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JERUSALEM, Dec. 23- Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Sunday rejected a proposed cease-fire with Hamas’ in the Gaza Strip, saying that the government would not talk with the Islamist group until it recognizes Israel, local media reported.     During a weekly cabinet meeting, Olmert said that “The State of Israel has no interest in negotiating with entities that do not recognize the (international) Quartet demands,” adding Israeli army’s clash with Hamas and Islamic Jihad (Holy War) militants in Gaza are nothing short of a war.

    “We cannot describe it any other way… we will keep fighting terror while doing our best to avoid a humanitarian crisis in Gaza,” said Olmert.

    “Our security forces have for months conducted numerous operations in the Gaza Strip, in order to reduce to a minimum the Qassam rocket fire, which has plagued the residents of the South, and in order to target those responsible for the Qassam fire,” the prime minister said.

    He asserted that Israel’s military operations against the Palestinian militants will continue.

    Five Palestinian militants were killed and four wounded last Thursday in an Israeli army ground forces incursion into central Gaza Strip, Palestinian medics said. Over 20 Palestinian gunmen have been killed in the past week as Israel stepped up its operations in Gaza to curb the incessant rocket attacks.

    The international Quartet of Middle East negotiators, including the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia, have demanded that Hamas recognize Israel, renounce violence, and accept previously signed agreements between Israel and the Palestinians.

    An adviser to Gaza’s Hamas leaders said recently that they were prepared to reach a truce with Israel if it stops its military campaign against Gaza militants and opens crossings into the impoverished, isolated territory. However, Israel’s official position remains that it will not talk to Hamas unless the group renounces violence and recognizes Israel’s right to exist.

ANKARA, Dec. 22- Turkish jets bombed some important targets belonging to the outlawed Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) in the north of Iraq on Saturday afternoon, a military statement said.     “Turkish aircraft struck important targets of the terrorist group of PKK in northern Iraq … between 14:25-15:00 local time (1125-1200 GMT),” said the statement issued by the Office of the Chief of General Staff on its web site.

    The statement said the jets returned to their bases safely, and that the same targets were also hit by Turkish artillery units deployed close to the border between 16:55-17:10 local time (14:55-15:10 GMT).

The statement also noted that similar operations would continue.

    “How influential the operations are on the organization will be understood better in the coming days. In this context, similar operations will continue on both sides of the border regardless of land and weather conditions,” said the statement.

    “PKK terrorist organization will learn through experience that north of Iraq is not a safe haven any more and understand that it has no chance of success against the Republic of Turkey,” the statement warned.

    The statement said it is not possible to give a precise casualty figure of the terrorists at the moment, as the number of terrorists in the caves and shelters that were hit were not clearly known, but promised that the results of the operation carried out by the Turkish Armed Forces will be made public as video images next week.

    However, the statement said “through intelligence from various sources, it is obvious that hundreds of terrorists were rendered ineffective.”

Meanwhile, an official from the regional administration in the north of Iraq said Nerve and Rekan parts of Amed region in the border with Turkey were hit.

    “The aerial bombardment didn’t result in any people killed because the area is almost deserted,” said Jabbar Yawer, spokesman for Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga security forces.

    This is the second air raid aimed at the PKK bases in northern Iraq in no morn than a week. On Tuesday, the Turkish army confirmed that it also carried out a “small-scale” incursion into northern Iraq to go after a group of PKK rebels who were trying to enter Turkey.

    The Turkish military has launched several cross-border attacks recently to fight separatist PKK rebels, who use northern Iraq as a launch pad for attacks against Turkey.

    Last Sunday, Turkish warplanes carried out air strikes at some villages near the border in the Qandil mountains, killing at least five PKK members and one woman, and wounding six people, according to a Kurdish security source. Security operations are underway in southeastern and eastern Turkey as 100,000 Turkish troops have massed along Turkish-Iraqi borders in preparations for a possible cross-border operation to crush the about 3,000-strong PKK rebels.

    The PKK, listed by the United States and Turkey as a terrorist group, took up arms against Turkey in 1984 with the aim of creating an ethnic homeland in the southeast. More than 30,000 people have been killed in the over-two-decade conflict.

LONDON, Dec. 22- Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair has converted to Roman Catholicism after years of speculation over his faith, the Sky News reported on Saturday.     Blair was received into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church by Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor during Mass in the chapel at Archbishop’s House in Westminster on Friday night, said the report.

    “I am very glad to welcome Tony Blair into the Catholic Church…For a long time he has been a regular worshipper at Mass with his family, and in recent months he has been following a program of formation to prepare for his reception into full communion,” said the cardinal.

    “My prayers are with him, his wife and family at this joyful moment in their journey of faith together,” he said.

