World News Briefs

Catholic, Muslim officials plan ‘historic’ meeting

VATICAN CITY — Catholic and Muslim representatives plan to meet in Rome in the spring to start a “historic” dialogue between the faiths after relations were soured by Pope Benedict XVI’s 2006 comments about Islam and holy war, Vatican officials said.

Benedict proposed the encounter as part of his official response to an open letter sent to him and other Christian leaders in October by 138 Muslim scholars from around the world. The letter urged Christians and Muslims to develop their common ground of belief in one God.

Three representatives of the Muslim scholars will come to Rome in February or March to prepare for the meeting.

No date has been set for the larger meeting.

21 killed in bombings, fighting in Afghanistan

KABUL, Afghanistan — Roadside bombs and military operations in Afghanistan killed 21 people, including a coalition soldier and 14 Taliban fighters, officials said Wednesday.

A roadside bomb hit a U.S.-led coalition vehicle in eastern Khost province, killing a soldier and an Afghan interpreter, the coalition said. The soldier’s nationality was not released, but a majority of the troops in the east are American. Two other soldiers were wounded.

Stranded Palestinian pilgrims return to Gaza

RAFAH, Gaza Strip — Egypt allowed more than 2,000 Palestinian pilgrims to enter the Gaza Strip on Wednesday, drawing a fierce rebuke from Israel, which had tried to prevent top members of the militant Hamas from returning home.

Egypt’s decision to open its border deepened a crisis in relations with Israel, which has accused Cairo of not doing enough to stop Palestinian smuggling of weapons and contraband into Gaza through tunnels under the border.

Israeli security officials said they expressed their outrage to Egypt, accusing the country of reneging on recent pledges to keep the border sealed.

More flights, fewer crashes mark 2007 year in aviation

GENEVA — Aviation is becoming safer every year and 2007 saw the lowest number of crashes in 44 years, an independent watchdog group said Wednesday.

But the Geneva-based Aircraft Crashes Record Office said some countries, including the Congo, Indonesia, and Colombia, were slower to improve airline safety.

There were 136 serious accidents in 2007, the fewest since 1963, ACRO said.

It said 965 people died in crashes in 2007 — a 25 percent drop from the previous year.

Kidnapped foreign aid workers freed in Somalia

MOGADISHU, Somalia — Two foreign aid workers who were kidnapped by gunmen in Somalia were released unharmed after a week in captivity, officials said Wednesday.

Dr. Mercedes Garcia of Spain and nurse Pilar Bauza Moreno of Argentina were apparently healthy but tired after their ordeal, awaiting a Thursday flight out of the country.

“They are safe and sound and we give thanks for all the efforts” to win their release, said Paula Farias, president of the Spanish chapter of Doctors Without Borders.

The women were seized Dec. 26 by six gunmen while driving to a clinic in Puntland, a semi-autonomous region in northeastern Somalia. They were treating children with malnutrition.

“We are happy the two are released,” said Nicolas Martin Cinto, the Spanish ambassador to Kenya who had traveled to Somalia to press for their release. “We paid no ransom.”

Farias said the kidnapping threatened the work of all humanitarian groups trying to help the most needy in Somalia.

Argentine Foreign Minister Jorge Taiana said he spoke Bauza by phone from Buenos Aires and confirmed both women were well and resting at a Somali hotel. Bauza’s brothers also spoke with her, and said the family could finally celebrate the New Year.