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Authorities to release 11 women from prison

BAGHDAD — Iraqi authorities on Thursday ordered the release of 11 women facing criminal charges and pledged to transfer other female prisoners to jails in their home provinces, in a move to address a main demand during a wave of protests by the country’s Sunni minority against the Baghdad government.

The demonstrations erupted after the arrests of bodyguards assigned to Finance Minister Rafia al-Issawi, one of the central government’s most senior Sunni officials.

The protests tap into deeper Sunni feelings of perceived discrimination and unfair application of laws against their sect by Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government.

Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, another high-ranking Sunni official, is living in exile in Turkey after he was handed multiple death sentences in absentia for allegedly running death squads, a charge he dismisses as politically motivated.

Justice Ministry spokesman Haider al-Saadi said the families of the imprisoned women can secure their release by paying bail.

CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC

President fires his son from top military post

BANGUI — Facing an insurgency by a new rebel coalition, the president of Central African Republic consolidated military power under his control Thursday after dismissing his own son as acting defense minister along with his army chief of staff.

President Francois Bozize said in a decree read on state radio late Wednesday that he was taking over the position held by his son, Jean Francis Bozize, as neighboring countries sent troops to help.

Hundreds of soldiers from Chad, the Republic of Congo, Gabon and Cameroon have been arriving this week in this desperately poor, landlocked country where rebels have seized 10 towns in a month’s time.

Rebel spokesman Col. Djouma Narkoyo reiterated Thursday that they were holding their position at the transportation hub of Sibut pending negotiations in Gabon. They apparently have made no further advance toward the capital since taking the town on Dec. 29.

IRAQ

Car bomb hits crowd, kills 20 Shiite pilgrims

BAGHDAD — A car bomb explosion tore through a crowd of Shiite pilgrims returning home Thursday from a religious commemoration, killing at least 20 and reinforcing fears of renewed sectarian violence, Iraqi officials said.

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