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World Briefs: Israel military holds largest snap drill in years

- - Wednesday, September 19, 2012

ISRAEL

JERUSALEM — The Israeli military on Wednesday conducted its largest snap drill in years as tensions with Iran over its nuclear program rise and civil war in neighboring Syria rages.

Military chief Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz ordered the exercise to test the competence and preparedness of several units in the armed forces, a military statement said.

It called the drill in northern and central Israel "part of a routine inspection" that "does not indicate any changes" in the country's alert levels.

Tens of thousands were mobilized for the exercise, including artillery and air force personnel, making the drill unique because of the number of soldiers and senior officers involved, several officials said.

As part of the exercise, troops were dispatched by air from central parts of the country to the Israeli-controlled part of the Golan Heights, captured from neighboring Syria in the 1967 Mideast war, the officials said. The drill ended with a live fire exercise in the Golan.

Israeli leaders have repeatedly said they fear Syria's stockpile of chemical weapons and missiles might fall into the hands of anti-Israel militants during the fighting there.

Israel also is concerned that Iran is close to developing nuclear weapons. Tehran has denied such claims, insisting its nuclear program has no military component.

ITALY

High court upholds American convictions

ROME — Italy's highest criminal court on Wednesday upheld the convictions of 23 Americans in the kidnapping of an Egyptian terrorism suspect as part of the CIA's extraordinary rendition program.

The ruling marks the final appeal in the first trial anywhere in the world involving the CIA's practice of abducting terrorism suspects and transferring them to third countries where torture is permitted.

The Americans all were convicted in absentia following a 3 1/2-year trial, and have never been in Italian custody. They risk arrest if they travel to Europe, and one of their court-appointed attorneys suggested that the final verdict would open the way for the Italian government to seek their extradition.

"It went badly. It went very badly," attorney Alessia Sorgato said. "Now they will ask for extradition."

The Americans and two Italians were convicted last year of involvement in the kidnapping of Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr, also known as Abu Omar, from a Milan street on Feb. 17, 2003.

The cleric was transferred to U.S. military bases in Italy and Germany before being moved to Egypt, where he says he was tortured. He has since been released.

Those convicted include the former Milan CIA station chief Robert Seldon Lady, whose original seven-year sentence was raised to nine years on appeal. The other 22 Americans, all but one identified by prosecutors as CIA agents, face seven-year terms.

PAKISTAN

Man accused of blasphemy over Muhammad film

ISLAMABAD — Pakistani officials have opened an investigation into a businessman accused of blasphemy after refusing to join protests over an anti-Islam video and f trying to persuade others also not to take part.

Police Officer Munir Abbasi said hundreds of protesters in the city of Hyderabad who rallied against the film that mocks the Prophet Muhammad demanded that businessman Haji Nasrullah Khan shut his shops in solidarity.

When Mr. Khan refused, one of his tenants said his decision supported the film.

City police Chief Fareed Jan said Wednesday the protesters claim Mr. Khan insulted the Prophet.

Chief Jan said there is no evidence to suggest this happened and said police were pressured by the mob to open the case.

Blasphemy is punishable by life in prison or death in Pakistan.

INDIA

Government works to shore up coalition

NEW DELHI — India's ruling Congress party worked to shore up its governing coalition Wednesday after a crucial ally withdrew its support in protest over a raft of new economic reforms that included a rise in fuel prices and lifting restrictions on foreign retailers.

The departure of the Trinamool Congress left the government with only a minority of seats in Parliament, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's party now depends on the support of outside parties to keep power.

It wasn't clear whether Congress was assured of their support, and top party leaders were developing a new strategy for maintaining a parliamentary majority until the next scheduled elections in 2014.

Information Minister Ambika Soni denied any threat to the ruling coalition: "Who says the government is in danger? I haven't heard anyone say that."

Yet party leaders watered down the new restrictions on cooking-gas subsidies, saying that in Congress-ruled states families should get nine subsidized cylinders a year, up from the limit of six the national government had decided last week.

Congressional officials insisted this was not the start of a rollback on reforms.

Mr. Singh has come under intense criticism in recent months for presiding over a government riddled by corruption scandals and too weak to make any major policy decisions even as the nation's once enviable economic growth rate plunged.

AFGHANISTAN

Karzai pushes for peace as violence continues

KABUL — The Afghan president on Wednesday urged his nation to rally behind the push for peace despite persistent violence, evoking the memory of a former leader who was assassinated while trying to broker negotiations with the Taliban.

"We should all strive for peace," President Hamid Karzai said, adding that doing so is a way to continue the mission of slain former President Burhanuddin Rabbani, killed by a suicide bomber posing as an emissary from the insurgents.

Mr. Karzai spoke at a memorial marking the one-year anniversary of Mr. Rabbani's death. The ceremony came a day after a suicide bomber rammed a car packed with explosives into a minibus carrying aviation workers to the airport in Kabul, killing at least 12 people, including nine foreigners.

A militant group said the attack aimed to avenge an anti-Islam film that ridicules the Prophet Muhammad.

• From wire dispatches and staff reports