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Briefly: Islamists push secular Tuaregs into Mali desert

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MALI

BAMAKO — Islamists who control northern Mali say they pushed the secular Tuareg rebels out of the town of Lere, in the northwest of the country near Mauritania.

A spokesman of the extremist group Ansar Dine, Sanda Abu Mohammed, said Wednesday that the group now controls Lere, which is 37 miles from the border with Mauritania.

Tuareg spokesman Mohamed Ag Attaye confirmed that the rebels had retreated to a base north of Lere.

The Islamists have pushed the Tuaregs out of all of northern Mali's main towns.

By taking Lere, the Islamists now control the main towns bordering Mauritania and Niger.

However, the Tuaregs said it is not important if they lose the towns because they can operate effectively in the desert.

ZIMBABWE

Report: Zimbabwe targets human rights activists

JOHANNESBURG — Zimbabwe uses laws and beatings by security forces to suppress human rights activists in the southern African nation ahead of elections planned for next year, according to a report released this week.

The report by the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders was released as President Robert Mugabe pushes for constitutional amendments that would allow for elections to end the uneasy coalition government of his Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) and the nation's main opposition party.

That has some worried that Zimbabwe could experience the same repression and violence of its 2008 election, in which at least 163 people were killed and some 5,000 were tortured or beaten.

"These stories paint a very, very gloomy picture about the situation of human rights defenders in Zimbabwe," said Thomas Sibusiso Masuku, a former high court judge in Swaziland who contributed to the report.

The report highlights the struggles of several activists in Zimbabwe, targeted mostly by security forces and allegedly arrested for flimsy causes.

One activist was detained for weeks and questioned about her work after police took her into custody and said her car was near the scene of a killing, according to the report.

Another activist who was investigating abuses in Zimbabwe's diamond region was harassed repeatedly, it said.

A third activist told investigators that security forces abducted her from her home in 2008 while she was in pajamas. The activist said men repeatedly questioned her about other activists while beating the soles of her feet to the point that she suffered from internal bleeding, according to the report.

Those not beaten often find themselves at the mercy of laws in Zimbabwe that make it difficult to hold opposition meetings or publish critical articles, according to the report.

It listed several circumstances in which protesters were attacked by riot police while demonstrating peacefully.

CONGO

Rebels slowly begin to retreat from Masisi

GOMA — Rebels thought to be backed by Rwanda began retreating from the territory they seized last week and pulled out of Masisi, their military leader said Wednesday, in the first concrete sign that international pressures have stemmed the advance of the ruthless fighters.

Gen. Sultani Makenga, the military chief of the 8-month-old rebellion, said his fighters intend to abide by an ultimatum issued by the nations neighboring Congo, which called for the M23 rebels to retreat no later than Friday to 12 miles outside of Goma, the major, eastern city that fell to the fighters eight days ago.

He said he had ordered his fighters to retreat along the southeastern axis from Masisi to Goma, and they then will leave Goma via the northern route to Rutshuru.

"My soldiers began to retreat from Masisi yesterday. We will go via Goma and then after that we will retreat to [12 miles] past Goma toward Rutshuru," Gen. Makenga told The Associated Press. "I think that, by Friday, we will be able to complete this."

Congolese spokesman Lambert Mende, who is based in the country's capital more than 1,000 miles to the west, confirmed that the government had received reports of troops pulling out of Masisi.

"Yes, there are reports of movements [of rebels out of Masisi], but we won't label it a retreat until it's over. They have played this game with us before, where they say they are moving and then find a reason not to," Mr. Mende said. "There will be no negotiations with Congo until they are [12 miles] outside the Goma city limit."

In Goma, there was skepticism over the rebels' claim and confusion, after the leader of M23's political wing insisted that the fighters were not leaving the city of 1 million that is the economic heart of one of Congo's mineral-rich regions.

M23 Vice Minister of the Interior Theophile Ruremesha told The Associated Press on Wednesday that Congolese President Joseph Kabila's government needs to meet the rebels' wide-ranging demands for them to leave the city.

"For humanitarian reasons, we cannot leave the town in the hands of just anybody," he said. "Creating the neutral force will take some time."

While some fear M23, which has a record of carrying out executions and of forcing children into its ranks, other residents of this lakeside city are afraid of the undisciplined Congolese army, which the rebels pushed out of Goma on Nov. 20.

SOUTH AFRICA

Broadcaster rejects ad with cartoon president

JOHANNESBURG — South Africa's national broadcaster rejected an ad featuring a cartoon version of President Jacob Zuma enjoying a bargain fast-food dinner of fish and chips inside a mansion named after his family's rural home, which has received millions of dollars in state-funded renovations.

The advertisement for Fish and Chips Co. that SABC declined to air adds to several spots designed to play on ethnic or political divisions in the nation that have sparked controversy in recent years.

The 30-second ad shows a mansion flying the South African flag labeled as Nkandla, referring to Mr. Zuma's home that local news reports say has received $23 million in improvement in recent months, including new fences and a medical clinic.

Inside, a long table of women and children eat the inexpensive meal -- a nod to Mr. Zuma's polygamous lifestyle -- with one woman referring to the president as "Zuzulicious."

The ad had been scheduled to air Monday night on SABC, but the television broadcaster declined to show it.

SABC spokesman Kaizer Kganyago said the broadcaster refused to air the ad because its officials thought it implied that Mr. Zuma lent his credibility to the $2.85 food deal.

"The impression is given that the family is endorsing the brand," Mr. Kganyago told The Associated Press on Tuesday.

• From wire dispatches and staff reports

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