    According to the report, Blair’s wife Cherie was already a practicing Roman Catholic. Blair’s move came after years of speculation that Blair, whose four children are also Catholic, would convert from Anglicanism after he stepped down in June.

KABUL, Dec. 22- French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who was on a surprise visit to Afghanistan Saturday, emphasized his country would offer the war-torn country long-term political and military support, an Afghan official statement said.     Paying his first visit to Afghanistan since assuming French presidency in May 2007, Sarkozy arrived at Afghan capital Kabul Saturday morning and held talks with his Afghan counterpart Hamid Karzai.

    “The French President emphasized on long-term political, military presence of his country on supporting Afghan people and government,” said a statement issued by Afghan presidential office after the meeting.

    Both presidents talked about the situation in Afghanistan and the region, the development of Afghanistan, different reconstruction fields and also the improvement of national infrastructure in the post-Taliban country, it said.

    “They talked about using internal resources to help Afghanistan to stand on its own feet and implementing of national projects such as producing energy, irrigation, and connecting Afghanistan through highways to countries in the region, and also the rural development,” the statement said.

    “These, they said, are important for Afghanistan’s prosperity,” it said.

    The two sides also emphasized on fighting against terrorism and narcotics, it added, “they said insecurity and cultivation of narcotics are two major challenges for Afghanistan.”

    Sarkozy, according to the statement, would meet French troops based in Kabul where the majority of around 1,300 French soldiers serving under the NATO flag are deployed.

    The statement did not reveal more about Sarkozy’s visit schedule, but some local sources said this is just a one-day visit.

    This year has been the bloodiest one since the 2001 Taliban fall in the Central Asian country where militancy-related violence and military conflicts have claimed over 6,000 lives since beginning of 2007.

    The Taliban, removed from power by a U.S.-led military invasion six years ago, has waged a years-long insurgency against the Afghan administration and continued to engage a guerrilla-style fighting with the government forces and the international troops besides launching roadside bombing and suicide blast attacks.

    Afghan President Hamid Karzai has repeatedly called on the international community to continue their support till the war-ravaged country is able to stand on its own feet.

    During an interview with German newspaper Bild last week, Karzai said Afghanistan will need foreign troops for at least another decade.

WASHINGTON, Dec. 21- A U.S. federal judge Friday turned out to be reluctant to investigate the destruction of some Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) videotapes which show torture of two terror suspects in interrogations.     U.S. District Judge Henry H. Kennedy heard arguments from both sides, but didn’t come up with a decision.

    The destruction took place five months after Kennedy ordered the government to preserve “all evidence and information regarding the torture, mistreatment and abuse of detainees now” at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

    In Friday’s hearing, lawyers for several Yemeni prisoners at Guantanamo urged the judge to investigate the matter of some CIA tapes destroyed in 2005.

    They suspected the tapes contained evidence of water boarding against two terror suspects, which international human rights groups have decried as torture.

    But Joseph Hunt, a lawyer representing the White House, told the judge that the two terror suspects shown in the tapes were not being held at Guantanamo when the judge issued his order, so his order didn’t cover the two suspects.

    Hunt also said the tapes destroyed by the CIA had no bearing on the case of the Yemeni men.

    He then asked the judge to refrain from conducting his own investigation.

    In the end, Kennedy left the case undecided, without saying if he would launch an investigation into the issue.

    The destruction of the videotapes, disclosed earlier this month, has caused a furor in the United States.

    Critics of the Bush administration have seized on the episode as further evidence that it may have a lot to hide in its treatment of detainees.

    In addition to the Justice Department, the CIA is also looking into the affair, as are two Congressional committees.

KABUL, Dec. 22- French President Nicolas Sarkozy paid an unannounced visit to Afghan capital city of Kabul on Saturday, an official at Afghan presidential palace said.     “His Excellency the French President is currently in Kabul,” the official told Xinhua but he refused to be named.

    This is Sarkozy’s first visit to Afghanistan since assuming presidential office.

    Local newspaper Rah-e-Nejat quoting sources reported that Sarkozy would spend Christmas holidays with French troops in Afghanistan.

    Italian Prime Minister Roman Prodi, according to the newspaper, would also visit Afghanistan during Christmas holidays.

    More than 1,000 French troops and some jet fighters within the framework of NATO have been stationed in Afghanistan to help stabilize the war-ravaged country.

WASHINGTON, Dec. 21- A plan to reduce U.S. troops in Iraq from 158,000 currently to about 100,000 by the end of 2008 is still on schedule, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Friday at a press conference.     However, he emphasized that many developments could affect that plan, and he left open the possibility that the United States may need to add troops in Afghanistan.

    Current Pentagon plan calls for reducing the 20 combat brigades in Iraq to 15 by next summer, which would leave roughly 130,000 American troops there.

    Gates said the brigades could be pared to 10 by the end of 2008,if the security conditions keep improving.

