- - Thursday, November 15, 2012

IRAN

VIENNA — Diplomats said Iran is on the threshold of boosting output of material that can be turned into weapons-grade uranium used in nuclear warheads.

One diplomat told The Associated Press that Tehran technically is ready within days to ramp up its production of 20 percent enriched uranium by nearly 700 centrifuges.

That would nearly double present output at Iran’s heavily fortified Fordo enrichment plant.

Two other diplomats could not confirm the 700 number but said Tehran has put a sizable number of centrifuges at Fordo that previously were installed but not ready to operate under vacuum.

It takes only a few days to begin enrichment with machines that are under vacuum.

Iran denies wanting nuclear arms. The diplomats demanded anonymity Thursday because they were not authorized to discuss the issue.

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO

44 killed in fighting between rebels and army

GOMA — Forty-four people were killed in new fighting Thursday between the Congolese army and M23 rebels, ending a two-month cease-fire, Congolese officials said.

Both sides blamed the other for starting the fighting.

“The M23 has attacked us around 5 a.m. this morning,” said Col. Olivier Hamuli, who added that fighting against 700 rebels continued until about 3 p.m.

Forty-four M23 fighters were killed in the battle, the governor of North Kivu province, Julien Paluku, told The Associated Press by phone.

The M23 rebels charged that the Congolese army initiated the hostilities. On Saturday, political branch spokesman Bertrand Bisimwa accused the army of attacking the rebels in Kitagoma, near the Ugandan border.

However, local sources say the attack in Kitagoma was carried out by an armed group allied with the M23 and the rebels are only looking for an excuse to start fighting again.

SYRIA

France floats idea of arming rebels

PARIS — France raised the possibility Thursday of sending “defensive weapons” to Syria’s rebels, but Russia warned that such a move would violate international law.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said his country will ask the European Union to consider lifting the Syrian arms embargo, which prevents weapons from being sent to either side.

“We must not militarize the conflict but it’s obviously unacceptable that there are liberated zones and they’re bombed” by President Bashar Assad’s regime, Mr. Fabius said in an interview with RTL radio. “We have to find a good balance.”

The civil war in Syria, which began as an uprising against Mr. Assad’s regime, has killed more than 36,000 Syrians since March 2011, according to anti-government activists.

The fighting and flood of refugees seeking safety also have spilled over into several of Syria’s neighbors, including Israel, Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. The fighting has descended into a bloody stalemate, and rebels say they desperately need weapons to turn the tide.

United Kingdom

Police arrest second suspect in kidnapping

LONDON — British police said Thursday a second man has been charged with kidnapping two Western journalists in Syria.

Jubayer Chowdhury, 24, was arrested by counterterrorism officers at London’s Heathrow Airport on Monday after arriving on a flight from Bahrain. Scotland Yard said he has been charged in connection with their investigation into alleged terrorist activity in Syria.

Mr. Chowdhury is the second person charged in relation to the abduction of two photographers, Briton John Cantlie and his Dutch colleague Jeroen Oerlemans, between July 17 and 26 in Syria. Shajul Islam, a 26-year-old trainee doctor, also has been charged over the abduction.

Mr. Oerlemans was shot twice during a failed attempt to escape from his captors. Mr. Cantlie, who had worked for the Sunday Times newspaper, has said that none of his captors were Syrians and that several spoke with British accents.

The kidnapping raised concerns that British Muslims might be slipping into Syria to join extremists. The photographers said after their weeklong ordeal that some of their captors spoke with British accents.

Police say Mr. Chowdhury will appear in custody at Westminster Magistrates’ Court on Friday.

Uruguay

Congress weighs bill to nationalize marijuana

MONTEVIDEO — Uruguay is one step closer to turning the government into the country’s leading pot dealer.

The proposal formally introduced to Congress on Thursday would create a National Cannabis Institute with the power to license people and companies to produce marijuana for recreational, medical or industrial uses.

It also would allow anyone to grow as many as to six pot plants and produce up to 17 ounces of marijuana in their own homes.

People could join clubs of up to 15 marijuana users who together could grow up to 90 plants a year. The identity of buyers would remain protected by law.

Ruling party Deputy Sebastian Sabini says the proposal now in committee is likely to pass Congress by year’s end.

• From wire dispatches and staff reports