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Alawite Intellectuals Slam Bids to Link Sect to Syrian Regime

Alawite intellectuals denounced on Thursday what they said are efforts by the Syrian government and parts of the opposition to link their sect to the regime, warning against the consequences of casting a popular uprising for civil rights in a sectarian light.

The group, which includes writers and journalists, denounced the "government's efforts to link the Alawite community and religious minorities to the regime by manipulating the security situation and the media."

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Israeli Special Forces Detain Gazans

Israeli Special Forces detained two Palestinians early on Thursday morning near the southern Gaza city of Rafah, a security official told Agence France Presse.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the Israeli forces "crept into the Rafah area and took two citizens to an unknown destination and there is no information on what happened to them."

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24 Dead in Syria as Dissident Troops Kill General in Hama

Syrian security forces on Thursday killed at least 24 people across the country, including four leading pro-democracy activists, as dissident soldiers killed a general in the flashpoint central city of Hama, activists and a rights group said.

“The number of martyrs has risen to 24,” the Local Coordination Committees, the main activist network spurring protests on the ground, said on its Facebook page.

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Iran Says it Has Never Tried to Close Strait of Hormuz

Iran's Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi on Thursday denied Tehran had ever tried to close the Strait of Hormuz, the vital shipping route at the center of increasing international tension.

"Iran has never in its history tried to prevent, to put any obstacles in the way of this important maritime route," he said in an interview with NTV television during a visit to Turkey.

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Hamas Chief Meets Swiss Envoy in Cairo

Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal met the Swiss Middle East envoy in Cairo late on Wednesday as part of efforts to normalize relations with European governments, sources in the Islamist movement told Agence France Presse.

A Hamas official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Meshaal and Jean-Daniel Ruch, whose country is not part of the European Union, discussed the possibility of relations between Europe and the Islamist group which rules Gaza.

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Syria Monitors to Submit Report Thursday, Paris Wants Copy Given to U.N.

The head of the Arab League's heavily criticized observer mission to Syria was due in Cairo on Thursday to report on its first month of operations amid growing frustration at its failure to staunch 10 months of bloodshed.

The pan-Arab bloc's deputy leader, Ahmed Ben Helli, said the "decisive" report would evaluate the Syrian government's cooperation with the mission, while noting the observers' difficulty in gaining access to hot spots.

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Ex-Israeli Intelligence Chief: Iran Can Build Bomb

A former Israeli military intelligence chief said Iran has all the components to build a nuclear bomb, an Israeli newspaper reported Thursday.

It was not clear whether Amos Yadlin, who retired in November 2010, was referring to the mechanical elements of a bomb or implying the Iranians have sufficient weapons-grade uranium, a critical ingredient for bombmaking.

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Israeli Forces Clash with Residents as they Raze Settler Outpost

Israeli forces razed a settler outpost near the West Bank oasis town of Jericho early on Thursday, sparking clashes with residents, a police spokesman said.

Three policemen were lightly injured and three settlers arrested during the operation to remove Sela Bracha, an outpost of six wooden huts in the Jordan Valley, spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said.

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HRW, Amnesty Slam Attack on Gaza Rights Activist, Call for Probe

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have condemned an attack on a Gaza-based activist and called for an impartial investigation into the incident.

In statements released late on Wednesday, the two rights watchdogs expressed shock at the attack on Mahmoud Abu Rahma, international relations director at the Al Mezan Centre for Human Rights in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip.

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Syrian Forces Kill 15 amid Clashes with Defectors in Idlib

Syrian security forces on Wednesday killed thirteen people across the country, “including two army deserters, two women and a man who died under torture,” activists said.

Nine people were killed in the central opposition bastion Homs, two in the restive countryside around Damascus, one in the northwestern province of Idlib and another in the northern province of Aleppo, the Local Coordination Committees, the main activist group spurring protests on ground, said.

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