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23 killed as Syria presses crackdown on protest

DAMASCUS (AFP) - Syrian forces killed at least 23 protesters as tens of thousands flooded the streets after Friday prayers, activists said, despite President Bashar al-Assad’s assurances that assaults on anti-regime protesters had ended.
Meanwhile, Russia and Turkey dismissed growing calls led by US President Barack Obama for Assad to quit, offering the embattled Syrian leader rare support despite a damning UN report on his “apparent shoot to kill” policy.
On the political front, a group of “revolutionary blocs” formed a coalition vowing to bring down the regime and paid tribute to more than 2,000 civilians killed in a crackdown on protesters since mid-March.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 15 people were killed, including an 11-year-old and a 72-year-old, in the southern province of Daraa, epicentre of the anti-regime protests that erupted March 15.
Six were killed in the central city of Homs, one in the Harasta suburb of Damascus and another in the capital’s suburb of Douma.
The Observatory said security forces opened fire on protesters, also wounding 25 people, in the Ghabagheb, Inkhil, Al-Herak and Nawa neighbourhoods in Daraa, but the official SANA news agency blamed the shooting on “armed men.”
SANA said a policeman and a civilian were killed in Ghabagheb and six security forces wounded.
People poured into the streets of major towns as they emerged from the weekly prayers, with the largest anti-regime demonstration reported in Homs.
Around 20,000 in Al-Khalidiyeh demanded the ouster of Assad, said the Observatory, which also reported rallies in the eastern oil hub of Deir Ezzor, and in the northern cities of Latakia and Banias.
Some 10,000 people marched in the predominantly Kurdish cities of Qamishli and Amuda, according to an activist at the scene, while other protests took place in and around Damascus and in Hama in central Syria.
The Observatory said troops and security forces deployed in several areas to prevent protests from taking place, including in Latakia where pro-regime “shabiha’ militias pounced on worshippers as they emerged from a mosque.

Thousands protest pope visit to Madrid, police violence

MADRID (AFP) - Thousands of protesters marched in central Madrid late Friday to protest a visit by Pope Benedict XVI and police violence during previous demonstrations, as the pontiff presided over a service a few hundred metres away.
“This is not the pope youth!” and “No to police violence!”, the crowd chanted, waving their hands in the air.
The marchers -- between 3,000 and 5,000 --- left from Madrid’s main Atocha railway station in the evening heading for the Puerta del Sol square.
But scores of police blocked access to the square, where clashes took place on both Wednesday and Thursday nights.
Nine police vans followed the marchers on their route, with a police cordon in front.
The activists were angry over the cost of the World Youth Day celebrations led by the pope, and over police crackdowns on their previous demonstrations.
“No more police brutality,” said one banner.
Just a few hundred metres (yards) away in the vast Plaza Cibeles square, Benedict, seated before hundreds of thousands young pilgrims, presided over a Stations of the Cross service as part of the August 16-21 WYD festivities.
Police tried to prevent the demonstrators from making contact with groups of pilgrims.
Baton-wielding anti-riot police in Madrid late Thursday dispersed about 150 protesters from the Puerta del Sol, birthplace of Spain’s widespread “indignant” protests over the handling of the country’s economic crisis.
“We don’t want to pay taxes for this man (the pope) to travel free,” Elsa, a 45-year-old unemployed woman, said at Friday’s march.
The pilgrims, “They have their own reductions on the metro, in restaurants. I have no reductions and I have no work.”
On Wednesday night, thousands of anti-papal protesters and hundreds of young Roman Catholics in Madrid for the festival had hurled insults at each other in the square.
Police later dispersed the activists with batons and made seven arrests. Eleven people were reported slightly injured.
Protesters - including some priests -- are fuming over the official 50.5-million-euro ($73-million) price tag, excluding the cost of police and security, of the Catholic youth celebrations.
Nationwide unemployment stands at more than 20 percent while youth unemployment is running at more than 45 percent.
But organisers of the festivities say most of the cost will be covered by a registration fee from the pilgrims, and the celebration will be a massive tourist boost for Spain.

