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Assad forces launch assault near capital

BEIRUT (AP) -- Syria launched a blistering assault Thursday on the outskirts of its capital, shelling residential areas and deploying snipers on rooftops as international envoy Kofi Annan demanded every fighter lay down arms in time for a U.N.-brokered cease-fire.

The bloodshed undermined already fading hopes that more than a year of violence will end soon, and France accused President Bashar Assad of trying to fool the world by accepting Annan's deadline to pull the army back from population centers by April 10.

According to the plan, rebels are supposed to stop fighting 48 hours later, paving the way for talks to end Assad's violent suppression of the uprising against his rule. The U.N. says more than 9,000 people have died.

"Can we be optimistic? I am not. Because I think Bashar Assad is deceiving us," French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told reporters in Paris.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the crisis was getting worse, even though the Syrian government accepted Annan's plan March 27.


German poet blasted for Jewish threat poem

JERUSALEM (AP) -- Israel's prime minister lambasted German poet and Nobel Prize laureate Gunter Grass on Thursday for saying Israel is a threat to world peace and for calling for international oversight of both Israeli and Iranian nuclear facilities.

Grass, 84, published a poem in a German newspaper Wednesday in which he questioned how Israel could call for ending Iran's nuclear program while holding what is widely believed to be its own atomic arsenal.

Grass said he wrote the poem, titled "What Must Be Said," after Berlin sold Israel submarines that could launch nuclear warheads and that could potentially be used in an attack on Iran. He noted that for years he resisted criticizing Israel's nuclear program for fear of being labeled an anti-Semite.

Benjamin Netanyahu blasted Grass.

"Gunter Grass' shameful moral equivalence between Israel and Iran, a regime that denies the Holocaust and threatens to annihilate Israel, says little about Israel and much about Mr. Grass," Netanyahu said.

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, called Grass' comments "shocking."


Murdoch's Sky News admits hacking emails

LONDON (AP) -- Rupert Murdoch's British satellite news channel on Thursday became the latest branch of the mogul's global media empire to acknowledge bending the rules.

Sky News chief John Ryley said his reporters had twice been authorized to hack into computers for stories. That included the case of Anne and John Darwin, the so-called "canoe couple" who became notorious in Britain after the husband faked his own death in a boating accident as part of an elaborate insurance scam. Ryley acknowledged his organization had intercepted the couple's emails, but he said the material was later handed to police and insisted Sky had done nothing wrong.

But legal experts said that's no defense, the police are investigating, and Murdoch's goal of taking full control of Sky News' profitable parent company, British Sky Broadcasting Group PLC, may be at risk.

Murdoch's media empire -- whose holdings include Sky News' sister channel Fox News and the Wall Street Journal -- has spent most of the year in the spotlight over widespread illegal behavior at the now-defunct News of the World tabloid.