Al-Qaeda claims Mali abductions

RABAT, Morocco - North Africa's branch of al-Qaeda has denied kidnapping three foreign aid workers in Algeria, but confirmed it was behind two other kidnappings in Mali, according to a statement carried by a Mauritanian news agency.

The statement, purportedly by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, said the group was focusing its efforts against French and Malian interests and had nothing to do with the October kidnapping of an Italian and two Spanish aid workers in southern Algeria.

The group's statement was reported Thursday by Nouakchott Information Agency, a private news agency that has carried the group's statements before, but its veracity could not be independently confirmed.

The militant group did claim to have abducted two French tourists from their hotel room in eastern Mali on the night of Nov. 24 and alleged that they were French spies. A Western counterterrorism official denied that the men, who have been identified as Serge Lazarevic and Philippe Verdon, were intelligence agents. - AP

Exiles send up Cuba fireworks

HAVANA - A coalition of Cuban exiles sailed south from Florida on Friday to protest the island's human-rights record by lighting up the night sky with fireworks, eliciting a rebuke from Havana officials who called it an affront to national sovereignty.

The boats planned to anchor a little more than 12 miles from the Cuban capital, just inside international waters, and in early evening multicolored explosions could be seen intermittently far off on the horizon from the Havana's rainy seafront.

Organizers insisted that the exiles' 18th protest flotilla over the years would be peaceful and was not a provocation, though they said they were trying to coordinate the protest with actions by dissidents on the island. They called on Havana residents to bang soup pots in solidarity during the fireworks on the eve of International Human Rights Day. - AP

Gadhafi son: No Mexico travel plot

CAIRO - A son of slain Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi "vigorously denies" having plotted to illegally sneak into Mexico to escape his home country after the fall of his father's regime, his attorney said Friday.

Al-Saadi Gadhafi fled to the neighboring country of Niger in September and the government there has given him refugee status. Mexico claimed on Wednesday that Saadi and three relatives also had initiated plans to sneak into Mexico under false names and take refuge at a Pacific resort.

Defense lawyer Nick Kaufman said in an e-mail that Saadi fled Libya because he feared for his life and is grateful to the government of Niger for giving him refuge.

- AP

Elsewhere:

A letter bomb exploded Friday at an office of Italy's tax collection agency on Rome's outskirts, wounding the organization's director. Police were probing possible links to an Italian anarchist group that claimed responsibility for a thwarted attack against the chief executive of Deutsche Bank this week.