Afghan soldiers stand guard as smoke rises from the gate of the presidential palace in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday June 25, 2013. The Taliban said they have hit one of the most secure areas of the Afghan capital with a suicide attack, as a series of explosions rocked the gate leading into the presidential palace. (AP Photo/Ahmad Jamshid)
BAGHDAD (AP) -- A surge of bloodshed that's rocked Iraq for months is reviving fears of a return to the widespread sectarian killings that pushed the country to the brink of civil war after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
On Saturday night, seven car bombs exploded on bustling commercial streets in the Shiite areas of Baghdad. The blasts were part of a relentless wave of violence Saturday that killed at least 46 people inside and outside the Iraqi capital.
The bombs detonated after the iftar meal that breaks the daily fast of Islam's holy month of Ramadan. Many people head out to shop or relax in coffee shops in the cooler evenings after fasting ends.
According to an Associated Press count, more than 250 people have been killed in bombings and other attacks since the start of Ramadan on July 10.
BEIRUT (AP) -- Activists say Syrian government forces are bombing a strategic rebel-held town in the country's north with heavy artillery and airstrikes for the third straight day, killing at least three people.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says President Bashar Assad's troops have besieged the town of Saraqeb in Idlib province, pounding it with rockets, tanks and air raids.
The Observatory says at least three people, including two children, died in a single airstrike on Saturday.
The group, which has activists on the ground, says the number of casualties is likely to rise because many people have been buried in the rubble of buildings that collapsed in the shelling.
The town lies along the highway that links Syria's largest city, Aleppo, with the capital, Damascus, the seat of Assad's power.
JERUSALEM (AP) -- Two senior Palestinian officials say President Mahmoud Abbas has agreed to resume peace talks with Israel only after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry gave him a letter guaranteeing that the basis of the negotiations will be Israel's pre-1967 borders.
A Western official, however, has denied that the `67 lines would be the basis of negotiations.
The Palestinian officials, both of whom are close to the Palestinian leader and privy to internal discussions, say the U.S. letter also stipulates that both sides are to refrain from taking any steps that would jeopardize the outcome of the talks. They say Israel is not to issue new tenders for Jewish settlements in the West Bank, while the Palestinians are not to pursue diplomatic action against Israel at any international organizations.
The officials are speaking on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to brief the media.
One of the Palestinian officials says, "The talks with Kerry were about to collapse, and the letter came as a lifeline in the last-minute bargaining."
There's been no comment from the State Department.
KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- Afghanistan's president has approved a new law governing next year's presidential and provincial elections, an important step toward a smooth transition of power in 2014.
Hamid Karzai's office says he signed a decree on Saturday approving the law, which defines the legal framework for the elections and which was approved by parliament earlier this week.
The law is supported by Afghanistan's international sponsors and Karzai's endorsement was widely expected. Last week, the Afghan president approved another law, defining the role and structure of the country's electoral watchdog and election commission.
Afghanistan is to hold elections for a new president and council members for its 34 provinces on April 5.
Karzai, whose second five-year term ends next year, is not allowed by law to seek a third term.
BEIJING (AP) -- Chinese state media say six urban management officers in south-central China have been detained by police on suspicion of intentionally harming others after a watermelon vendor died in a conflict with the city code enforcers.
A man from the Linwu county police in Hunan province on Saturday confirmed the detentions, as reported by the official Xinhua News agency, but he declined to give his name.
China's public have long resented the heavy-handed tactics of the urban management officers, known as "chengguan." They are often accused of beating people who commit minor infractions in shows of power that fuel social tension.
On Wednesday, city code enforcers in Linwu accused the watermelon farmer, Deng Zhengjia, of selling without a license. Deng died in a subsequent clash with the officers.
PATNA, India (AP) -- Samples of cooking oil and leftover food taken from an Indian school where 23 children died after eating lunch this past week were contaminated with "very toxic" levels of an agricultural pesticide, police said Saturday.
Ravindra Kumar, the additional director general of police in the city of Patna, told reporters that forensic tests revealed that the samples contained the pesticide monocrotophos in levels that were "very toxic" for humans.
The free midday meal was served to the children Tuesday in Gandamal village in Masrakh block, 80 kilometers (50 miles) north of Patna, the Bihar state capital.
Twenty-three children between the ages of 5 and 12 died from eating the meal and many others fell ill.
No arrests have been made in the case.
Authorities discovered a container of insecticide in the school's cooking area next to the vegetable oil and mustard oil, but it wasn't yet known if that container was the source, officials have said.
India's midday meal plan is one of the world's biggest school nutrition programs. State governments can decide on menus and timings of the meals, depending on local conditions and availability of food rations.
