United States lost three residents aboard MH370 and one dual U.S.-Dutch resident aboard MH17.

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Woman in Stilettos Ascends Kilimanjaro


Rima Suqi(NEW YORK) -- If Rima Suqi was going to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, she resolved to do it in style. The writer, who called herself "a little bit of a shoe person," reached the top of the spectacular summit in a pair of stilettos.

Suqi told ABC News that she had devised the solo trip to Tanzania almost a year in advance as a meaningful way to fete her 40th birthday, which she celebrated the day after the ascent. But she admitted that her choice of footwear was not quite so intentional.

"I don't honestly know what made me think to do it," she said, before adding that she figured it would be "an opportunity for a good picture."

"It's 40," she said. "Forty is kind of a big deal. You've got to do something."

Besides, she reasoned, were she at home to mark the milestone, she would "probably be in a heel and red lipstick, too."

As she wrote in a postcard published on Fathom.com, Suqi toted the strappy sandals up the face of the mountain. After she arrived at the peak, she swapped her hiking boots for the stilettos, slicked on a layer of berry-red Chanel lipstick, and asked her bemused guide to snap "a mini photo shoot."

"He loved it," she said. "I think at first he looked at me like I was slightly crazy, but then he loved it and he did say nobody had ever done that before."

According to Suqi, the sartorial stunt was not just for show.

In a diary entry dated from the trip, Suqi wrote: "This climb is really a metaphor for life. Ups, downs, easier patches, rough patches. People who look after you, feed you, provide shelter, help you when you are sick and provide encouragement when you are down. You just take it slow -- pole, pole -- and try to find your way at your own pace."

And as in life, so too at Kilimanjaro: It never hurts to look your best.

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UN Will Investigate Possible War Crimes in Gaza


iStock/Thinkstock(TEL AVIV, Israel) -- The United Nations Human Rights Council voted Wednesday to establish a commission of inquiry into incidents in Gaza, investigating whether any war crimes have been committed in the area. 

The United States was the only county to vote against establishing the investigation, while Britain, Germany, and France abstained.

Addressing the U.S. decision, State Department deputy spokesperson Marie Harf said the country had no issue being the sole vote against the commission, adding that the U.S. will continue to stand up for Israel, "even if it means standing alone."

Experts on the Geneva Convention are sounding the alarm on unrest in Gaza, with Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch telling the BBC that both sides in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict may be guilty of war crimes.

"We see very serious violations of the Geneva Convention, the rules designed to spare civilians the hazards of conflict, which apply to both Israel and Hamas," Roth said.

Conflict in the region shows little sign of letting up as the death toll continues to climb. The U.N. says nearly 75 percent of the almost 700 Palestinians killed were civilians. Meanwhile, Israel claims to be targeting militants and accuses Hamas of using innocent people as human shields. Two Israeli civilians and more than 30 soldiers have lost their lives.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the U.N.'s decision a "travesty," adding that it, "should be rejected by decent people everywhere."

Netanyahu claimed that while Hamas is "committing a double war crime" by firing rockets at Israeli civilians, Israel has "gone to unprecedented lengths" to protect Palestinian civilians by dropping leaflets, making phone calls, and sending text messages.

"The HRC should be launching an investigation into Hamas' decision to turn hospitals into military command centers, use schools as weapons depots and place missile batteries next to playgrounds, private homes and mosques," the Prime Minister said.

"By failing to condemn Hamas's systematic use of human shields and by blaming Israel for the deaths that are caused by this grotesque human shields policy, the HRC is sending a  message to Hamas and terror organizations everywhere that using civilians as human shields is an effective strategy."

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More than 80 Killed in Nigeria Bombings


iStock/Thinkstock(KADUNA, Nigeria) -- More than 80 people were killed in twin bombings in northern Nigeria on Wednesday.

The attacks targeted a prominent Muslim scholar, Shaykh Dahiru Usman Bauchi, and may have also been aimed at former head of state General Muhammadu Buhari, according to reports from American officials.

The U.S. State Department extended its sympathies to the family and loved ones of the victims killed.

"We call on Nigerian authorities to fully investigate these attacks, and we urge all Nigerians to avoid reprisals and continue to practice the interfaith cooperation that violent extremists seek to undermine," Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf said in a statement.

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Dutch Mayor Sorry He Said Putin's Daughter Should Be Deported from Netherlands


Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images(AMSTERDAM) -- The mayor of a Netherlands city has apologized for suggesting Russian President Vladimir Putin's daughter should be kicked out of the country.

Pieter Broertjes, mayor of Hilversum, made the comment during a radio interview Wednesday, The Guardian reported. His dig at Maria Putin, who reportedly lives in South Holland, comes as the Netherlands mourns victims of a Malaysia Airlines flight that was shot down by a missile in Ukraine last week. Ukrainian authorities have alleged that Russia is responsible for the attack.

