- - Sunday, April 15, 2012

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Syria’s 4-day-old cease-fire appeared to be quickly eroding Sunday, with regime forces firing dozens of tank shells and mortar rounds at neighborhoods in the opposition stronghold of Homs hours before the arrival of a first team of U.N. truce monitors.

Even though the overall level of violence has dropped, escalating regime attacks over the weekend raised new doubts about President Bashar Assad’s commitment to a plan by special envoy Kofi Annan to end 13 months of violence and launch talks on Syria’s political future.

Mr. Assad accepted the truce deal at the prodding of his main ally, Russia, but his compliance has been limited. He has halted shelling of rebel-held neighborhoods, with the exception of Homs, but ignored calls to pull troops out of urban centers, apparently for fear of losing control over a country his family has ruled for four decades. Rebel fighters have also kept up attacks, including ambushes.

A six-member advance team of U.N. observers headed to Damascus on Sunday, a day after an unanimous U.N. Security Council approved such a mission. A larger team of 250 observers requires more negotiations between the U.N. and the Syrian government next week.

U.N. Secretary-General Bank Ki-moon expressed serious concern Sunday at the Syrian government’s shelling of Homs and said “the whole world is watching with skeptical eyes” whether the cease-fire can be sustained.

NORTH KOREA

New leader makes first public speech

PYONGYANG — North Korea’s new leader addressed his nation and the world for the first time Sunday, vowing to place top priority on his impoverished nation’s military, which promptly unveiled a new long-range missile.

The speech was the culmination of two weeks of celebrations marking the centenary of the birth of his grandfather, national founder Kim Il-sung - festivities that were marred by a failed launch Friday of a rocket that generated international condemnation and cost North Korea a food-aid-for-nuclear-freeze deal with Washington.

Kim Jong-un’s speech took North Koreans gathered at Kim Il-sung Square and around televisions across the country by surprise. His father, late leader Kim Jong-il, addressed the public only once in his lifetime.

Appearing calm and measured as he read the 20-minute speech, Kim Jong-un covered a wide range of topics, from foreign policy to the economy. His speech, and a military parade that followed, capped the carefully choreographed festivities commemorating Kim Il-sung’s birthday, which included a massive fireworks display.

ISRAEL

Authorities detain dozens of activists at airport

JERUSALEM — Israel detained dozens of international activists as they landed at its main airport on Sunday, preventing them from entering the country to participate in a planned solidarity mission with Palestinians in the West Bank.

Israel said the activists, part of an umbrella group called “Welcome to Palestine,” were provocateurs who posed a security threat. But organizers said the event, meant to draw attention to Israeli travel restrictions on Palestinians, was nonviolent. They accused Israel of using heavy-handed tactics to stamp out legitimate protest.

Israel is jittery about the prospect of a large influx of foreign protesters arriving because of deadly confrontations with pro-Palestinian activists in the past.

PAKISTAN

Taliban storms prison, frees 400 militants

DERA ISMAIL KHAN — Taliban militants armed with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades battled their way into a prison in northwest Pakistan on Sunday, freeing close to 400 prisoners, including at least 20 described by police as “very dangerous” terrorists, authorities said.

The raid by more than 100 fighters was a dramatic display of the strength of the insurgency gripping the nuclear-armed country. The escaped prisoners may now rejoin the fight, giving momentum and a propaganda boost to a movement that has killed thousands of Pakistani officials and ordinary citizens since 2007.

The attackers stormed the prison before dawn in the city of Bannu in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province close to the Afghan border, said police officer Shafique Khan. They used explosives and hand grenades to knock down the main gates, said Bannu prison Superintendent Zahid Khan.

GUINEA-BISSAU

Junta closes borders after Portuguese threat

BISSAU — The new Guinea-Bissau junta announced Sunday the closure of all air and sea borders, after former colonial power Portugal said it was sending navy ships and a plane for a possible evacuation of its nationals.

The “military command” said in a statement that it had decided to shut down all air and sea access, without saying how long the measures would remain in place.

Earlier Sunday, Portugal said two navy ships and a military plane were on the way to West Africa to prepare for any eventual repatriation of Portuguese and other nationals from Guinea-Bissau following the coup Thursday.

“Non-authorized Portuguese ships will not enter into our territorial waters. Guinea Bissau is a sovereign nation,” said Fernando Vaz, spokesman for the parties of the former opposition after a meeting between them and the junta leaders.

“The Guinea-Bissau army is tasked with defending its territorial integrity,” echoed Lt. Col. Daba na Walna, spokesman for the junta.

From wire dispatches and staff reports