AFGHANISTAN: NATO officials said Sunday the route clearance offensive by international forces is making progress in Afghanistan's southern Helmand province, a Taliban outpost. The alliance says Operation Moshtarak has improved freedom of movement in the area. British, U.S. and Afghan forces began the ground offensive in the town of Marjah as part of an effort to regain control of one of the Taliban's largest remaining strongholds. However, NATO officials said (in a statement) the combined forces have encountered IED (improvised explosive device) strikes, weapon finds, and some small arms fire.
Meanwhile, NATO announced Sunday it has captured two militants, including a suspected Taliban commander. The men were detained Friday.
On Saturday, Afghan President Hamid Karzai renewed his call for the Taliban to accept peace and join with the government. Reuters news agency quotes a Taliban spokesman Sunday rejecting the president's call for peace, saying Mr. Karzai is only a puppet who cannot represent a nation or a government.
PORTUGAL-FLOODS: Portuguese officials say flash floods and landslides on the Atlantic resort island of Madeira have killed at least 38 people and injured more than 100. Regional social affairs secretary Francisco Ramos told reporters Sunday that the death toll could still rise. He said there are no estimates on the number of people missing. Ramos said the search for bodies is continuing, while awaiting rescue teams from Portugal. Local media said heavy rain and winds up to 100 kilometers per hour struck the island Saturday night, knocking down trees and blocking roads with debris, hampering rescue efforts.
The popular tourist destination is located about 900 kilometers southwest of mainland Portugal. It was not immediately clear if any tourists were among the storms' victims.
IRAQ-ELECTIONS: A major Sunni bloc is pulling out of Iraq's March 7 elections, charging that Iran led the effort to ban hundreds of the bloc's members from running for office. National Dialogue Front spokesman Haidar al-Mullah said Saturday the bloc could not participate in what he called "a political process run by a foreign agenda." He said party leaders made the decision after the top U.S. commander in Iraq, General Ray Odierno, said earlier this week there was "direct evidence" showing majority-Shi'ite Iran helped plan the disqualification of many Sunni politicians from the election.
He also urged other political parties to join the boycott.The National Dialogue Front is headed by Saleh al-Mutlak, a prominent Sunni parliamentarian who was banned from the election because of alleged links to the party of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
ISRAEL - PALESTINIANS - FRANCE: Israel is rejecting the idea of international recognition for a Palestinian state before negotiations have been completed. Israeli officials said Sunday such a move would hinder the peace process and take away any reason for Palestinians to negotiate. They are responding to a proposal put forth by France's foreign minister in a published interview. Bernard Kouchner told the Journal du Dimanche state-like entities are forming in the West Bank, including a French-trained police force and new businesses. He said he can envision the proclamation of a Palestinian state and international recognition of it, even before "negotiating its borders."
Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad has said he plans to create a de facto Palestinian state within two years, regardless of the status of the peace process.
PHILIPPINES UNREST: Philippine military officials say top leaders of the al-Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf group may have been among six militants killed in fighting in the restive south on Sunday. Authorities say that among those believed killed on Jolo island was Albadar Parad, an Abu Sayyaf leader who led the abduction of three Red Cross workers last year. Other military officials said the brother of Umbra Jumdail, one of the core leaders of the group, was also killed. The military said three government soldiers were wounded in the clash.
Friday officials announced that they had arrested a suspected Islamic insurgent accused of the kidnapping of three American tourists nine years ago.
The military said Jumadail Arad was captured Thursday at a Manila seaport.
BURMA - MONK: Reports from Rangoon say the military government of Burma quietly sentenced a Buddhist monk to seven years in prison during the visit this week of a United Nations human rights envoy. A lawyer said Saturday that Gaw Thita was arrested last August as he returned from a trip to Taiwan. He was convicted at Burma's notorious Insein Prison Wednesday on three charges including unlawful association. The lawyer said the monk was also convicted of failing to declare possession of foreign currency and for violation of immigration laws for taking the trip.
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