Broertjes apologized on Twitter, saying his comments were "not wise," but that they "stemmed from a feeling of helplessness that many people will recognize."

About two-thirds of the 298 passengers aboard the doomed plane were Dutch, Malaysian authorities said. As bodies of victims are flown home to families, the Dutch government declared Wedneday a day of mourning.

Unlike their dad, Putin's two daughters Maria and Katerina have largely avoided the media spotlight, but The Guardian reports that Maria lives in Voorschoten with her Dutch boyfriend, not far from Hilversum, where Broertjes presides.

U.S. officials haven't confirmed the origin of the missile attack on July 17.

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Airline with Missile Defenses Goes to Israel When US Carriers Won’t


iStock/Thinkstock(TEL AVIV, Israel) -- As the grounding of American air carriers flying to Israel was extended Wednesday, one major Israeli airline -- one of the only ones in the world boasting high-tech anti-missile defenses --  says it’s braving potential rocket attacks to fly home to Tel Aviv.

“In light of flight cancelations to Israel by foreign air carriers we would like to inform you that El Al, as always, will continue to fly from and to Israel,” the airline wrote on its website. “The company will continue to keep Israel’s skies open, and will be at your service any time.” The company said it’s also adding flights “to accommodate stranded passengers.”

The FAA first told U.S. airlines not to head to Israel on Tuesday in response to a rocket strike “approximately one mile” from Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport. In what he called a “show of solidarity,” former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg flew from New York to Tel Aviv on an El Al flight Wednesday.

El Al, the national airline of Israel, has reportedly equipped its planes with some form of anti-missile tech since the mid-2000s, a move that came in response to an attack on an Israeli chartered aircraft in late 2002 in Mombasa, Kenya. Two shoulder-fired rockets narrowly missed their target then, and El Al and other Israeli airlines have been preparing for a repeat ever since.

In the years following the failed attack, El Al turned to Flight Guard, a combination of several technologies reportedly including early warning systems and flares designed to confuse any heat seeking missiles. The use of flares was controversial, with some European airports purportedly concerned that the flares, if fired, could cause damage below. Israeli newspaper Ynet reported that Israeli defense officials felt those concerns were a “misunderstanding.”

Regardless, in recent years, El Al and the Israeli government sought to upgrade civilian airline defenses. Last February the Israeli Defense Ministry announced a new countermeasure system, dubbed Sky Shield or C-MUSIC, installed on a Boeing 737 had been successful in live fire tests.

According to the defense think tank IHS Janes, the new system, housed in a pod under the fuselage, employs an infrared missile-tracking camera, an “infrared (IR), ultra-violet (UV), or radar missile-approach warning (MAWS) sensor to detect a missile launch in the very early stages of an attack,” and a laser system meant to jam the incoming missile’s “seeker” and “cause it [the missile] to be diverted away from the aircraft.”

Israel’s Channel 2 reported the new system costs $1 million per plane and will be installed on several Israeli airlines, including El Al, that fly “sensitive routes.”

For the most part, the defensive systems have been designed to defeat shoulder-fired rockets, also known as MANPADS, which can menace a plane near takeoff and landing, as opposed to larger and radar-based anti-aircraft missile systems like the SA-11 -- the one the U.S. believes shot down Malaysian Airlines MH17 while the plane was at cruising altitude in Ukraine last week.

When Moammar Gadhafi’s dictatorship in Libya fell in 2011, thousands of MANPADS were believed to have been looted from government armories, stoking the fears of American counter-terrorism officials that the relatively cheap, easy-to-use weapons could target a civilian airliners in the region.

“Personally, I think that the terrorism threat is the main threat these days dealing with civilian transportation,” former El Al President and CEO Elyezer Shkedy says in a promotional video for the Sky Shield system.

Missile countermeasures are widely used by military planes and several times, the U.S. government and American airlines have looked into adding their own countermeasures to civilian flights, but declined due to the high cost and comparatively low risk of a MANPAD attack in the homeland. Recent events in Israel and in Ukraine, however, have renewed interest in the defense systems.

Sen. Mark Kirk told The Washington Post he was petitioning the FAA to rethink security measures.

“I think they should actively look into mounting active defenses on civil aircraft that are carrying hundreds of people,” Kirk said.

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Two Ukrainian Jets Shot Down, Defense Ministry Says


iStock/Thinkstock(KIEV, Ukraine) -- Two Ukrainian military jets were shot down Wednesay according to Ukrainian defense officials who charged that they were downed by missiles fired from the Russian side of the border.

