World briefs: Elections set in Japan

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TOKYO -- Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said Wednesday that he is ready to dissolve Parliament in two days, setting the scene for Dec. 16 elections that could end his administration and thrust Japanese politics into more uncertainty.

A nationwide ballot could usher in Japan's sixth prime minister in as many years and, with no clear projected winner, deepen the nation's political inertia at a difficult time for the country.

Tokyo is embroiled in a damaging territorial dispute with China, and Japan's economy, mired in deflation, is edging toward its third recession in just over three years. Reconstruction after the tsunami and nuclear disaster last year is stalling, and the population is declining and public debt rising.

With his public approval ratings sliding, Mr. Noda is unlikely to score a victory next month. Instead, the opposition Liberal Democratic Party, headed by the nationalist former prime minister Shinzo Abe, is leading in opinion polls.

Taliban to be released

ISLAMABAD -- Pakistan on Wednesday agreed to free several Afghan Taliban detainees, a gesture that suggested Islamabad may be willing to help Washington and Kabul reconcile with Afghan insurgents.

The exact number of militants to be released was not known, though Pakistani media reported that it was not more than 10. It was also unclear whether any of the detainees were major figures within the Taliban hierarchy.

Pakistani officials announced the planned release as Afghan President Hamid Karzai's top peace negotiator, Salahuddin Rabbani, prepared to wrap up a four-day visit to Islamabad aimed at enlisting Pakistan's help in revving up momentum for peace talks.

Iraq bombings kill 20

BAGHDAD -- A series of bomb attacks swept through Iraq on Wednesday, killing at least 20 and wounding more than 100, the Iraqi police and security forces said.

The attacks struck civilian, government and security targets. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for any of the blasts, which were spread out in more than a half-dozen provinces in Iraq, with at least one of the devices in a southern region dismantled before it blew up.

The extent to which any of the attacks were coordinated was not clear, but they were some of the most widespread in recent weeks.

Israel 'vigilant and alert'

JERUSALEM -- Syrian rebels control almost all the villages near the frontier with the Israel-held Golan Heights, the Israeli defense minister said Wednesday, bringing the conflict dangerously close to the Jewish state and raising the possibility of an armed clash with the region's strongest power.

During a tour of the Golan Heights with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Israel will remain "vigilant and alert."

In recent days, Israeli troops have fired into Syria twice after apparently stray mortar shells flew into Israel-held territory.

Jordan protests injure 14

AMMAN -- Jordanians staged scattered protests and work stoppages Wednesday, a day after hikes in fuel prices triggered rioting in several cities and rekindled fears of deepening unrest in this strategically vital U.S. ally.

At least 14 people were reported injured in clashes overnight as protesters set fire to cars and gas stations and damaged at least one government building in a provincial town.

The demonstrations began within hours after the government announced that it was rolling back subsidies for several fuel products, from gasoline to the propane used by Jordanians for heating their homes and cooking, a move that sent prices soaring by 15 to 33 percent.

Some protesters chanted slogans calling for the ouster of King Abdullah II, an unusual occurrence in a country whose monarch traditionally has enjoyed widespread support.

Unmanned mine clearing

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Navy is rushing more of the newest unmanned mine-clearing technology to the Persian Gulf while creating two new sets of crews to operate minesweepers in the region, Navy officials said Wednesday.

The effort is intended to balance a renewed U.S. emphasis on the Asia-Pacific region while sustaining a military presence in the Middle East to deter Iran.

Two new crews will join the 10 that now rotate duty on the eight minesweepers in the Persian Gulf region. Those additional crews entering the deployment cycle should help relieve the stress on the sailors and their families, while sustaining a high tempo of mine-clearing missions, Navy officers said.

Four of the minesweepers now on patrol in the Middle East are permanently based in Bahrain, home of the 5th Fleet.



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