Somalis free hijacked Indian vessel after battle

MOGADISHU, Somalia -- A Somali official says gunmen have freed a hijacked Indian vessel and its 13 crew members on Tuesday after a battle with pirates off the African country's northern coast.

The official says four of the pirates were captured during the shootout and four others escaped.

No crew members of the dhow, a traditional wooden vessel, were wounded.

The official described the gunmen as members of coast guard in Somalia's semi- autonomous region of Puntland.

Somalia does not have a formal coast guard, but groups of heavily armed clan-based militias sometimes do the job of local authorities.

The cargo-laden vessel was en route to Somalia from Asia when it was seized on Friday.

U. S., Russia discuss Georgia, missiles

HELSINKI, Finland -- The top U. S. military officer held "businesslike" talks on Georgia, Afghanistan and missile defence with his Russian counterpart Tuesday, a signal of thawing relations between the two powers.

Held at an isolated manor house in Finland, it was the highest-level military meeting between the two countries since Russia's war with U. S. ally Georgia in August. The conflict strained already tense ties between Washington and Moscow.

Admiral Michael G. Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Russian Gen. Nikolai Makarov "discussed a wide range of issues, including the future of NATO and the current status of missile defence systems in Europe," said Kim Hargan, a spokesman for the U. S. Embassy in Finland.

A U. S. defence official said Makarov, who became Russia's top military officer in June, suggested the meeting and that the two military leaders covered a range of topics including Georgia, Black Sea operations, and Afghanistan as it related to NATO involvement.

Powder-laced letters sent to U. S. banks, FBI says

WASHINGTON -- At least 30 letters containing suspicious powder have been mailed to Chase banks in eight cities but so far appear to be harmless, authorities said Tuesday.

The FBI said it was investigating "a series of letters sent to banks around the country."

"These threat letters contain a powder substance," the FBI said in a statement. "At this point, field tests on the powder have been negative. Additional testing will be completed. Even sending a hoax letter is a serious crime."

A law enforcement official said the letters were mailed to Chase bank branches in or near Chicago, Cincinnati, Dallas, Denver, Newark, N. J., New York, Oklahoma City and Washington.

The letters all appear to be from the same source and were sent from South Texas, the official said. They began showing up at the banks on Monday, according to the official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

Zimbabwe opposition leader threatens boycott

HARARE, Zimbabwe -- Zimbabwe's main opposition leader threatened Tuesday to boycott a meeting aimed at breaking the deadlock in power-sharing talks, prompting the ruling party to accuse him of using delaying tactics.

The Movement for Democratic Change leader Morgan Tsvangirai missed a meeting in Swaziland on Monday hosted by the Southern African Development Community. He complained that President Robert Mugabe government's refusal to grant him a passport showed a lack of respect.

Mugabe and Tsvangirai signed the power-sharing deal last month but are deadlocked over how to allocate ministries in a 31-member unity cabinet. Tsvangirai accuses Mugabe's ZANU-PF party of trying to hold on to too many of the most powerful ministries.

Dutch court convicts youths for virtual theft

AMSTERDAM, Netherlands -- A Dutch court has convicted two youths of theft for stealing virtual items in a computer game and sentenced them to community service.

Only a handful of such cases have been heard in the world, and they have reached varying conclusions about the legal status of "virtual goods."

The Leeuwarden District Court says the culprits, 15 and 14 years old, coerced a 13-year-old boy into transferring a "virtual amulet and a virtual mask" from the online adventure game RuneScape to their game accounts.

"These virtual goods are goods (under Dutch law), so this is theft," the court said in a summary of its ruling.

Identities of the minors were not released.

The 15-year-old was sentenced to 200 hours of service, and the 14-year-old to 160 hours.

SOURCE: AP, Wednesday, October 22, 2008

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