- - Tuesday, October 23, 2012

BEIRUT — Syrian warplanes on Tuesday struck a strategic rebel-held town in the country’s north in an attempt to reopen a key supply route, activists said, as a U.N.-proposed cease-fire meant to start this week appeared increasingly unlikely to take hold.

The U.N.-Arab League envoy to Syria has suggested that both sides in Syria’s 19-month-old conflict lay down their arms during Eid al-Adha, a four-day Muslim holiday that begins Friday.

However, neither Syrian President Bashar Assad nor rebels fighting to topple him have committed to a truce, and international envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has not said how such a truce would be monitored.

GAZA STRIP

Qatari emir visits Gaza, boosting Hamas rulers

GAZA CITY — The emir of Qatar received a hero’s welcome in Gaza on Tuesday, becoming the first head of state to visit the Palestinian territory since the Islamist militant group Hamas seized control of the coastal strip five years ago.

The landmark visit by Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani handed Hamas — branded terrorists by the West and isolated by an Israeli blockade — its biggest diplomatic victory since taking power.

It was also a strong sign of the rising power of oil-rich Qatar, and the mounting influence of Hamas‘ parent movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, since last year’s Arab Spring uprisings.

While Gazans celebrated the emir’s arrival, the rival Palestinian government of Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank was less enthusiastic.

Hamas wrested control of Gaza from Mr. Abbas’ Fatah forces in 2007, and West Bank officials fear the emir’s visit will give the Iranian-backed Hamas a lift in their feud and make the split between the two territories more permanent.

IRAQ

Iraq, South Korea sign deal on gas pipelines

BAGHDAD — Iraq on Tuesday signed a multimillion-dollar deal with South Korea’s natural gas company that will set in motion the building of two key gas pipelines in the country’s north — the latest step by Baghdad to develop dilapidated infrastructure to meet growing energy needs.

The $127.5 million deal stipulates that the state-run Korean Gas Corp. will construct two 68-mile-long pipelines to link the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and the industrial city of Beiji to transport liquid and dry natural gas.

The lines are to be completed by September 2014.

KOGAS has played a major role in Iraq’s energy sector. It is developing a promising western gas field near the Syrian border, and is teaming up with the Turkish Petroleum Corp. and Kuwait Energy Co. to develop another gas field in eastern Iraq.

Since 2008, Iraq has awarded 15 oil and gas deals, but developers have been complaining about infrastructure bottlenecks because of decades of war, sanctions and insurgent attacks.

Iraq now is producing about 3.4 million barrels a day, up from nearly 2.4 million a day in 2009, and its daily exports averaged 2.6 million barrels a day last month.

It plans to raise production to between 5 million and 6 million barrels per day in 2015 and between 9 million and 10 million barrels per day by 2020, a level that could be sustained for 20 years.

TUNISIA

Rights group: Tunisia must confront extremist assaults

RABAT, Morocco — Human Rights Watch is urging Tunisian authorities to investigate and bring to justice the people behind a series of attacks by religious extremists in the past 10 months.

In an open letter to the Interior and Justice ministries, the New York-based group criticized the government Monday for failing to respond to the assaults by extremists against activists, journalists, filmmakers and others.

Victims have described the attackers as bearded religious conservatives known as Salafis, who follow an ultra-conservative form of Islam. They have been increasingly active in Tunisia since the fall of the secular dictatorship a year and a half ago.

From wire dispatches and staff reports