    In that case, the United States will leave about 100,000 troops in place.

    Gates also said Congress’ decision to approve only 70 billion dollars for combat operations before ending the work of the year, means the Pentagon “will again face the risk of running out of money.”

    The Bush administration recently took credit from the reducing level of violence in Iraq, but is still careful about how the situation there will evolve.

Dec. 22 — Police arrested a group of men planning to attack holy sites around Mecca during the just-completed annual Muslim pilgrimage, the Saudi Interior Ministry said Friday. “Security forces have foiled a plot to carry out a terror attack on holy sites outside Mecca with the aim of confounding security forces,” Interior Ministry spokesman Mansour al-Turki said.     Nearly 3 million pilgrims came to Saudi Arabia for the annual hajj that wound up Friday with a final visit to Mecca after days of performing rituals in the surrounding hills.

    “The group was arrested three days before the hajj season,” he added, meaning that the men were taken into custody approximately a week earlier.

    Al-Turki gave no further details on the number or identity of those arrested, but Saudi-owned satellite television station Al-Arabiya described them as Saudis.

    Three weeks before the hajj began, the Saudi government announced a massive security sweep that netted 208 suspects in six different cells who had allegedly plotted to carry out attacks against the kingdom’s oil infrastructure.

    At the time, a Saudi security official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media, said the large sweep was intended to send a warning to those looking to disturb the hajj and “damage the image of a forgiving Islam.”

    The official said the arrests included the capture of 18 suspects led by a Yemeni missile expert who allegedly planned to smuggle eight missiles into the kingdom to carry out terrorist operations.

    The largest previous sweep by Saudi authorities was announced in April. It netted 172 militants, including pilots allegedly trained to carry out attacks on oil refineries using civilian planes.

    The kingdom, which is the birthplace of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, has been waging a heavy crackdown on the group’s militants since a 2003 wave of attacks on foreigners here.

    The recent arrests indicate that al-Qaida and other Islamic extremists are still actively attempting to destabilize the monarchy, which holds a quarter of the world’s proven oil reserves.

WASHINGTON, Dec. 21- U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said here on Friday that the United States is open to ending conflict and confrontation with any country that is willing to meet American terms.     Speaking to reporters at a year-end press conference, Rice said “we don’t have permanent enemies — the United States doesn’t.”

    On nuclear issue on the Korean peninsula, Rice urged the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) to adhere to its commitment to disable its nuclear program by the end of this year under a six-party agreement made on Feb. 13, 2007.

    It will be on “a pathway toward better political relations between the United States and North Korea. And there can be many different opportunities within that context of improved relations,” she said.

    Asked if she were prepared to visit the DPRK, Iran and Syria, Rice replied: “Look, we don’t have permanent enemies — the United States doesn’t. What we have is a policy that is open to ending conflict and confrontation with any country that is willing to meet us on those terms.”

    Referring to Iran’s nuclear issue, Rice reiterated that Tehran must accept a U.N. Security Council resolution to suspend its uranium enrichment and reprocessing activities.

    If Iran does so, she said, “then I’m prepared to meet my counterpart any place and anytime and anywhere and we can talk about anything.”

    “With Syria and Iran we remain open to better relations, but they must choose cooperation not confrontation with the international community. We will continue, in the meantime, to step up the pressure behind our diplomacy.”

MOSCOW, Dec. 21- Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has pledged to veto on the unilateral independence of Kosovo, a breakaway Serb province.     “If a solution that approves the unilateral independence of Kosovo is proposed, of course a veto will follow it,” Lavrov said in an interview published on the Vremya Novostei newspaper on Friday.

    Kosovo, under UN administration since 1999, has been seeking independence with support from the United States and most of the European Union nations, but Serbia only agrees to offer broad autonomy and Russia is asking for further negotiations.

    Kosovo Albanian leaders have said there is no point in talking further with Serbia and they are ready to declare independence before May.

    The UN Security Council discussed the Kosovo issue on Wednesday but failed to find a compromise over the future status of Kosovo.

    “We are reproached for the fact that we will prohibit to sanctify the unilateral Kosovo independence with a decision of the UN Security Council. This does not mean blocking effort to find a solution to the problem,” said the top Russian diplomat.

    “If NATO and the EU, after ignoring all legitimate legal mechanisms that exist in the UN, that they will decide on how to divide Serbia, how to bite Kosovo off from it and how to prevent Serbians that live in Kosovo to express their opinion on the issue, they will put themselves above international law,” Lavrov said.

    The EU even remains divided on whether to support Kosovo’s drive to unilaterally declare independence.

    A few nations, including Cyprus, Greece and Romania, are unwilling to recognize unilateral declaration of independence by Kosovo mindful that the move would set a bad example for other separatist groups.

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