Among other items: Spear fisherman killed in shark attack; more prisoners to be freed, Myanmar junta says; and Italian leader's ally guilty of Mafia ties.

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Some 18,000 American troops have started a winter offensive against Taliban rebels in Afghanistan, vowing to eliminate insurgents who could threaten parliamentary elections scheduled for the spring.

The U.S. military said yesterday that it hoped the new push would persuade insurgents to accept an amnesty offered by President Hamid Karzai that could stabilize the country and allow foreign troops to pull back.

The operation was initiated after Karzai’s inauguration Tuesday as the country’s first democratically elected president, a spokesman said. He didn’t know exactly when it began and gave no details of any specific moves against militant targets.

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Also yesterday, Pakistan announced that a man who launched a militant Islamic group to fight U.S. forces in Afghanistan has been arrested in connection with the kidnapping of three U.N. workers there in October.


Cairns, Australia


Spear fisherman killed in shark attack

A 38-year-old Australian man died yesterday after being attacked by a shark while spear fishing on the Great Barrier Reef, police said.

The man was fishing alone at Opal Reef near his group’s boat when two friends heard him screaming and maneuvered the boat to pick him up, police said.

The man suffered extensive wounds to his left leg, including a severed artery, and could not be saved by paramedics.

It was not yet known what type of shark attacked the man.


Yangon, Myanmar


More prisoners to be freed, junta says

Myanmar’s ruling military junta announced yesterday that more than 5,000 prisoners have had their sentences suspended and will be freed from various prisons around the country, the third such release in less than a month.

A brief announcement on state radio and television evening news programs said a third batch of 5,070 prisoners whose detentions were ruled irrelevant or improper have had their sentences reduced and will be freed.

No other details were provided and it was unknown whether any of those to be released were political prisoners. Only a few dozen political prisoners were included in the two earlier releases in Myanmar, also known as Burma.


Palermo, Italy


Italian leader’s ally guilty of Mafia ties

A close political ally of Premier Silvio Berlusconi was convicted of ties with the Sicilian Mafia yesterday and sentenced to nine years in prison in a fresh embarrassment to Italy’s conservative government.

Sen. Marcello Dell’Utri was found guilty a day after Italy’s billionaire premier was himself cleared of long-standing corruption charges in a separate trial.

Dell’Utri, a longtime executive in Berlusconi’s business empire, was an architect of the media magnate’s political rise in the 1990s and is considered one of his confidantes. During his seven-year trial in Palermo, prosecutors accused him of acting as a link between the mob and the Milan business world.

Defense lawyer Enzo Trantino said Dell’Utri was falsely accused by turncoat Mafia members working with police. The senator repeatedly has denied any ties to the criminal organization and plans to appeal.

Also

Somalia’s parliament passed a motion of no-confidence against new Prime Minister Ali Mohammed Gedi and his Cabinet yesterday, an official said, effectively sacking a government that had been expected to restore order to the country after 13 years of anarchy and war.

Portugal’s conservative government is quitting before early elections set for February, Prime Minister Pedro Santana Lopes said yesterday, a day after the country’s president dissolved parliament.