YEMEN
U.S. airstrikes kill 14 al-Qaeda suspects

Air raids killed 14 men suspected of belonging to al-Qaeda in southern Yemen on Sunday, medics and residents said, in one of the largest U.S.-led assaults on the group since a civil war broke out a year ago.

The airstrikes occurred as fresh signs emerged that tensions between the Iran-allied Houthi rebels, who control most of northern Yemen, and Saudi-led forces backing Yemen’s embattled president were easing after a year of fighting that has killed more than 6,200 people.

Residents in southern Yemen said Sunday that an aircraft bombed buildings used by al-Qaeda in Abyan province and destroyed a government intelligence headquarters in the provincial capital that the militants had captured and were using as a base. Medics said six people were killed.

Earlier Sunday, a suspected U.S. drone attack killed eight militants gathered in courtyards in two villages in Abyan, residents said.

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has taken advantage of the civil war to seize territory and operate more openly.

The United States has kept up a drone campaign against the group, although it evacuated the last of its military and intelligence personnel from Yemen in March last year. Its attacks have killed some of AQAP’s top leaders, including its chief, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, who was struck by a drone in June.

The United Nations, trying to build on a lull in fighting along the Saudi-Yemeni border, said last week that the warring parties had agreed to a cessation of hostilities starting at midnight on April 10, followed by peace talks from April 18 as part of a fresh push to end the crisis.

— Reuters

IRAQ
Sadr begins sit-in inside Green Zone

Powerful Iraqi Shiite Muslim leader Moqtada al-Sadr entered Baghdad’s Green Zone, the heavily fortified center of the capital housing government buildings and embassies, on Sunday to keep up pressure on the government to enact reforms.

Thousands of Sadr’s supporters began a sit-in at the district’s gates more than a week ago and continued to camp out Sunday despite heavy rains. But Sadr took the protest forward by entering the zone itself.

“Beloved protesters, I will enter the Green Zone by myself and [my escorts] only. I sit in inside the Green Zone and you sit in at its gates. None of you move,” he told them before walking past a security checkpoint into the Green Zone.

Sadr is urging Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to move ahead with a plan announced more than six weeks ago to replace current ministers with unaffiliated technocrats in a bid to tackle systemic political patronage, which has abetted graft.

Sadr, one of the country’s most savvy political operators, commands the loyalty of millions of Iraqis and has at times appeared very close to neighboring Shiite power Iran.

It is not clear how long Sadr, 42, who rose to prominence when his Mahdi Army battled U.S. troops after the 2003 invasion, plans to continue his personal demonstration.

Abadi, who has been slow to deliver reforms but pledged to reveal a cabinet reshuffle soon, has voiced concern that Shiite street protests could spin out of control and endanger Iraq’s security when it needs to focus on fighting the Islamic State militant group.

— Reuters

ISRAEL
High court blocks natural gas deal

Israel’s Supreme Court on Sunday overturned the government’s landmark deal to begin pumping natural gas, handing a painful blow to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a consortium of energy companies.

The court gave parliament a year to amend the plan or risk the cancelation of the framework. It cited a clause in the deal that would prevent Israel from making significant regulatory changes for the next 10 years as reason for scuttling it. The court argued that the clause restricted parliament’s powers.

Netanyahu has made the energy deal a centerpiece of his agenda, saying the gas sales from Israel’s large reserves would bring energy self-sufficiency and billions of dollars in tax revenue. Critics have said that the deal gave excessively favorable terms to the government’s corporate partners.

Resource-poor Israel announced the discovery of sizable offshore natural gas deposits about five years ago. A partnership of Israeli and U.S. companies has begun extracting some reserves.

— Associated Press

2 suspects held in Ivory Coast attack: Authorities in Mali said they arrested two men in connection with an attack by Islamist extremists in Ivory Coast that killed at least 19 people this month. One of the suspects was identified as the driver who brought the attackers to Ivory Coast; the second man was identified as his accomplice. Three men from Mali have already been detained in Ivory Coast. Al-Qaeda’s North Africa branch asserted responsibility for the attack.

Russia plane-crash data deemed ‘satisfactory’: Investigators have successfully downloaded all the information from the flight recorders on the FlyDubai plane that crashed in southern Russia on March 19, killing all 62 people aboard, and determined that it is in a “satisfactory” state, the United Arab Emirates’ aviation regulator said. The statement suggests authorities are making progress in the probe to determine what caused the crash. Russian authorities leading the investigation had said previously that the plane’s recorders were heavily damaged.

— From news services