Army offensive gets underway in west

Syrian troops clashed with rebels in a mountainous western region Saturday in what appeared to be an offensive to cut an opposition supply route from Lebanon, forcing hundreds to flee across the border for safety, activists and officials said.

The fighting was concentrated in the rugged Qalamoun region around the towns of Qara, Rima and Nabak, activists and state media said. The battle had been expected for weeks as troops and opposition fighters reinforced their positions ahead of winter.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said fighting had closed the highway linking the capital, Damascus, and the central city of Homs. It said Syrian warplanes struck rebel-held areas.

The Observatory said Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group, deployed thousands of fighters on the Lebanese side of the border in preparation for the battle. Hezbollah’s fighters joined Syria’s civil war this year, significantly aiding government forces, mostly in the central province of Homs and in the suburbs of Damascus.

Syria’s state-run news agency said troops had killed dozens in attacks on rebel hideouts.

— Associated Press

In a shift, Islamists call for dialogue

A Muslim Brotherhood-led alliance said Saturday that it is ready for a national dialogue to end Egypt’s political standoff, and for the first time the group did not demand that the country’s toppled Islamist president be returned to power.

The military-backed government, however, signaled no intention to start talks with supporters of Mohamed Morsi, who was ousted July 3. In addition, judges suggested Saturday that the government disband the Brotherhood’s political party.

Mohammed Bishr of the Brotherhood said the proposal calls for the release of detainees arrested after Morsi’s ouster, the end of a security crackdown on Brotherhood members and allies, and the reopening of pro-Brotherhood television channels.

— Associated Press

Showdown possible on civil war inquiry

Sri Lanka remained defiant Saturday in the face of calls for an independent inquiry into alleged atrocities committed during its long civil war, which ended in 2009, while Britain’s leader pledged to bring the issue to the U.N. Human Rights Council if no progress is made by March.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said he held a “frank” discussion Friday night with Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Cameron had skipped the first day of Commonwealth summit meetings in the capital, Colombo, to travel to the war-torn north on a fact-finding mission.

Sri Lankan ministers said Cameron’s comments interfered with the country’s sovereignty.

— Associated Press

Curfew in place in Pakistani city after clashes: The Pakistani government imposed a rare curfew in the northern garrison city of Rawalpindi, a day after sectarian clashes during a Shiite religious commemoration. Meanwhile, Taliban insurgents threatened to avenge the eight Sunni Muslims who authorities say were killed.

Niger arrests 30 in hunt for Sahara migrant traffickers: Niger has detained about 30 people, including defense and security personnel, as part of a crackdown on human traffickers after the bodies of 92 migrants were found in the Sahara desert, the government said. Niger said it would shut down all camps used by migrants in the north, but the flow of people has not abated.

Trade bloc to address Dominican migrant ruling: Members of the Caribbean trade bloc Caricom have called an emergency meeting for Tuesday to discuss a court ruling in the Dominican Republic that could strip the citizenship of thousands of children born to migrants living there illegally. There is growing anger across the Caribbean about the ruling, which would overwhelmingly affect those of Haitian ancestry.

Last note for France’s Pleyel piano maker: Gone are its glory days, when Chopin composed concertos on its pianos. Down to 14 employees after a 206-year history that produced more than 250,000 pianos, the Pleyel factory in Saint-Denis, north of Paris, announced it is closing “because of recurrent losses and a very low level of activity.”

— From news services