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Activists: Syria Deserters Kill at Least 27 Troops in Daraa

Syrian army deserters killed at least 27 soldiers and members of the security forces during clashes in the southern province of Daraa on Thursday, a rights group said.

The fighting broke out at dawn at checkpoints in three separate locations, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in a statement.

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U.S. House Targets Pakistan Aid, Iran Central Bank

The U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday passed legislation to freeze some Pakistan aid, slap harsh new sanctions on Iran, and endorse indefinite imprisonment of suspected terrorists.

Acting shortly after the White House dropped a threat to veto the bill, the Republican-led chamber voted 283-136 to approve the $662 billion Defense Authorization bill, which also sets high hurdles for closing Guantanamo Bay.

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HRW Says Syrian Commanders Ordered Protesters Shot

Syrian military commanders have ordered troops to indiscriminately shoot at unarmed protesters, Human Rights Watch said in a report released Thursday based on interviews with former soldiers who defected.

The defectors named 74 military and intelligence officers "who allegedly ordered, authorized, or condoned widespread killings, torture, and unlawful arrests," the rights group said in a statement.

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Syrian Opposition to Meet in Tunisia on Friday

The first congress of the Syrian National Council, the opposition's most representative grouping, will open in the Tunisian capital on Friday, an official said.

The three-day meeting will be attended by SNC leader Burhan Ghalioun and about 200 other members, the outfit's Tunis representative Abdullah Terkmani said on Wednesday.

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Peace Quartet in Talks with Israelis, Palestinians

Members of the international peacemaking Quartet appeared to make little progress on Wednesday after separate talks with Israeli and Palestinian officials in a bid to kick-start stalled peace talks.

Envoys and Quartet representative Tony Blair "stressed the important objective of a direct exchange between the parties without delay or preconditions," a statement from the diplomatic grouping read.

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U.S.: Syrian Regime is 'Dead Men Walking'

The United States portrayed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime as "dead men walking" on Wednesday, and urged Russia, China and India to put politics aside to stand with the West on action against the regime.

"Our view is that this regime is the equivalent of dead men walking," State Department special coordinator on Middle East affairs Frederic Hof told U.S. lawmakers in a hearing on U.S. policy toward Damascus.

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Fire Kills Six as French Retiree 'Opens Sweets with Lighter'

A fire in a French retirement home killed six women Wednesday, after a 75-year-old man tried to open a packet of sweets with his cigarette lighter, officials said.

An investigation has been launched into the blaze, which broke out at around 2:20 am in "Les Anemones", a retirement home for 180 people in the southern port city of Marseille, state prosecutor Christophe Barret told reporters.

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Ban Urges U.N. Action on Syria 'in the Name of Humanity'

U.N. leader Ban Ki-moon said Wednesday that the international community must now act against the Syrian government's crackdown on protests "in the name of humanity."

Ban told a press conference he has sent a U.N. Human Rights Council report on the Syrian regime's crackdown to the U.N. Security Council. This could increase pressure on the 15-nation council to act even though Russia and China vetoed a resolution on the crisis in October.

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Swiss MPs Vote in Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf as President

Switzerland's parliament elected Finance Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf as president on Wednesday to replace outgoing leader Micheline Calmy-Rey.

The Federal Assembly voted in Widmer-Schlumpf of the center-right Conservative Democrats to head the rotating office with 174 votes out of a possible 211, after voting in a new seven-member government cabinet in Bern.

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Salehi Rejects Iranian Officials Threats against Turkey

Iran dismissed intimidating remarks by its own officials against Turkey saying Tehran would target NATO's missile shield in its neighbor if threatened, the state-run Anatolia news agency reported Wednesday.

"We reject those views completely," Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi told Anatolia in an interview, adding that those who had made the irresponsible statements had been warned.

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