VOA NEWS IN SPECIAL ENGLISH

January 13, 2013

French airstrikes have driven back Islamist militants who had seized an important town in northern Mali. The takeover by the rebels of Konna a few days ago had placed the rebels within 25 kilometers of Mopti. That city is the northernmost community still controlled by the Malian government. A reporter in Mali told VOA that many Islamist fighters were killed in the operation. The reporter also says the Malian army is now occupying the city and Islamist fighters have fled to the towns of Bore' and Douentza. Also Saturday, the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, has approved the immediate deployment of African troops to Mali. Burkina Faso and Niger each announced plans to send 500 troops as part of the ECOWAS deployment.

French officials say a hostage held in Somalia since 2009 is believed to have been killed when French troops tried to rescue him. But al-Shabab rebels say the hostage remain safe far from the battle area. The French Defense Ministry said Saturday that military security adviser Denis Allex was probably killed during a rescue attempt. A French soldier was also killed and another French soldier is missing. The raid took place during the early hours Saturday. Officials said 17 Somali fighters were also killed during the rescue operation.

Gunmen shot at a car carrying the Italian consul in the Libyan city of Benghazi Saturday. Officials say Guido De Sanctis was going home after work when gunmen riding in another car fired several shots at his vehicle. Security officials said nobody was hurt in the attack because the vehicle was protected by thick steel. The attack happened four months after the American ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, and three other Americans were killed in Benghazi. They died in an attack on a United States diplomatic office there.

Shiite Muslims in Pakistan protested in the southwestern part of the country for a second day Saturday. More than 3,000 demonstrators gathered at the place where two suicide bomb attacks happened Thursday. At least 86 people were killed in the attacks which happened in the city of Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan province. Many coffins were on the side of the road where the protesters gathered Saturday. Shiite families in Quetta have refused to bury their dead to protest the group's lack of security.

President Obama says the main reason America sent troops to Afghanistan is within reach. The president said on Saturday the goal of preventing al-Qaeda from ever using Afghanistan to launch attacks against America will soon be met. "The 33,000 additional forces that I ordered to Afghanistan served with honor, they completed their mission, and--as promised--returned home last fall. This week, we agreed that this spring, Afghan forces will take the lead for security across the entire country, and our troops will shift to a support role." Mr Obama said the war in Afghanistan will be over by the end of next year.

Russia is calling for a political process of change in Syria. But the Russian government did not say Syrian President Bashar al-Assad should leave office to help end the country's conflict. Russia's Foreign Ministry released a statement Saturday. It said that only Syrians can decide their future and should do so without pressure from other nations. The statement called for an immediate end to what it called the "violence and bloodshed" and it said humanitarian aid should be given to Syrians.

A Tibetan man has died after setting himself on fire Saturday to protest Chinese rule in ethnic Tibetan areas. The man was in his early 20s. Officials say he killed himself at the protest area in the Sangchu area of eastern Tibet. Tibetan activists say it was the first self-immolation of 2013.

Officials say a landslide in southwest China Friday killed 46 people including many children. Search teams recovered the last three bodies on Saturday in the distant village of Gaopo in Yunnan province. Officials believe all the missing have now been found. The state-run Xinhua news agency says several days of rain and snow caused the landslide.

Officials in Nepal say a bus in the western part of the country has crashed off a mountain road. At least 29 people were killed. Officials say several more were injured Saturday when the bus drove off the road near Chitwan village. Officials say at the time of the accident, the crash area was dark and covered in fog. Accidents happen often in Nepal because of poor roads and vehicles in bad condition.

Haiti has marked the third anniversary of the strong earthquake that killed hundreds of thousands of people. Communities across the small Caribbean country held ceremonies Saturday, including one at the place where the presidential home stood. The home was destroyed by the earthquake. Haitian President Michel Martelly announced new rules on Saturday meant to help buildings survive another earthquake.

And finally at this hour, the Venezuelan vice president is on his second trip to Cuba to visit the country's President Hugo Chávez. Nicholas Maduro's trip to Havana Friday came a day after thousands celebrated what would have been Mr Chávez's re-election swearing-in. Mr Chávez has remained in Havana since his fourth and most recent cancer operation a month ago. Presidents from Peru and Argentina are also in Havana to see Mr Chávez. Argentine President Cristina Fernandez said she went to Cuba to show solidarity with President Chávez and his family.