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AROUND THE WORLD

Assad interview points to foreign mercenaries

BEIRUT (AP) -- In his first interview since December, Syrian President Bashar Assad insisted that his regime is fighting back against foreign mercenaries who want to overthrow him, not innocent Syrians aspiring for democracy in a yearlong uprising.

The interview with Russian TV showed that Assad is standing his ground, despite widespread international condemnation over his deadly crackdown on dissent.

"There are foreign mercenaries, some of them still alive," Assad said in an interview broadcast Wednesday. "They are being detained, and we are preparing to show them to the world."

Six U.N. observers had to be evacuated from a northern town Wednesday, a day after a roadside bomb hit their convoy and left them stranded overnight with rebel forces. None of the observers was wounded, and it was not clear who was behind the attack.

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Stand-in is prominent as Chavez fights cancer

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- After nearly a year of cancer treatment that has forced President Hugo Chavez to step back from the spotlight, a burly former bus driver with a dark mustache and affable smile is emerging more than ever as the president's stand-in.

In recent weeks, Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro has led news conferences, touted a new labor law and criticized the U.S. government with gusto. He even rallied a crowd of supporters while wearing a track suit emblazoned with the yellow, blue and red of Venezuela's flag, just like one that Chavez sometimes wears.

Maduro's prominence is generating speculation that he could be a leading candidate to succeed the president, or at least represent him during grueling campaign events, if Chavez's health fails ahead of Venezuela's Oct. 7 presidential election.

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20 arrested as police target anti-Putin effort

MOSCOW (AP) -- Russian police arrested about 20 protesters Wednesday night at a central Moscow square where demonstrators had moved after police uprooted them from a camp, the latest move in a broadening crackdown on opposition to President Vladimir V. Putin.

The Wednesday night detentions on Kudrinskaya Square come as the opposition tries to maintain momentum after a series of massive protests over the winter.

Several hundred demonstrators had gathered at the square outside one of the city's iconic Stalinist Gothic skyscrapers after an early morning police raid on activists who had set up a camp in a park in the center of Chistoprudny Boulevard.

A demonstration of at least 20,000 a day before Putin's May 7 inauguration turned into a fierce battle with police as some of the protest participants tried to march on the Kremlin.