World Briefs: Push for Syria peace talks

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BEIRUT -- United Nations envoy Lakhdar Brahimi made a new push Thursday to draw Syrian officials and rebels into negotiations, aiming to revive a plan for a transitional government and elections that faltered because of disagreements over the future of President Bashar Assad.

In a boost for Mr. Brahimi, Russia's foreign minister said after meeting with a senior Syrian official that his country endorsed the peace plan originally crafted in summer, and that Syrians on both sides of the 21-month conflict needed to enter a dialogue. However, any effort to find a peaceful solution could founder on disagreement over the role of Mr. Assad in a transitional government.

Washington has demanded Mr. Assad go. Moscow has distanced itself from the Syrian president in recent weeks, but has refused to break with Mr. Assad. But even if the international community can agree, the Syrians themselves might not go along. Mr. Assad has vowed to stay in office while rebels refuse anything less than his ouster.

Rebels near capital

BANGUI, Central African Republic -- Rebels on Thursday inched closer to the capital of the Central African Republic, one of Africa's most fragile states, threatening to topple an elected government that has had an unsteady grip on power for nearly a decade.

Thousands of civilians fled cities and towns into dense forest as embassies and humanitarian aid organizations evacuated many of their staff members from the capital, Bangui.

The rebel group, an amalgamation of several different factions fighting under the name "Seleka Coalition," is trying to remove President Francois Bozize, a military officer who seized power in 2003 and has twice since been elected president. The rebels accuse Mr. Bozize of failing they say has failed to live up to the terms of peace agreements signed beginning in 2007 to quell several uprisings.

Iran's health minister fired

TEHRAN, Iran -- President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad fired Health Minister Marzieh Vahid Dastjerdi, the first female cabinet member in the Islamic Republic's 33-year history, state-run news agencies reported. He didn't provide a reason for the change.

Ms. Vahid Dastjerdi had said in recent days that an increase in the price of medicine is "inevitable unless sufficient foreign currency is made available to the ministry," according a report Tuesday by the official Islamic Republic News Agency. Ms. Vahid Dastjerdi had earlier lamented her ministry's "financial situation," the IRNA said.

Web censorship tightened

BEIJING -- For years, China's net nannies turned a blind eye to a loophole in their vast online censorship apparatus: Anyone who wanted access to blocked overseas websites such as Twitter, Facebook, and more recently, the New York Times, need only download foreign software called a virtual private network, or VPN, to circumvent the Great Firewall.

But in recent weeks, even these tools have begun to falter, frustrating tech-savvy Chinese and foreign businesspeople who now struggle to access Internet sites as innocuous as email provider Gmail.com and movie website IMDB.com. The tightening appears to be part of a broader and continuing campaign to rein in the Internet in China, which boasts nearly 600 million users.

Speedy justice for rape victim

NEW DELHI -- India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh vowed "expeditious" prosecution of the accused in the gang rape of a student in New Delhi as the victim was transferred to a Singapore hospital in critical condition.

Mr. Singh said his government will examine current laws and punishments for such aggravated crimes against women as he moved to maintain calm after the attack that sparked two days of rioting and prompted police to shut down some subway stations.

-- Compiled from news services

Bhutto dynasty lives on

ISLAMABAD -- The son of Pakistan's former premier, Benazir Bhutto, formally launched his political career Thursday with severe criticism of the judiciary for the slow trial of his mother's alleged killers.

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, 24, above at right with his father, delivered an explosive speech in Garhi Khuda Bakhsh, a town in the southern province of Sindh, as tens of thousands of people gathered there to commemorate the fifth anniversary of Bhutto's death in a gun-and-bomb attack.

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