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Briefly: Middle East

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EGYPT

Finance minister resigns over Cairo protests

CAIRO — Egypt's finance minister and deputy prime minister resigned Tuesday in protest because of the government's handling of deadly weekend protests that left 26 dead, most of them Coptic Christians, an aide to the minister said.

Hazem El-Beblawi's resignation, which state television also announced, is the first by a senior government official since the deadly clashes Sunday night in which a peaceful protest by Christians demonstrating over an earlier attack on a church in southern Egypt by Muslims turned violent.

Mr. el-Beblawi, in a letter to Prime Minister Essam Sharaf, said he was tendering his resignation because of the "government's handling of Maspero," the aide said, referring to the state television building, where the Christians were protesting, by its popular name.

He effectively told Mr. Sharaf that he "can't work like this," the aide said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

KUWAIT

Kuwait warns strikers, says oil shipping normal

KUWAIT CITY — Kuwait warned striking workers Tuesday that it could recruit outside replacements to confront a wave of labor unrest that has disrupted shipping traffic and threatens the Gulf nation's critical oil sector.

The extent of the disruption is unclear. An official at the state-run Kuwait Petroleum Corp. said Tuesday that exports of crude oil and other petroleum products were going ahead as normal, according to comments carried on the official state news agency.

Kuwaiti authorities have grown increasingly uneasy during a series of strikes begun last month by civil servants seeking greater pay and benefits - on top of existing perks such as free health care and low-interest personal loans.

The protests mirror other instances of labor unrest rippling through the Arab world as part of a popular push for political and economic reform in the region.

Although Kuwait is the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries's fourth-biggest oil exporter, officials say the country cannot afford to significantly boost the payroll of its huge public sector.

On Monday, more than 3,000 customs officers joined the strikes, sharply escalating pressure on the government. The open-ended walkout froze shipping traffic in and out of ports and oil terminals. It also disrupted airport and land border-crossing operations.

A union official said the customs workers' strike continued Tuesday.

BAHRAIN

Newspaper staff fined for printing false stories

MANAMA — A court has fined the top editor of Bahrain's main opposition newspaper and three staff members for publishing purportedly false stories about abuses against Shiite-led protesters.

The verdict was hailed by the Al Wasat newspaper because no jail time was ordered.

During the trial, chief editor Mansoor al-Jamri said the articles - falsely describing abuses by Bahraini security forces - appeared to be part of a plot to discredit the paper by backers of the ruling Sunni monarchy.

The four from Al Wasat were convicted Tuesday and ordered to pay $2,660 each. No appeal is planned.

Last week, Mr. al-Jamri was among four journalists awarded press freedom prizes by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

LIBYA

Official: Gadhafi hiding in southern desert

TRIPOLI — An official on Libya's governing council said Monday that he believes Col. Moammar Gadhafi is hiding in the southwestern desert near the borders with Niger and Algeria but denied allegations that the Tuareg minority ethnic group is protecting the fugitive leader.

Moussa al-Kouni, who is a Tuareg representative on the revolution's leadership body, said Col. Gadhafi had sent his son Khamis to the area to set up a radio station and make preparations for a possible escape route two months before Tripoli fell to revolutionary forces in late August.

SYRIA

Cleric threatens attacks if Europe, U.S. intervenes

BEIRUT — Syria's top Sunni Muslim cleric has warned Western countries against military intervention in Syria and threatened to retaliate with suicide bombings in the United States and Europe if his country comes under attack.

Western countries have shown no willingness to open a Libyan-style military campaign against the regime of President Bashar Assad, who has launched a bloody crackdown on the seven-month uprising against his rule. NATO's chief said last week the alliance has "no intention whatsoever" of intervening in Syria.

Still, the prospect of such an intervention seems to have rattled the Assad regime, although publicly, officials say they are confident there would be no such thing because no one wants to foot the bill.

In a speech late Sunday, Grand Mufti Ahmad Badreddine Hassoun, a state-appointed cleric and Assad loyalist, issued a clear warning to the West.

"I say to all of Europe, I say to America, we will set up suicide bombers who are now in your countries, if you bomb Syria or Lebanon," Mr. Hassoun said in the speech. "From now on, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth."

The international community's unwillingness to get directly involved stems from a mix of international political complications, worries about unleashing a civil war, and plausible risks of touching off a wider Middle East conflict with arch foes Israel and Iran in the mix.

Mr. Hassoun's comments follow another warning by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, who told the international community Sunday not to recognize a new umbrella council formed by the opposition, threatening "tough measures" against any country that does so.

From wire dispatches and staff reports

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