- - Sunday, December 23, 2012


BEIRUT — A government airstrike on a bakery in a rebel-held town in central Syria killed more than 60 people Sunday, activists said, casting a pall over a visit by the international envoy tasked with negotiating an end to the country’s civil war.

The strike on the town of Halfaya left scattered bodies and debris up and down a street, and more than a dozen dead and wounded were trapped in tangled heap of dirt and rubble.

The attack appeared to be the government response to a newly announced rebel offensive seeking to drive the Syrian army from a constellation of towns and village north of the central city of Hama.

Halfaya was the first of the area’s towns to be “liberated” by rebel fighters, and activists saw Sunday’s attack as payback.

“Halfaya was the first and biggest victory in the Hama countryside,” said Hama activist Mousab Alhamadee via Skype. “That’s why the regime is punishing them in this way.”

The total death toll remained unclear, but the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said more than 60 people were killed.

That number is expected to rise, it said, because some 50 of those wounded in the strike are in critical condition.


Rebels take another town

BANGUI — Rebels in Central African Republic have taken another town under their control just days after they said they were halting their advance.

Regional official Jean-Baptiste Manikaou said the rebels gained control of Bambari, about 240 miles from the capital, over the weekend.

Maxime Andjingbayo, a local priest, said government forces fled Bambari after about two hours of gunfire.

Rebel Col. Djouma Narkoyo called the move preventative action aimed at blocking government forces from preparing a counterattack.

Josue Binoua, a government minister, said if the rebels want peace, they should respect the mediation efforts under way and halt their advance.

The rebels began taking towns earlier this month, saying they wanted to renegotiate past peace deals with the government of this desperately poor African nation.


Protesters block road to Jordan, Syria

FALLUJAH — Thousands of protesters demonstrated Sunday in Iraq’s western Sunni heartland following the arrest of bodyguards assigned to the finance minister, briefly blocking the main highway linking Baghdad with neighboring Jordan and Syria.

The dispute threatens to exacerbate tensions with Iraq’s Sunnis, who accuse Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of targeting and marginalizing them.

The sectarian conflicts have largely paralyzed the government and have often turned violent.

On Friday, Iraq’s Shiite-led government said it arrested 10 of Finance Minister Rafia al-Issawi’s bodyguards on terrorism-related charges.

The government said it carried out the arrests according to the law and opposes any efforts to sow sectarian discontent.


Troops rescue hostages on hijacked ship

NAIROBI, Kenya — Forces from Somalia’s semiautonomous Puntland region raided a hijacked ship and safely rescued 22 hostages who had been held captive for nearly three years, authorities said Sunday.

A statement from the Puntland government said their forces captured the Panama-flagged MV Iceberg 1, which was docked near the Gara’ad coastal village in Mudung region.

The rescued crew members include eight Yemenis, five Indians, two Pakistanis, four Ghanaians, two Sudanese and a Philippine, Puntland Ports and Anti-piracy Minister Saeed Mohamed Rage told the Associated Press.

The ship was hijacked March 29, 2010.

Nearly 120 seafarers are still held by Somali pirates, though that number is down considerably from the height of the piracy crisis two years ago, when more than 600 hostages were held at once.

Hijackings by Somali pirates have significantly reduced in the past couple of years because many ships now carry armed guards and there is an international naval armada that carries out onshore raids.

In 2010, pirates seized 47 vessels, so far this year they have taken five, a decrease that could signify that the scourge is ending, though experts say it is too early to declare victory.

The overwhelming majority of hostages have been sailors on merchant ships, though European families also have been kidnapped from their yachts while traveling in the dangerous Indian Ocean coastal waters.

Four Americans were killed in February 2011, when the pirates who boarded their ship apparently became trigger-happy because of nearby U.S. warships.


Gaza militants fire rocket at Israel

JERUSALEM — Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip fired a rocket into southern Israel on Sunday for the first time since an Egypt-mediated cease-fire Nov. 21, army radio and other media reported.

The reports said it fell on open ground and caused no injuries, but an Israeli military spokesman denied that a rocket had hit. “No rocket fell in Israeli territory,” he said without elaborating.

Israel and the militant Islamist group Hamas, which rules Gaza, fought an eight-day war last month in which 177 Palestinians and six Israelis were killed before the truce took effect.

On Friday, Israeli troops shot and wounded five Palestinians near the Gaza border fence east of Jabalia, in the north of the coastal strip, Palestinian medical sources said.

The army said soldiers opened fire when a group of men moved into a no-go zone near the fence.


Islamists destroy Timbuktu mausoleums

BAMAKO — A tourism official said Sunday that Islamist extremists destroyed four mausoleums in Timbuktu.

The director of Mali’s Timbuktu tourism office, Sane Chirfi, said that Ansar Dine rebels linked to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb tore down the mausoleums, which were historic but not included on the U.N. list of World Heritage sites.

The mausoleums housed the remains of Muslim scholars and teachers who are revered by the Timbuktu population.

Since taking control of Timbuktu earlier this year, the Islamists have destroyed seven of the 16 mausoleums listed as world heritage sites. Some date back to the 14th century.

According to many residents, the destruction of the graves is the rebels’ reaction to the recent U.N. resolution calling for an international military intervention to remove the Islamists from northern Mali.

• From wire dispatches and staff reports

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