It is seen as an incentive for poor parents to send their children to school and currently covers some 120 million children across the country.
It's also part of an effort to address concerns about malnutrition, which the government says nearly half of all Indian children suffer from.
While complaints about the quality of the food served and the lack of hygiene in the program are routine, the incident in Bihar appeared to be unprecedented for the massive food program.
PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AP) -- A senior military official says Pakistani army has killed 15 militants in a new northwest offensive targeting militants who often strike a provincial capital from the mountainous region.
The official said Saturday that the operation, called "Khyber II," began Friday in Zao Kharmatang area in south of Peshawar. He said four soldiers were also killed in the action against militants.
The official said forces destroyed two militant hideouts. The official spoke on condition anonymity in line of the force's policy.
The area is located between Dara Adma Khel and Bara area of the Khyber tribal area that borders Afghanistan. The area was being used by militants to create pressure on the provincial capital. In recent weeks, police and military posts in and around Peshawar came under attack.
VATICAN CITY (AP) -- Pope Francis has surprised a group of people visiting a Rome basilica today.
The Vatican says the pope made an unannounced visit to St. Mary Major basilica to pray for followers who will gather next week in Brazil for World Youth Day. He entered through a side door and spent more than half an hour praying in a chapel in front of an icon of the Madonna.
Before leaving, the Vatican says Francis stopped in front of the central altar and asked the faithful to follow his journey "with prayer, faith and penance."
St. Mary Major is the same basilica where Francis went for an early morning prayer the day after being elected pope.
Francis leaves Monday for Rio de Janeiro, where a million or more young Catholics are expected to celebrate their new pope.
The trip is the first international journey for the 76-year-old Argentine since he became pope in March.
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) -- Thousands of young Catholics are traveling to Rio de Janeiro to see Pope Francis, taking long bus trips or expensive plane flights paid for with bake sales, raffles and fundraisers in public plazas.
Thanks to donations, the 30,000 Argentine pilgrims include hundreds from so-called "misery villages" in Buenos Aires, where Jorge Mario Bergoglio fostered close ties with kids in the slums before he became pope. They began leaving Friday, and will meet kids in a Brazilian favela to share stories about the Jesuit leader they affectionately call their "slum pope."
Many say they're excited by the changes they see in the church, and in themselves. They say Francis's first moves have renewed their faith, and that joining as many as a million other like-minded young people can only strengthen it.
Italy: Bid to hold CIA chief rejected by Panama
PANAMA CITY (AP) -- Italy's justice minister says her country formally asked Panama to hold an ex-CIA base chief convicted of illegally abducting a terrorism suspect, and adds that she "deeply regrets" Panama's decision to let him return to the U.S.
Annamaria Cancellieri says in a statement that Italy asked Panama to hold Robert Seldon Lady, and the request was "rejected without plausible explanation."
Panamanian Public Safety Minister Jose Mulino said Friday that Seldon Lady was freed from detention and sent to the U.S. because Italy didn't formally request his extradition within the allotted 48 hours.
Panamanian Foreign Ministry officials did not respond Saturday to questions about the discrepancy in the version of events.
Seldon Lady faces prison in Italy after being convicted in absentia in the 2003 abduction of an Egyptian terrorism suspect.
Venezuela halts normalization talks with US
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- Venezuela says it's ending talks with the United States to restore normal relations because Washington's U.N. ambassador-designate criticized its human rights record.
The Foreign Ministry said in a statement late Friday that Samantha Power's remarks compelled it to halt the process begun in Guatemala last month by its foreign minister, Elias Jaua, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
Power said in Senate confirmation hearings Wednesday that Venezuela is guilty of a "crackdown on civil society," along with Cuba, Iran and Russia.
Jaua and Kerry had said they would fast-track talks to resume ambassadorial-level ties absent since 2010.
Those prospects dimmed after Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro later offered asylum to U.S. leaker Edward Snowden. Kerry subsequently called Jaua and threatened unspecified action if Snowden wound up in Venezuelan hands.
US Ambassador calls for American's release
BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) -- U.S. Ambassador Michael McKinley is calling for the immediate release of an American that Colombia's main rebel band claims to be holding.
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia identifies the man as Kevin Scott Sutay, a U.S. military veteran taken captive a month ago in the country's south.
The group known as the FARC offers in a statement on its website to release him as a good-faith gesture during ongoing talks between rebels and the Colombian government in Cuba. It says Sutay identified himself as a 2010-2011 veteran of the Afghan war who left the U.S. Navy in March.
McKinley says Sutay is not an active member of the American military, and is not connected in any way with the U.S. mission in Colombia.