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World Scene

- - Sunday, July 25, 2010

UNITED KINGDOM

Report: U.S. was OK with freeing Megrahi

LONDON | The United States told Scotland it was "far preferable" to free the Lockerbie bomber than have him transferred to a Libyan jail, leaked documents showed Sunday amid renewed U.S. criticism of the release.

Correspondence obtained by the Sunday Times newspaper reveals that despite Washington's opposition to Scotland's decision last year to free Libyan Abdelbaset Ali Mohment al-Megrahi, it considered it the most palatable option.

Megrahi was the only person convicted of the 1988 bombing of a U.S. jet over the Scottish town of Lockerbie, which killed 270 people, and his release on compassionate grounds — he has terminal cancer — was highly controversial.

The U.S. Senate is re-examining the issue amid claims by U.S. lawmakers that oil giant BP had lobbied for Megrahi's release, and anger that he remains alive in Libya despite last August being given just three months to live.

The Obama administration has condemned the decision to free Megrahi, but a letter sent by the deputy head of the U.S. Embassy in London just days before his release suggests it accepted the move.

The embassy official, Richard LeBaron, wrote to Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond and justice officials on Aug. 12 — a week before Megrahi's release — saying Washington wanted Megrahi to remain in his Scottish jail.

"Nevertheless, if Scottish authorities come to the conclusion that Megrahi must be released from Scottish custody, the U.S. position is that conditional release on compassionate grounds would be a far preferable alternative to prisoner transfer, which we strongly oppose," Mr. LeBaron wrote.

SOMALIA

8 people killed in shelling of capital

MOGADISHU | A Somali official said Sunday eight people were killed in weekend skirmishes between insurgents and troops in the capital.

Mogadishu ambulance service chief Ali Muse said five people died and seven were wounded late Saturday. A witness saw three more wounded people. Mr. Muse said three died and seven were wounded Sunday when mortars hit a market. He says most of the dead were civilians.

The news came as African leaders discussed Somalia's conflict at an African Union summit. Somalia became a focus of the summit after 76 people were killed two weeks ago in twin bombings in Uganda. Somali militant group al-Shabab took responsibility for the attacks.

Islamic insurgents control much of Mogadishu and have been trying to topple the fragile government for three years.

THAILAND

Bomb kills 1, wounds 10 after by-election

BANGKOK | A post-election bomb blast at a bus stop in Thailand's capital left one person dead and 10 wounded.

The polls had just closed in a parliamentary election that pitted a government candidate against a jailed leader of recent mass protests in Bangkok.

Police declined to speculate whether the bombing was part of Thailand's continued political turbulence in the aftermath of the street demonstrations that paralyzed much of the capital for weeks.

The explosion was near two department stores that have been closed since they were torched during the protests.

Unofficial results show the government candidate scored a narrow victory in an election touted by rival sides as a barometer of Thailand's political climate.

The vote was seen as a test of strength for the Red Shirt movement, which mounted demonstrations demanding new elections.

LEBANON

Military opens fire on Israeli aircraft

BEIRUT | The Lebanese military opened fire with anti-aircraft batteries on an Israeli reconnaissance plane that had violated the country's airspace Sunday, the army said.

"The anti-aircraft batteries fired at an Israeli 'MK' type reconnaissance aircraft flying at low altitude in the southern sector, forcing it to turn back," according to an army statement.

Lebanon's military puts out almost daily statements about Israeli violations of the country's airspace, but the aircraft are engaged only if they come within range of the ground batteries.

The United Nations considers such overflights to be a violation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, which brought an end in 2006 to a brief but deadly war between Israel and Lebanon's Hezbollah militia.

July 12 was the fourth anniversary of the start of the 34-day conflict that destroyed much of Lebanon's major infrastructure and killed more than 1,200 people in Lebanon, mainly civilians, and 160 Israelis, mostly soldiers.

Israel says its flights monitor what it says is the clandestine transfer of weapons to Hezbollah via Syria, which, along with Iran, is a main supporter of the Shiite Muslim movement.

The Jewish state estimates that Hezbollah has an arsenal of 40,000 short- and medium-range rockets in towns and villages across the south — a significant rise from the 14,000 rockets held by the group in 2006.

Israel estimates the stockpile includes hundreds of longer-range rockets, some of them capable of reaching major Israeli population centers.

ISRAEL

Homes evacuated as huge fire rages

JERUSALEM | Thousands of homes were evacuated Sunday as a massive blaze swept through a forest near a hospital on the outskirts of the city, Israeli police said.

At least 20 fire engines rushed to the scene of the blaze, which broke out in woodlands near Hadassa Hospital, just above the village of Ein Kerem, believed to be the biblical home of John the Baptist.

"The fire is huge," police spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld told Agence France-Presse. "It is covering a huge area of several acres.

"We have evacuated the whole population of Moshav Ora and Aminadav, as well as Even Sapir," he said, referring to three collective villages in the hills of southwest Jerusalem that are home to more than 2,000 people.

Police were conducting house-to-house searches to ensure no one was left behind, he said. There was no immediate report of injuries.

From wire dispatches and staff reports