Rebels take air base in southern province

Syrian rebels captured a military base in their country’s south Wednesday after days of heavy fighting, activists said, marking the latest advance by opposition fighters near the strategic area bordering Jordan.

Rebels battling President Bashar al-Assad’s troops have been chipping away at the regime’s hold on the south in recent weeks with the help of an influx of foreign-funded weapons. Their aim is to secure a corridor from the Jordanian border to the Syrian capital, Damascus, in preparation for an assault on the city.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the rebels seized the air defense base after a string of recent victories in Daraa province. The base is home to the Syrian army’s 49th battalion and is on the outskirts of the city of Daraa, the birthplace of the uprising, which began in 2011.

The rebels control vast portions of northern Syria that border Turkey. They have also captured areas in the east along the border with Iraq recently, but the strategic region between the southern outskirts of Damascus and Jordan — known as the Houran plains — is seen as a crucial gateway to the Syrian capital.

— Associated Press

Serbia faces deadline on Kosovo agreement

Serbia has days to decide whether to accept what it calls a “catastrophic” plan to end the ethnic partition of its former province of Kosovo or risk losing out on talks over joining the European Union, Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic said Wednesday.

The warning followed marathon talks between the leaders of Serbia and Kosovo, their eighth encounter in almost as many months as the E.U. pushes to stabilize relations between the two and set Serbia on the path to membership in the bloc.

The Brussels meeting, mediated by E.U. foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, ended without result, and Ashton gave both sides a “few days” to report back before she submits a progress report to the E.U. on April 16. That report is likely to decide whether the bloc begins accession talks with Serbia in June.

— Reuters

middle east
Kerry heads back to region in peace bid

Evoking the U.S. shuttle diplomacy of decades past, Secretary of State John F. Kerry is making his third trip to the Middle East in a span of two weeks in a fresh bid to restart long-stalled peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

Although expectations are low for any breakthrough on Kerry’s trip, which begins Saturday, his meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas represent some of the Obama administration’s most sustained efforts at engagement in a part of the world that has frustrated U.S. administrations for six decades.

Kerry had planned to leave Monday for talks in London and then South Korea, China and Japan. But officials said he moved up his departure to Saturday for a first stop in Turkey, where he will seek to build on recent efforts by that nation and Israel to repair ties and coordinate on stemming violence in Syria. He will then travel to Jerusalem and to Ramallah in the West Bank, which he visited with President Obama last month before returning to Israel a second time.

— Associated Press

Dozens dead in Argentine flooding: At least 35 people were killed in overnight flooding in Argentina’s Buenos Aires province, the governor said, bringing the overall death toll from days of torrential rains to at least 41 and leaving large stretches of the provincial capital, La Plata, under water. Gov. Daniel Scioli said many people drowned after trying to take shelter in their cars in Tolosa, an area of La Plata. Heavy rains killed at least six people in the nation’s capital, Buenos Aires, on Tuesday.

4 sisters targeted in acid attack in India: Two men on a motorcycle threw acid on four sisters in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh as they walked home from work, police said, adding that the men then sped off. The sisters, who are in their 20s and teach at the same college, were hospitalized with serious burns.

Hospitalized Mandela improving: South Africa’s government said Nelson Mandela “continues to make steady improvement” as he spent a seventh day in a hospital being treated for a recurring lung infection that developed into pneumonia. The government said the 94-year-old former president has been visited by his family, but it gave no indication when he might leave the hospital.

Mexican mayor accused of aiding kidnappers: A former mayor in Mexico was arrested on suspicion of helping a criminal gang kill two men when he ran the western town of Villa Corona, according to prosecutors. In February 2012, the men, who had escaped from kidnappers, went to the police for help but were instead handed over to the gang by the mayor, Jose de Jesus Ortiz, and his son and then killed, Jalisco state officials said.

Wartime bomb defused in Berlin: A World War II bomb was defused near Berlin’s main railway station after trains were diverted, nearby houses evacuated and flights to the city’s main airport briefly disrupted. The 220-pound bomb was found Tuesday evening at a building site in a relatively sparsely populated area near the former border between West and East Berlin.

— From news services