BEIRUT – Thousands of Syrians poured into Lebanon, taking shelter in wedding halls and makeshift shacks after fleeing heavy fighting in a mountainous region across the border in Syria, while a massive explosion Sunday targeting a government building outside Damascus killed at least 31 soldiers.
The clashes in Qalamoun, an area that stretches north of the Syrian capital along the Lebanese frontier, appeared to be part of a long-anticipated government offensive aimed at cutting an important rebel supply route and cementing President Bashar Assad’s hold on a key corridor from the capital to the coast.
A government victory in the strategic region would deal a severe blow to the already-beleaguered rebels on Damascus’ doorstep. Over the past month, Assad’s forces have made headway against the rebels on two key fronts, capturing a string of opposition-held suburbs south of Damascus and taking two towns and a military base outside the northern city of Aleppo.
Still, the opposition remains firmly entrenched in other areas around Damascus and capable of carrying out large attacks. A massive bombing Sunday leveled a government office in the northeastern suburb of Harasta, killing at least 31 soldiers, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Three brigadiers and one major general were among the dead, according to the group’s director, Rami Abdurrahman. Since the heavy fighting in Qalamoun began Friday, some 10,000 Syrians have fled across the border to the Lebanese frontier town of Arsal, former Mayor Bassel Hojeiri said. He said the new arrivals have crammed into wedding halls and improvised shacks.
The new refugees join an estimated 1.4 million Syrians – 800,000 of whom have registered – who have already found shelter in Lebanon, according to Lebanese officials. The massive influx has proven a burden for Lebanon, and has helped stoke the country’s already-simmering sectarian tensions.
Train hits vehicles, kills two dozen people
CAIRO – A cargo train traveling south of Egypt’s capital slammed into vehicles crossing the tracks early today, killing at least 24 people, many from the same family returning from a wedding party, state TV and the head of emergency services said.
Ahmed el-Ansari, the emergency services chief, told the Associated Press the identities of the dead were not immediately clear. He said 28 people were injured, mostly with fractures, crush injuries and lost body parts, with some in critical condition.
A provincial security official said the train, which carried construction materials, also hit a small truck coming from the opposite direction.
Freediving recordholder dies in contest
NEW YORK – A 32-year-old New York City man who broke the U.S. constant weight record for freediving soon after beginning his competitive career last year died Sunday while participating in a tournament in the Bahamas, police said.
Nicholas Mevoli, who lived in the city’s Brooklyn borough, died around 2 p.m. off the coast of the Bahamas’ Long Island, about 164 miles southeast of the capital of Nassau, officials said. His body was flown to Nassau, where an autopsy was expected.
The Switzerland-based Association Internationale pour le Diveloppement de l’Apnee, or AIDA, a worldwide federation for breath-holding diving, released a statement Sunday saying Mevoli reached the 72-meter depth of the no-fins dive, swam back to the surface but had difficulty breathing while completing surface protocol and lost consciousness.
“Nick appears to have suffered from a depth-related injury to his lungs,” the AIDA statement said.
Freedivers, unlike scuba divers, enter the water without air tanks, regulators and hoses and swim to various depths relying entirely on the air held in their lungs.
Militants admit to kidnapping Americans
LAGOS, Nigeria – Rebels are claiming responsibility for the kidnapping and release for ransom of two American sailors off the coast of the oil-rich Niger Delta.
A statement purporting to come from the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta said Sunday that it received $2 million ransom for the sailors, mostly from Nigerian authorities.
U.S. officials had identified the mariners as the captain and chief engineer of the U.S.-flagged C-Retriever offshore supply vessel taken in an Oct. 23 attack.
Nuclear plant to remove fuel rods
TOKYO – Tokyo Electric Power Co. says workers will begin removing radioactive fuel rods today from one of four reactors at its crippled nuclear power plant. The painstaking and risky task is a crucial first step toward a full cleanup of the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant.
Unit 4 was offline at the time of the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, so its core didn’t melt down as the other three did. But hydrogen explosions blew the roof off the building and weakened the structure, leaving it vulnerable to earthquakes.
Experts have said keeping so many fuel rods in a storage pool in the building poses a major safety risk.
The full decommissioning of the plant in northeastern Japan is expected to take decades.
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