12 Hostages dead at gas plant, Algeria says


Twelve hostages, some of them foreign nationals, have died so far in the military operation against terrorists who took control of a remote gas treatment plant, Algeria's communication minister said.

A squad of terrorists is still holding captives in part of the sprawling complex near the Libyan border, Mohammed Said told the media. The Algerian government said earlier Friday that roughly 100 of the 132 foreign captives had been liberated.

Heavily armed militants from a Salafist group led by al Qaeda renegade Mokhtar Belmokhtar occupied the gas facility on Wednesday, taking hundreds of Algerian and foreign workers hostage.




Spain's ruling party to probe Swiss bank account scandal


Top leaders of Spain's ruling conservative Popular Party, headed by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, have called a meeting to discuss revelations that the party's former treasurer, ex-Sen. Luis Barcenas, held 22 million euros ($29.3 million) in Swiss bank accounts.

The PP's Executive Committee, which is made up of the party's top executive and legislative officials at the national and regional levels, is scheduled to meet on Monday.

Reports about the large sums held in Switzerland by Barcenas, implicated in an ongoing political corruption scandal known as the "Gürtel case," erupted this week and the controversy heated up further with new revelations published Thursday by the daily El Mundo, which reported that Barcenas used ill-gotten funds to make under-the-table payments to PP leaders.




Lance Armstrong says he wants to help clean up cycling


Disgraced American former road cyclist Lance Armstrong said he would be the "first man at the door" in efforts to clean up the sport after telling Oprah Winfrey that he relied on banned substances for most of his career and to win all seven of his Tour de France titles.

After long denying doping and saying in recent months that he was the victim of a "witch hunt" by U.S. Anti-Doping Agency chief Travis Tygart, the 41-year-old Armstrong came clean in a prime-time interview aired Thursday night on Winfrey's OWN cable channel.

Armstrong confessed that he had lied for years about his use of banned substances and launched numerous legal attacks against those who threatened his once-pristine reputation, telling Oprah that he was a "bully."




China's economy grew last year at slowest pace in a decade


The Chinese economy grew 7.8 percent in 2012 to mark the smallest 12-month expansion in GDP in a decade, the National Statistics Bureau said.

The world's No. 2 economy grew 9.3 percent in 2011.

Though disappointing by recent Chinese standards, last year's growth bested the 7.5 percent target set by the People's Assembly last March, encouraging analysts to predict a rebound in 2013.

China's economic slowdown can be attributed in part to the impact on the Asian nation of continuing economic woes in Europe and the United States, the National Statistics Bureau said.




AC Milan trying to lure back Kaka


AC Milan said it has begun talks aimed at bringing back Brazilian attacking midfielder Kaka three-and-a-half years after he left the Italian club to sign with Real Madrid.

Milan's chief executive, Adriano Galliani, said the 30-year-old Brazilian could return during the winter transfer period if the two clubs and Kaka can reach agreement on the thorniest issue in the negotiations - the players' high salary.

"We have the barrier of a salary that is not in keeping with the situation in Italy, and so we'll have to find imaginative solutions. If not, we won't get him," he added.

Galliani denied rumors that talks involving other players, such as Manchester City's Mario Balotelli, were taking place and might get in the way of Kaka's return, adding that "there's only one ongoing negotiation."




Spanish banks' bad-loan ratio hits new record


The proportion of non-performing loans held by Spain's large banks, regional savings banks, or "cajas," and other lending institutions hit a new record high of 11.38 percent in November.

Based on provisional data published Friday by Spain's central bank, those financial institutions' bad loans were valued at 191.6 billion euros (some $256.2 billion) at the close of November.

The latest monthly increase - up from 11.23 percent in October - means the bad-loan ratio has climbed for 17 consecutive months dating back to July 2011.

The value of Spanish banks' non-performing loans, those in arrears for at least three months, has climbed from 134.2 billion euros to 191.6 billion euros, or nearly 43 percent, over the past 12 months.