World briefs: South Sudan talks begin

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NAIROBI, Kenya -- The South Sudanese government and representatives of rebel forces met for the formal opening of peace talks Saturday evening in Ethiopia, part of the diplomatic effort to halt weeks of fighting in the young nation.

The two delegations met separately with mediators at a hotel in Addis Ababa to pin down the points they would negotiate. Both sides then gathered with Ethiopia's foreign minister for a ceremony to mark the official start of the talks, with more substantive bargaining expected today.

The urgency of the talks was evident as gunfire rattled the nerves of residents in Juba, South Sudan's capital, Saturday evening after weeks of relative calm there. A senior Western diplomat described sustained fighting around the Juba military hospital and the national security staff compound. The shooting ended after about 20 minutes and did not appear to signal that rebel forces had reached the city.

Al-Qaida figure dies

BEIRUT -- The leader of an al-Qaida-linked group that carried out attacks across the Middle East before shifting its focus to Syria's civil war died Saturday while in custody in Lebanon, the army said.

In a short statement, the Lebanese army said Majid al-Majid "died this morning while undergoing treatment at the central military hospital after his health deteriorated." It did not elaborate.

Mr Majid, a Saudi citizen, was the purported commander of the Abdullah Azzam Brigades -- a Sunni militant group with al-Qaida links -- and one of the 85 most-wanted individuals in his native Saudi Arabia.

Mideast shuttle diplomacy

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Saturday cited progress on the Middle East peace process, yet acknowledged that some of the most intractable disputes between Israelis and Palestinians were unsolved after more than 20 rounds of negotiations.

"This is hard work," he told reporters after a 2½-hour meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, their second in two days.

Afterward, Mr. Kerry resumed his shuttle diplomacy by heading back to Jerusalem for his third meeting in as many days with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The two had a nearly five-hour discussion that didn't end until 11:30 p.m.

Antarctic rescue

CANBERRA, Australia -- A U.S. Coast Guard heavy icebreaker will leave Australia for Antarctica today to rescue more than 120 crew members aboard two icebreakers trapped in pack ice near the frozen continent's eastern edge, officials said.

The 399-foot cutter Polar Star is responding to a request Friday from Australia, Russia and China to assist the Russian and Chinese ships.

The Russian research ship Akademik Shokalskiy has been trapped in ice-clogged Commonwealth Bay since Christmas Eve, while the Chinese ship Xue Long. which came to its rescue, reported on Friday it too had become stuck nearby.

A day earlier, the Chinese ship's helicopter had retrieved from the Russian ship 52 scientists, journalists and tourists who are now on their way home aboard an Australian icebreaker, Aurora Australis.

Cold-calling pope

VATICAN CITY -- Pope Francis has made another one of his cold calls to wish a group of nuns in a Spanish convent Happy New Year. Only he got their answering machine, instead.

"What are the nuns doing that they can't answer the phone?" Pope Francis asked in the message he left, the recording of which was obtained by Spain's El Mundo newspaper and broadcast on Italian media Saturday.

The pontiffs has made a habit out of calling people out of the blue, often checking in with ordinary folk who have written him about their hardships. He places the calls himself, as evidenced by the message.


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