The planes, identified as Sukhoi SU-25 fighter jets, were hit in the Donetsk region of the country not far from where the Malaysian Airlines flight 17 was knocked out of the sky last week. It is also where Ukrainian forces are battling separatist rebels outside the city of Donetsk, one of the last separatist strongholds.

The fate of the planes' pilots was not immediately known.

It happened at 12:30 p.m. Ukraine time (5:30 a.m. ET) while the planes were flying at roughly 6,000 feet, said a spokesperson for the Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council.

The spokesman said missiles were fired from Russian territory and repeated himself saying, “from across the border” in Russia.

The Ukrainian rebels are ethnic Russians and the U.S. and other Western countries have accused Russia of fomenting instability in Ukraine and aiding the rebels by supplying weaponry and volunteers.

The Sukhoi SU-25 are single seat combat fighter jets. That same type of jet was shot down by a missile July 16.

The shoot-down of the jets over the town of Saur Mogila came in the same rebellious eastern part of the country where MH17 was shot down, killing 298 people on board. The MH17 flight was believed to have been shot down by a BUK anti-aircraft missile system.

Shortly before word of Wednesday's shoot-down came, the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt told ABC News that he's very concerned Russia has not stopped the flow of heavy weapons into eastern Ukraine where ethnic Russians are trying to break away from Ukraine.

Fighting is currently taking place on the outskirts of Donetsk, one of the separatists last strongholds.

“We are very concerned that Russia has not pulled back on the flow of heavy weapons,” Pyatt said. “What needs to happen is Russia needs to stop sending weapons and fighters across the border.”

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Taiwan Plane Crash in Typhoon's Tail Kills 47


iStock/Thinkstock(BEIJING) -- A passenger plane trying to land at a Taiwan airport in stormy weather in the tail end of a typhoon crashed and killed 47 people, authorities said.

The TransAsia Airways turboprop plane crashed and caught fire in the Penghu Islands, an archipelago off the western coast of Taiwan.

Taiwan’s Civil Aeronautics Administration says the TransAsia plane was carrying 54 passengers and four crew.

Taiwan had been battered by Typhoon Matmo. The center of the storm had moved on to China, but the Central Weather Bureau was advising heavy rain to fall through the evening for Taiwan.

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The Slow, Sad Journey Home for Victims of Malaysia Airlines Tragedy


(EINDHOVEN, The Netherlands) -- The bodies of victims from last week’s Malaysia Airlines crash are headed home, being flown to the Netherlands as the Dutch government declared a day of national mourning.

Meanwhile, the black boxes from MH17 were delivered to the U.K.’s Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) headquarters at Farnborough, a spokesman told ABC News. Investigators expect to be able to download the info from the recorders within 24 hours. There is no significant damage to them.

Ukraine prepared a departure ceremony at the airport in Kharkiv for the passengers and crew of Flight17, which was shot down Thursday with 298 people on board, most of them Dutch citizens.

Sixteen bodies left aboard a Dutch C130, with an Australian C130 carrying an additional 24 bodies, authorities said.

The people of the Netherlands await the arrival of the bodies at Eindhoven Airport, the second-largest airport in the Netherlands. Church bells will ring across the country, five minutes before the two military planes touch down. Then a trumpet will sound, signaling the arrival of the planes. There to meet the planes will be the relatives of the victims and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte as well as King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima of the Netherlands.

Following the arrival of the victims' remains will be a minute of silence. A motorcade will carry the bodies to a military facility where authorities will work to identify the bodies, a process that could take months to complete.

Transport of the remains will continue for at least three days.

Wreckage from the aircraft fell on territory controlled by pro-Russian separatists who have been battling the Kiev government since April.

Senior U.S. intelligence officials presented evidence Tuesday that they say shows the plane was shot down by a Russian-made SA-11 missile, and that Russia “created the conditions” behind the shoot-down.

Meanwhile, Bill Clinton, in Australia for the International AIDS Conference, said that the people who shot the plane down are just as responsible even if they didn’t intend to shoot down a civilian flight.

“The people who did it and the people who made it possible for them to do it by giving them this weaponry, which could only have been used in an illegal way, do not in any way diminish their responsibility because the people they killed were different from the people they thought they were killing,” Clinton said.


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Costa Concordia Being Towed to Final Destination


Tullio M. Puglia/Getty Images(ROME) -- The Costa Concordia set sail for its final voyage on Wednesday.

With the help of more than a dozen tugboats, the cruise ship that crashed off the coast of Tuscany on Jan. 13, 2012 -- killing 32 people -- is heading up the Italian coast to the port city of Genoa, where it will be scrapped.

Franco Gabrielli, the head of Italy's Civil Protection agency, called the send off "a moment of great satisfaction."

The $2 billion salvage operation has been the most costly and complex in history.

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