U.S. launches

offensive to retake Afghan valley

KANDAGAL, Afghanistan - U.S. Marines and Afghan troops launched an offensive Saturday to take a remote mountain valley from insurgents tied to the deadliest blow on American forces since the Taliban regime was ousted nearly four years ago.

The operation is the biggest yet aimed at rebels believed responsible for twin attacks that killed 19 U.S. troops in June. Three Navy SEALs were killed in an ambush, and all 16 soldiers on a helicopter sent to rescue them died when it was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade.

The offensive came at the end of a deadly week for U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Seven Americans have died along with dozens of militants and civilians, reinforcing concerns that crucial legislative elections next month could be threatened by a surge in violence.

Minister's death a blow to peace talks

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka - Sri Lanka imposed a state of emergency Saturday after the sniper assassination of the foreign minister, a killing that officials blamed on the Tamil Tiger rebels and warned could rupture the island's fragile peace process.

Soldiers scoured the capital for suspects and helicopters and military jets patrolled over rebel-controlled territory, though the government said it had not taken steps to break the cease-fire with the Liberation Tigers of Tamileelam. The group insisted it was not responsible.

Kadirgamar, 73, an ethnic Tamil who led efforts to ban the Tigers as a terrorist organization but later backed peace efforts, was shot in the head and chest late Friday after finishing a swim at his home. He died after midnight.

"It is a grave setback to the peace process," an official who leads government peace efforts, Jayantha Dhanapala, told reporters.

Cuba celebrates Castro's birthday

HAVANA - Cuba honored President Fidel Castro's 79th birthday Saturday, revisiting his nearly five decades in power on the communist island with tributes in state-run newspapers and documentaries.

Dozens of Cuban children danced and cut an enormous blue-and-white cake for Castro - the world's longest-ruling head of government - while front pages bore his photo and loving words.

"We celebrate as your own, with the affection and immense admiration that children feel for the most noble, wise and brave father," a letter to the "Comandante" said on the front page of the Communist Party daily Granma.

Palestinian Authority, Hamas fight for Gaza

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip - The militant group Hamas came out of hiding Saturday to hold a mass news conference, distributing the phone numbers of 34 multilingual spokesmen in a fight for control of the Gaza Strip ahead of Israel's withdrawal next week.

As the struggle heats up between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority - both of whom claim responsibility for Israel's evacuation of 21 Gaza Strip settlements and four West Bank enclaves - the weapons of choice are unusually media friendly.

Determined to win the airwaves, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas on Saturday inaugurated a special Gaza-withdrawal media center, complete with live-feed points for TV crews, a 24-hour text messaging service for news updates, maps, and free hats and T-shirts.

British Airways resumes flights

LONDON - British Airways resumed hundreds of flights Saturday at one of the world's busiest airports, while pleading for continued patience from thousands of passengers stranded by a ground-crew walkout.

The airline said 420 out of its 500 scheduled flights were taking off from London's Heathrow airport - 85 percent of its short-haul flights and 80 percent of its long-hauls.

But with tens of thousands of passengers still backed up by a daylong strike that ended Friday, the airline said service would not reach normal levels for several more days.

U.S. ambassador criticizes Zimbabwe

HARARE, Zimbabwe - A U.S. diplomat barred from meeting victims of President Robert Mugabe's mass eviction campaign, criticized the Zimbabwe government Saturday for interfering with aid efforts and warned of outrage in Congress over the worsening crisis.

Tony Hall, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. World Food Program and Food and Agriculture Organization, said the United States would donate $51.8 million worth of food for Zimbabwe and the neighboring drought-stricken countries of Zambia, Malawi, Lesotho and Swaziland. The 73,500 tons will be sufficient to feed 5 million to 6 million people for a month. - From wire reports