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At least 78 deaths blamed on Assad allies

BEIRUT -- Anti-government activists accused forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad of a new massacre of civilians early today, even as U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan reportedly sought to create a coalition of nations to inject fresh life into his flagging peace plan for Syria.

Dozens were killed by government shelling and attacks by pro-regime "thugs" in the province of Hama, according to reports by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based anti-government group that traces daily casualties.

The group urged U.N. monitors to rush to the town of Mazraat al Qubbeir and the village of Maarzaf to investigate their allegations.

Reuters news service cited anti-government activists as saying Syrian security forces killed at least 78 people, including children. At least 12 bodies had been burned, Reuters reported.

The massacre, if verified, would come less than two weeks after the killings of more than 100 people, mostly women and children, in the township of Houla.

-- Los Angeles Times


Bombers, airstrike kill scores of Afghans

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (AP) -- Scores of Afghans were killed Wednesday in Taliban attacks and other violence, including a NATO airstrike.

Two U.S. pilots also were killed when their helicopter crashed in Ghazni province in the east, a senior U.S. defense official said. The deadliest assault took place in Kandahar, where three suicide bombers turned a dusty marketplace into a gruesome scene of body parts, clothing, glass and other debris.

The Taliban appeared to be targeting companies located at the Kandahar bomb site that provide supplies to a massive military base used by the U.S.-led coalition about three miles away. Eight of the 22 people killed worked for companies that supply equipment to the base. At least 50 others were wounded.

In eastern Afghanistan, reports surfaced of a predawn NATO airstrike targeting militants that also killed civilians celebrating a wedding. NATO said it did not have any reports that civilians were killed, but it had begun to formally assess what happened.


West Bank plans spur Palestinian anger

JERUSALEM (AP) -- Israel's prime minister Wednesday ordered construction of 300 homes in a West Bank settlement, a move aimed at placating settler anger over the planned demolition of an illegally built outpost nearby.

The decision infuriated Palestinians and risked drawing an international backlash.

Benjamin Netanyahu has been grappling with the crisis over the unauthorized settlement outpost of Ulpana. The Supreme Court has ordered the five apartment buildings there removed by July 1 after ruling they were built on private Palestinian land. To blunt settler anger, Netanyahu, instead of demolishing the buildings, plans on removing them from their foundations and transferring them to the nearby settlement of Beit El. In addition, he said he would build 300 more homes in Beit El.

Meanwhile, a Palestinian official said late Wednesday that rival parties have agreed on a new government. That would be a major step toward reconciliation and overdue elections.