- - Thursday, December 22, 2011

EUROPE

Strikes over austerity hit holiday travelers

BRUSSELS | Strikes to protest austerity measures paralyzed ground traffic in Belgium and hit Christmas travelers in several nations across Europe on Thursday, promising days of headaches through the holidays.

Workers were walking off the job to show their ire at government budget-slashing measures to tackle debt and high deficits, and officials were scrambling to try to mitigate delays and cancellations.

Eurostar and Thalys idled part of their popular service through Brussels as Belgian transport workers walked off the job.

In France, a strike by airport security personnel stretched into its seventh day.

IRAN

Tehran to hold naval drill in international waters

TEHRAN | Iran’s navy chief said Thursday that his forces plan to hold a 10-day drill in international waters beyond the strategic Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, an exercise that could bring Iranian ships into proximity with U.S. Navy vessels.

The drill will be Iran’s latest show of strength in the face of mounting international criticism over its nuclear program, which the West fears is aimed at producing atomic weapons. Tehran denies the charges and insists that the program is for peaceful purposes only.

The Strait of Hormuz is of strategic significance as the passageway for about a third of the world’s oil tanker traffic. Beyond it lie vast bodies of water, including the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Aden.

The U.S. Navy’s Bahrain-based 5th Fleet is also active in the area, as are warships of several other countries that patrol for pirates there.

PALESTINIAN TERRITORIES

Militant Hamas moves to join PLO umbrella

CAIRO | Rival Palestinian factions reached a key agreement in Cairo on Thursday to admit the Hamas militant group into the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), both sides said.

The deal marks a significant step toward unifying the long-divided Palestinian leadership and cleared the way for Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, to promote itself as the leader of all Palestinians.

Hamas historically has opposed the PLO’s peace efforts with Israel, and having a strong voice in the group would further complicate the already troubled Middle East diplomatic process.

“The reconciliation has taken off. It might take time, but we have started,” Azzam al-Ahmed, a top Fatah negotiator, said after the talks in Cairo.

Under the agreement, Hamas’ supreme leader, Khaled Mashaal, joined a committee that will prepare for elections of the PLO’s parliament in exile. He will serve alongside Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, leader of the rival Fatah movement.

MEXICO

Shakeup aims to rid port police of corruption

MEXICO CITY | A Mexican armed forces official said police in the Gulf port city of Veracruz were heavily infiltrated by criminal elements, primarily the deadly Zetas drug cartel.

The official said it could take months to replace the 800 officers and 300 administrative employees who were dismissed Wednesday in Mexico’s most dramatic step to date in battling corrupt cops.

He said Thursday that about 800 marines will patrol the city of 700,000 in the meantime. He could not be named for security reasons.

Veracruz state government spokeswoman Gina Dominguez said the mass firing was not about corruption, but about meeting a federal edict to build police forces certified under stricter standards.

Ms. Dominguez said none of the dismissed employees is under investigation for corruption.

FRANCE

Lawmakers pass ban on denying Armenian genocide

PARIS | French lawmakers easily passed a measure Thursday to make it a crime in France to deny that the mass killings of Armenians in 1915 by Ottoman Turks amounted to genocide.

State TV in Turkey, which promised retaliation if the bill passed, said the country’s ambassador to France would be withdrawn.

The measure still must be passed in the Senate, where its fate is less clear.

The measure put France on a collision course with Turkey, a strategic ally and trading partner. Turkey vehemently rejects the term “genocide” for the World War I-era mass killings of Armenians, saying the issue should be left to historians.

An estimated half-million Armenians live in France, and many have pressed to raise the legal statute regarding the massacres to the same level as the Holocaust by punishing denial of genocide.

France formally recognized the killings as genocide in 2001, but provided no penalty for anyone denying that.