ACROSS THE MIDEAST
Syrian leader orders release of protesters
Syria's president ordered the release Thursday of hundreds of detainees involved in a month of protests seeking to wrest political freedoms from one of the Middle East's most repressive governments. The order, announced by state TV, signaled an attempt by President Bashar Assad to calm weeks of growing protest anger and pre-empt what is expected to be another day of large demonstrations today. In Washington, the Obama administration on Thursday accused Iran of helping Syria in its efforts to stamp out the protests. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said there is "credible information" that Iran is helping its closest Arab ally crack down on demonstrators.
Gaza Strip: The body of an Italian pro-Palestinian activist abducted a few hours earlier by Islamic extremists has been found hanged in a Gaza City house after a clash between Hamas police and the abductors, Hamas officials said early today. The officials said Hamas police stormed an apartment in Gaza City belonging to a member of the extremist group that released a video of the activist. Hamas police said they found the man dead. The International Solidarity Movement had identified the kidnapped activist as Vittorio Arrigoni, 36, a member from Italy.
Egypt: Egypt's ruling military council said Thursday that it would review court verdicts handed down to hundreds of civilians detained since it took power after President Hosni Mubarak stepped down on Feb. 11. The decision was meant to address growing criticism of the armed forces, whose authorization of military trials against civilians has angered many of the democracy advocates who propelled the 18-day uprising in Tahrir Square. Democracy advocates offered cautious praise for Thursday's announcement but warned that the meaning of the decision was far from clear.
Bahrain: Two months after the eruption of mass protests in Bahrain, the kingdom has largely silenced the opposition, jailing hundreds of activists in a crackdown that has left the Obama administration vulnerable to charges that it is selectively upholding democratic values in the Middle East. Bahrain's monarchy, since calling in Saudi troops last month to help crush the protest movement, has been quietly dismantling the country's Shiite-led opposition. On Thursday, the Sunni government moved to ban Bahrain's largest political party, the Shiite-dominated al-Wefaq, along with a smaller Shiite party.
16 officers held in massacre inquiry Sixteen police officers have been arrested for allegedly providing cover to drug-cartel gangsters suspected in the grisly slaying of more than 120 people whose bodies are being pulled from mass graves in northeastern Mexico. On Thursday, officials in the border state of Tamaulipas said the number of dead who have been extracted from several pits about 90 miles south of Brownsville, Texas, had risen to 126. Also on Thursday, authorities in western Mexico found the bound, tortured bodies of eight young men dumped on a roadside. The men all appear to have been executed with a gunshot to the head, the attorney general's office in Michoacan state said in a statement. Authorities said another body has been pulled from a pit in the northwestern Mexican state of Sinaloa, bringing to 13 the number of corpses found there thus far.