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NATION / WORLD Briefs: Syrian general dies in battle

– One of Syria’s most powerful military officers, Maj. Gen. Jameh Jameh, was killed in fighting with al-Qaida-linked Islamic extremists in an oil-rich eastern province largely controlled by the rebels, Syrian state-run television said Thursday.

The fighting came amid a new push to hold an elusive peace conference for Syria’s civil war, with the government proposing the talks start late next month, though there was no sign the opposition would attend.


Trial begins in Utah over wife’s slaying

A former Utah doctor accused of hounding his wife to get a facelift so he could kill her with a lethal combination of prescription drugs acted erratically the day she died and claimed she had wanted the surgery, prosecutors said Thursday in opening statements at the murder trial.

Prosecutors have said the killing was the climax of a twisted plot by Martin MacNeill to carry on an affair with his mistress, whom MacNeill invited to his wife’s funeral and asked to marry him weeks later.

Madoff workers painted as victims

Bernard Madoff was a Wall Street rock star who charmed and deceived billionaires, celebrities, government regulators and his employees, including five of his ex-workers who are on trial for fraud, defense attorneys told a jury Thursday in opening statements.

On Wednesday, a prosecutor accused the former employees of being crucial components of a fraud that remained hidden for decades, but defense lawyers insisted Madoff fooled their clients just as he did Securities and Exchange Commission inspectors and sophisticated financial experts.

Raytheon under fire for missile system

The Pentagon’s inspector general has begun a quality review of Raytheon Co.’s manufacturing of the primary interceptor used in the U.S. ballistic missile defense system.

The ground-based system has failed to intercept a target successfully in tests since December 2008. The program managed by Boeing, which has cost more than $36.5 billion so far, has drawn criticism for flaws in quality. A part missing from a warhead caused the failure of a $200 million interception test in January 2010.

Ex-Pentagon lawyer up for homeland job

President Barack Obama is calling back a trusted counterterrorism adviser from his first term by nominating former top Pentagon lawyer Jeh Johnson as secretary of homeland security. Obama plans to announce Johnson’s nomination today to replace Janet Napolitano, who stepped down in August to become president of the University of California system.

Dismissal urged for officer in sniper case

A U.S. Marine Corps panel is recommending that an officer be forcibly discharged for failing to supervise a group of snipers who posed for a video while urinating on the corpses of Taliban fighters in Afghanistan.

The panel of three colonels issued its ruling Thursday against Capt. James V. Clement after a three-day hearing at Marine Corps Base Quantico. Two lieutenant generals will make the final decision.


Blasts rip Iraq cities; at least 61 are killed

A barrage of car bomb and suicide bomb blasts rocked Baghdad and two northern Iraqi communities Thursday, killing at least 61 people during a major holiday period and extending a relentless wave of bloodshed gripping the country.

The bulk of the blasts struck in mainly Shiite Muslim parts of the Iraqi capital shortly after nightfall, sending ambulances racing through the streets with sirens blaring.

Australians measure toll of 100 wildfires

Authorities were assessing damage from almost 100 wildfires burning across Australia’s most populous state early today that killed one man, razed an unknown number of homes and forced hundreds of residents to evacuate.

Milder conditions were helping firefighters after Thursday’s unseasonably high temperatures and strong winds fanned flames across the parched landscape and threatened towns surrounding Sydney.

Russia opts against prison for dissident

A Russian court has decided not to send opposition leader Alexei Navalny to prison, a move that could have sparked major protests and made a martyr out of the charismatic 37-year-old.

The Kremlin, however, lives in dread of Navalny becoming a real politician, for he proved his influence when he snagged almost a third of the votes in Moscow’s recent mayoral election. The court, therefore, suspended Navalny’s five-year prison sentence Wednesday but upheld his conviction for theft, which prevents him from running in future elections.

Vatican weighs cuts to tourism at Sistine

The head of the Vatican Museums warned Thursday he might limit the number of visitors to the Sistine Chapel if its new air conditioning and air purification systems don’t significantly reduce “dangerous” pollution levels.

Antonio Paolucci told a conference that he was confident the new system, which is expected to be operational at the end of 2014, would curb the dust, humidity and carbon dioxide that are dulling and discoloring Michelangelo’s frescoed masterpiece.