Libya rebels claim capture of two strategic towns

ZAWIYAH, Libya (AFP) - Libyan rebels claimed to have taken two more key objectives in their advance on Tripoli, and that a former prime minister ostracised from Moamer Kadhafi’s regime had fled to rebel-held territory.
“Zawiyah is free,” rebels said Friday as they took up positions in its hospital hours after pounding the centre of this oil refinery town, the last major barrier before possibly advancing on Tripoli from the west.
The key refinery is the only source of fuel to the capital, and could leave it without critical supplies.
Hundreds of rebels armed with assault rifles had marched from the central square, a stronghold of forces loyal to Kadhafi, to the hospital decorated with portraits of the veteran leader, an AFP journalist said.
Kadhafi snipers were staked out on rooftops as the battles raged, with buildings and streets in the town centre showing signs of massive damage from the warfare.
Rebels have been seeking to sever Tripoli’s supply lines from Tunisia to the west and to Kadhafi’s hometown of Sirte in the east in a move they hope will cut off the capital, prompt defections and spark an uprising inside Tripoli.
Insurgents also said they seized Zliten from Kadhafi’s forces, only hours after reporting they were in the centre of the town, 150 kilometres (93 miles) east of Tripoli.
“Zliten is now under the control of our fighters, but the fighting is not finished,” the Information Centre For Misrata Military Council said.
“Kadhafi forces have used tanks to try unsuccessfully to repel the rebels.”
It said some rebels and 40-50 Kadhafi forces were dead. Another 12 African mercenaries were captured and 40 insurgents were wounded, 10 of them seriously.
Meanwhile, rebel forces said former Libyan prime minister Abdessalam Jalloud, who fell out of favour with Moamer Kadhafi in the mid-nineties, had joined them, though they declined to provide his location “for security reasons.”
A senior rebel who requested anonymity said Jalloud and his family had arrived in Zintan, a rebel-held town southwest of the capital.

Three hurt as Gaza rocket hits Ashdod

JERUSALEM (AFP) - Three people were injured, two seriously, when rockets fired by militants in Gaza slammed into the coastal town of Ashdod in southern Israel early on Saturday, police said.
“One rocket hit a house, causing damage but no casualties,” police spokeswoman Luba Samri told AFP. “The second fell on open ground, among sand dunes, where it wounded three people, Palestinians staying in Israel illegally, injuring two seriously and one moderatately,” she said.
The rocket attacks came after a string of Israeli air strikes on the Gaza Strip on Friday killed seven Palestinians, a day after eight Israelis were killed by suspected Islamist militants near the Egyptian border.

Shell-shocked Indian govt braces for anti-graft fast

NEW DELHI (AFP) - Indian activist Anna Hazare prepared Friday to embark on a two-week fast likely to fuel an explosion of public anger over corruption that has left a shell-shocked government grasping for a response.
Buoyed by an unprecedented wave of mass protests that followed his arrest three days ago, the 74-year-old, who has become a symbol of national dissent, warned he was ready to push his hunger strike to the limit.
“I will not stop fighting,” he said in a video message to his supporters late Thursday from the cell in Delhi’s Tihar jail that has become his de-facto campaign headquarters since he was taken into police custody.
His campaign, denounced as “totally misconceived” by an increasingly vulnerable-looking Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, demands the re-drafting of a new anti-graft law that Hazare insists is incapable of removing the blight of corruption that pervades all levels of Indian society.

North Korea’s Kim arrives in Russia

MOSCOW (AFP) - North Korea’s reclusive leader Kim Jong-Il on Saturday arrived in Russia where he plans to meet President Dmitry Medvedev amid mounting fears of a worsening food crisis in the Stalinist state.
“He arrived today” in his armoured train, Alexander Naryzhny, the head of the far eastern Khasan district which borders North Korea, told AFP.
It was Kim’s first visit to Russia since 2002.
Kim is expected to meet with Medvedev for talks in the Siberian city of Ulan Ude near Lake Baikal. The Kremlin meanwhile declined to immediately confirm Kim’s arrival.
North Korea’s nuclear programme and closer economic ties are likely to be among the top topics on the agenda.
The visit comes as fears mount of a worsening hunger crisis in North Korea which threatens to affect hundreds of thousands of people.
The Russian foreign ministry said on Friday that Moscow was sending up to 50,000 tonnes of wheat to North Korea to help it cope with an “acute shortage of food supplies.”
The first shipment arrived this week and the rest of the supplies would be sent next month, the foreign ministry said.
Officials in the Pacific region, including the governor and Kremlin’s envoy, held a welcome ceremony for Kim in Khasan, said Naryzhny who also attended the event.
Kim, who is known to dislike air travel due to security concerns, arrived in Khasan district after crossing the Tumangan river at 12 pm local time (0100 GMT), Naryzhny said.
He said he was unaware of the North Korean leader’s programme in Russia, adding he did not leave his train upon arrival.
South Korea’s Yonhap news agency, citing informed sources, said Kim was expected to visit a dam in Ussuriysk, a town near Vladivostok, later in the day.