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March 9, 2013 at 6:04 PM
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Taliban: Bombing a message to Hagel

KABUL, Afghanistan, March 9 (UPI) -- A deadly suicide bombing in Kabul was a "message" to U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who had just arrived in the Afghan capital Saturday, the Taliban said.

At least 10 people were killed when a man wearing a suicide vest and riding a bicycle blew himself up, The New York Times reported.

Charlie Stadtlander, a spokesman for the international military mission in Afghanistan, said there was no apparent connection between the bombing and Hagel's visit, but the Taliban -- in a statement taking responsibility -- called it a "message" to the new defense secretary, Voice of America reported.

The Times reported a ceremony to mark the transfer of full control of Bagram Prison to Afghanistan was canceled Saturday for reasons that were not immediately clear. The newspaper said the cancellation created a cloud of doubt about the U.S.-Afghan agreement on custody of the remaining Afghan prisoners held by American forces.

The Times said while there was no official word on the cancellation, it would likely have the effect of embarrassing Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who rankled American officials Wednesday when he criticized the Americans' slowness on the detention issue and promised to release many of the prisoners as soon as the transfer was complete.

A police officer and eight children were killed in a bombing in Khost province, officials said. Yaqub Mandozia, the deputy provincial police chief, said the officer probably prevented an even higher death toll by wrapping the bomber in a bear hug as he blew himself up, the Times said.

21 Filipino peacekeepers released in Syria

DAMASCUS, Syria, March 9 (UPI) -- Rebel forces in Syria have released 21 U.N. peacekeepers after detaining them Wednesday in a fiercely contested area of the Golan Heights, U.N. officials said.

"The armed group that had detained the 21 peacekeepers transported them to the Jordanian border, where they were met by Jordanian officials," U.N. Department of Peacekeeping spokeswoman Josephine Guerrero said Saturday. "All 21 peacekeepers are well and unharmed."

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's office issued a statement welcoming the development and reminding combatants of U.N. peacekeepers' right to freedom of movement, The Washington Post reported.

Ban, in the statement, emphasized "to all parties the impartiality of the United Nations" and urged both sides in the Syrian civil war to "respect and uphold the protection of civilians."

At first, rebels said they detained the U.N. soldiers because they weren't supposed to be in the region. They later said they took the men to protect them during a harsh bombardment of the area by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad, CNN reported.

The peacekeepers were unharmed and turned over to Jordanian officials at the border but a spokesman for the Free Syrian Army said there had been "heavy fighting" between FSA forces and forces loyal to President Bashar Assad "to secure safe passage for the observers," the Post reported.

Some rebels said they had proof the peacekeepers were helping the Syrian military by providing information about rebels' operations, the Post said.

Syrian refugees not receiving aid

ALEPPO, Syria, March 9 (UPI) -- Much of the humanitarian aid the United States and other international donors have sent to Syria is going to areas controlled by the Assad regime, rebels said.

Washington has sent $385 million in humanitarian aid intended for Syrians displaced by the country's civil war but little of the aid is reaching areas held by the opposition, The New York Times reported Saturday.

"Aid is a weapon," said Omar Baylasani, a rebel commander from Idlib. "Food supply is the winning card in the hands of the regime."

Washington said it has been donating more aid -- a total of $60 million in 2012 and 2013 -- to organizations that deliver flour, food baskets, blankets and medicine to the stable rebel-controlled territories. However, the rest of U.S. aid has largely been delivered through the United Nations, which requires its aid relief agencies to follow Syrian President Bashar Assad's rules for distribution as long as his government is recognized by the international organization.

"The government, whether you like it or not, is still the government," said Jens Laerke, a spokesman for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Displaced Syrians living in areas controlled by the Assad regime have access to shelter at U.N.-operated camps but those who have taken refuge in areas controlled by the opposition face shortages of food, fuel and medical care, the report said.

Ghassan Hitto, the head of the aid coordination arm of the Western-backed Syrian National Council, estimated about 60 percent of Syrians are living outside of Assad's rule, and are not receiving aid.

"We believe we are owed an explanation over where this money is going, but every time we ask, we can't get an answer," he said.

Saed Bakur Abu Yahia, the director of a civilian medical clinic in a rebel-held sector north of Aleppo, said the clinic turns away hundreds of people in need of medical care after 4 p.m. each day, due to a lack of power to keep the lights on.

Yahia called the lack of foreign aid "a catastrophe," the Times reported.

At least 2 killed in protests in Egypt

CAIRO, March 9 (UPI) -- At least two people were killed in protests Saturday after an Egyptian court upheld death sentences in the 2012 Port Said soccer massacre trial, officials said.

The court upheld the death sentence for 21 defendants in the case, and sentenced two ex-senior police officers to 15 years in prison while acquitting seven others, China's official Xinhua news agency reported.

Judge Sobhi Abdel-Maguid confirmed the capital punishment sentences and specified "death by hanging," the BBC reported.

The defendants were accused of being involved in the killing 72 people during a riot following a soccer game in Port Said in February 2012.

Violent protests broke out after the court's ruling. Families of those sentenced to death said the penalties are too harsh, while members of Ultras Ahlawy, a soccer fan group based in Cairo, said the penalties for the police officers were too lenient.

Ahram Online reported Ultras Ahlawy protesters began to gather outside the courthouse while awaiting the verdict in the case.

"One [protester] was shot dead while the other died of suffocation due to inhaling tear gas," Mohamed Sultan, Head of Egypt's Ambulance Authority told Xinhua.

Egyptian Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim fired key security chief Maged Nouh following widespread sit-ins staged by security force personnel.

Ibrahim replaced Nouh with Ashraf Abdallah, a veteran Central Security Forces officer Friday, al-Masry al-Youm reported. Abdallah's first challenge will be to negotiate an end to the officers' strike, the newspaper said.

The Interior Ministry said the army would take over the headquarters of the Port Said Security Directorate.

Violent protests in Port Said this week have left at least seven people dead and dozens injured, Ahram Online reported.

In a statement on its Facebook page, the ministry urged the people of Port Said to "calm the situation and ensure the safety of all government and private establishments," al-Masry al-Youm said.

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