Rebels capture base in key central region

Syrian rebels took control of a military base in strategic Homs province Thursday as they fought to expand territory under their control near the Lebanese border, activists said.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said opposition fighters captured the entire Dabaa complex — where the army houses ground troops — after weeks of fighting with government forces.

The central region is important to President Bashar al-Assad because it links Damascus, the capital and his seat of power, with one of his main allies, the militant Islamist group Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The base itself is near Qusair, a contested town near a key highway between Damascus and the coastal enclave that is the heartland of Syria’s Alawite community. The area also is home to the country’s two main seaports, Latakia and Tartus.

The latest rebel gain came during a government counter­offensive that has scored successes in the central and northern regions in recent days.

— Associated Press

Ailing Palestinian to be freed, Peres says

Israeli President Shimon Peres said Thursday that he has approved the release of an ailing Palestinian prisoner on humanitarian grounds.

In a statement, Peres said that Mohammed al-Taj “was ill with a serious medical condition” and noted that he has served two-thirds of a 14-year sentence. Taj was described as a “security prisoner,” a term used for those convicted of involvement in violence against Israelis.

The decision comes weeks after another security prisoner died of cancer while in Israeli custody. The death sparked violent demonstrations in the West Bank, where Palestinian prisoners are honored as heroes fighting Israeli occupation.

— Associated Press

U.S. accuses general in drugs, arms plots

The U.S. Justice Department has accused Guinea-Bissau’s top military official of plotting to traffic cocaine to the United States and sell weapons to Colombian rebels, according to court documents seen Thursday.

The accusation against Gen. Antonio Indjai, widely seen as the coup-prone West African nation’s most powerful man, is the first official signal that criminality may extend to the country’s highest levels. Guinea-Bissau authorities deny any involvement in drug trafficking, and Indjai is believed to be in the country.

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said the charges against Indjai, “together with the recent arrests of his co-conspirators, have dismantled a network of alleged narco-terrorists.” U.S. undercover agents snared Guinea-Bissau’s former navy chief in a high-seas drug sting on April 2.

— Reuters

Suicide bomber hits cafe in Iraq: A suicide bomber detonated explosives at a Baghdad cafe crowded with young people late Thursday, killing at least 26 and wounding dozens ahead of provincial elections set for the weekend. The rare evening attack in the predominantly Sunni neighborhood of Amiriyah brought to 30 the number of people killed across the country Thursday.

Italian political crisis drags on: Italian lawmakers failed to elect a president during an initial two rounds of voting, the latest evidence of the political discord that has thwarted the formation of a government for two months. President Giorgio Napolitano’s term ends in May. The post is mostly ceremonial, but the occupant has the power to dissolve Parliament and call elections and to tap the candidate with enough support in the legislature to try to form a government.

IMF chief to be questioned in French misconduct case: International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde will be questioned by a French magistrate in May over an arbitration payment made to a backer of former president Nicolas Sarkozy, Lagarde said. The former French finance minister, who said she was ready to be heard in the case involving businessman Bernard Tapie, has denied doing wrong by agreeing to arbitration in a court battle between the state and Tapie.

Eight die in gun attack in Kenya: Gunmen shot dead eight people in a restaurant in the eastern Kenyan town of Garissa, the Kenya Red Cross said. The East African nation has suffered a string of grenade and gun attacks since it sent troops into Somalia in late 2011 to pursue the al-Shabab rebels linked to al-Qaeda. In February, al-Shabab warned Kenya that it faced a “long, gruesome” war if it kept up its campaign against the Islamist group.

Russian nurses charged with beating orphans: Russia’s state investigative agency has filed charges against two nurses accused of severely beating three small children at an orphanage after a drinking binge. The agency said the two beat a 3-year old boy and a 10-month-old girl to stop them from crying and wrapped a 7-month-old boy in a blanket and put him in a plastic container, also to silence him. Channel 1 state television said the youngest victim was left comatose but is recovering.

— From news services