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Israel, Hamas Begin Gaza Truce, But Doubt it Will Hold

ISRAEL - PALESTINIANS: A truce between Israel and Palestinian militant group Hamas took effect this morning in the Gaza Strip, though leaders from both sides have expressed doubt that it will hold. The truce is supposed to last six months, but Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has called the ceasefire "fragile" and warns that it could be "short-lived." The fragility of the ceasefire was underscored just moments before it began, when Israeli forces killed a Palestinian militant in Gaza. And after the truce took effect, the Israeli military says its navy fired warning shots at Palestinian fishermen who crossed into Israeli waters off Gaza City. Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev expressed Israel's fears that Hamas will use the period of quiet to rearm and regroup. Hamas has said it is committed to the truce, but is ready to resume hostilities if Israel violates the deal.

IRAQ: Iraqi security forces have launched a new crackdown against Shi'ite militias in the southern part of the country. The operation began today in Maysan province and its capital Amarah, a region U.S. commanders say is used as a base to smuggle weapons from neighboring Iran. Over the past days Iraqi security forces have urged fighters in the area to hand over their weapons. Maysan province also is a stronghold of radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia. Sadr aides have said his followers will not resist Iraqi forces. The operation is the latest effort by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to combat Shi'ite militias. It follows similar crackdowns in the southern city of Basra and in Baghdad's Sadr City. In northern Iraq today, coalition forces say they detained 21 suspected terrorists during operations targeting al-Qaida in Iraq.

AFGHANISTAN: Afghan officials say Afghan and NATO troops have cleared out Taliban militants from villages outside Kandahar during a major offensive in southern Afghanistan. The governor of Kandahar Province said today that hundreds of insurgents were killed or wounded during the operation, including many Pakistanis. NATO has not confirmed those claims. A spokesman for the alliance told VOA the operation is progressing well and is expected to continue for the next few days. The spokesman said the Taliban presence in the area is much smaller than reported. He noted that there is no evidence that the insurgents blew up bridges or planted land mines as they claimed. Afghan and NATO forces launched the joint offensive Wednesday in Arghandab district and surrounding areas of Kandahar city.

ZIMBABWE: U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice plans to discuss Zimbabwe's political crisis at the U.N. Security Council today. She is expected to stress that next week's run off presidential election in Zimbabwe must be transparent. Western and African countries are increasing pressure on Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe to ensure the vote is free and fair. Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga, speaking Wednesday in Washington, called Zimbabwe's March elections a "sham" and said the country is an embarrassment to Africa. He said an international peacekeeping force should be sent to Zimbabwe to ensure proper elections are held. South African President Thabo Mbeki held separate talks Wednesday in Zimbabwe with Mr. Mugabe and his challenger in the run-off, opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai.

SOKOR - US BEEF: South Korean President Lee Myung-bak has apologized again to the country for a deal to resume U.S. beef imports that sparked widespread street protests and crippled his young administration. Mr. Lee made his apology during a nationally televised speech today. It was his second apology over the disputed deal in four weeks. The president says he and his government failed to fully understand the concerns of the South Korean people before making the deal with Washington. The pact would have allowed the U.S. to fully export all beef to South Korea, regardless of its age. But the public has voiced concern because cattle 30 months old or older are considered highly susceptible to the brain-wasting disease known as mad cow disease.

BURMA - SUU KYI BIRTHDAY: Burmese authorities have arrested at least five supporters of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi who were gathered outside her political party headquarters to observe her 63rd birthday today. Witnesses say the arrests happened after authorities broke up a demonstration outside the offices of the National League for Democracy in the main city of Rangoon. The supporters had been shouting slogans calling on the ruling military junta to release Suu Kyi from house detention. Her supporters had gathered at the NLD headquarters to offer food to Buddhist monks to mark her birthday. The Nobel Peace laureate is spending her birthday quietly at her Burmese home, where she has been under detention for 12 of the last 18 years. Last month, the country's ruling military junta extended her detention by one year.

CHINA - JAPAN - GAS: Chinese Foreign Minister Wu Dawei is defending a landmark deal with Japan to jointly develop gas reserves in the disputed East China Sea just one day after the agreement was announced. Speaking with reporters today in Beijing, Wu says the agreement does not mean Beijing has given up or compromised its legal territorial claims in the area. Wu says that in making the deal both China and Japan have agreed to shelve their differences. China does not recognize Japan's claim that a median line exists between the two countries in the East China Sea. Instead, China insists its exclusive economic zone stretches farther east to the edge of the continental shelf near the Japanese island of Okinawa. The agreement announced Wednesday allows Japanese companies to invest in and claim proportional profits from existing and developing projects in area.

NIGERIA - OIL UNREST: The Royal Dutch Shell oil company says it has stopped production at an offshore oil installation in Nigeria after an armed attack today. A spokesperson for the region's main militant group (the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta) told the Associated Press that its members attacked the Bonga oil field, but were unable to enter a computer control room that they had hoped to destroy. The Bonga offshore oil field produces about 200-thousand barrels of oil a day. Militants have a history of attacking Nigeria's onshore oil-producing facilities. An offshore attack is rare. Militants and gangs began attacking oil facilities in the southern Niger Delta region in late 2005 to demand that more oil revenue be directed to impoverished local residents.

US - FLOODS: U.S. President George Bush will travel to (the midwestern state of) Iowa today to get a a first-hand look at the damage caused last week when the Mississippi River swelled and spilled over its banks. The surging river has swamped nearly two dozen levees along the waterway, submerging dozens of small towns in Iowa and the neighboring states of Illinois and Missouri. The floods have also destroyed thousands of hectares of agricultural crops, including corn and wheat, a loss experts fear will trigger higher food prices. Residents have joined members of the National Guard in a desperate effort to fill sandbags needed to shore up threatened levees. Concerns over pollution are also growing, as the floodwaters carried chemicals and raw sewage from damaged factories and wastewater plants.

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