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World in brief: Troops, warplanes drive out militants

Afghan and NATO troops backed by warplanes drove Taliban militants from villages within striking distance of southern Afghanistan’s main city on Thursday, killing 56 of them, Afghan officials said.

NATO said the 24-hour operation in Arghandab was a swift success that banished any threat to Kandahar and would help reassure Afghans appalled at the embarrassing mass escape of Taliban prisoners from a city jail last week.

Hundreds of families who fled the lush, orchard-strewn valley, which begins just 10 miles from the city, were told they could safely return, the alliance said.

But the declaration of victory was diminished by alliance officials who implied that Afghan authorities had handed the militants a propaganda coup by exaggerating the threat they posed.

United Nations

Zimbabwe runoff in jeopardy, Rice says

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told foreign diplomats here Thursday that Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s violent crackdown on opposition leaders had dashed hopes that the June 27 presidential runoff election would “be allowed to proceed in a free and fair manner.”

Rice’s assessment came on a day that the opposition said the bodies of four party activists were found near Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital. Witnesses told the Associated Press that the victims were taken away in trucks on Wednesday by militias chanting ruling party slogans.

During a U.N. roundtable meeting, Rice accused Mugabe’s supporters of killing at least 60 opposition figures, injuring thousands and confiscating food shipments at a time when millions of Zimbabweans are dependent on food aid. She also accused Mugabe of ordering his supporters to “cleanse” neighborhoods that voted overwhelmingly for opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai in the first round of voting in March.

Brussels, Belgium

EU ends sanctions against Cuba

The European Union on Thursday agreed to lift its diplomatic sanctions against Cuba but imposed tough conditions on the communist island to maintain sanction-free relations, officials said.

EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said the bloc felt it had to encourage changes in Cuba after Raul Castro took over as head of the country’s government from his ailing brother Fidel.

“There will be very clear language also on what the Cubans still have to do … releasing prisoners, really working on human rights questions,” she told reporters at an EU summit.

The decision does not affect the United States’ trade embargo imposed on Cuba nearly 50 years ago. The Bush administration has shown no signs of lifting it.