International news roundup – Jan. 22

Hundreds of Palestinians in the southern Gaza Strip were busy Thursday trying to repair smuggling tunnels damaged in Israel’s offensive. But although people with detailed knowledge of the vast tunnel system said only about 1 in 10 was still intact, they estimated that some of those damaged could be fully operable again in “about a month.” Earlier this week, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told European Union leaders her government “reserves the right to react militarily against the tunnels once and for all” if smuggling resumes.

Judges in China handed out death sentences Thursday to two defendants in last year’s tainted milk scandal. A court in Shijiazhuang also sentenced the former chairwoman of the dairy group Sanlu to life in prison. Her company, although now bankrupt, was fined $7.3 million. A death sentence for a fourth defendant was commuted, meaning he’ll also likely serve a life term. Formula tainted with the chemical melamine killed at least six infants last year and made almost 300,000 others ill. Above, parents of some of the victims hold a vigil outside the Shijiazhuang court.

The 2,000 or so Rwandan troops who crossed into neighboring Congo earlier this week are “on an observer mission [and] will not engage in fighting,” the latter’s government said. It said the Rwandans want only to disarm and repatriate Hutu rebels operating in eastern Congo. Many rebels, however, have refused to return to Rwanda, saying they don’t expect fair trials for their roles in the 1994 genocide. UN peacekeepers in Congo, meanwhile, demanded “to play a role” in any operations by the Rwandan troops, saying that was crucial “to our mandate to protect civilians.”

Government forces in Sri Lanka claimed Thursday to have seized the Tamil rebels’ main operations center. But they denied claims by local officials that shells had hit a “safe zone” hospital, killing or wounding 96 people. Meanwhile, the UN accused the rebels of violating international law by refusing passage out of the combat zone to its Sri Lankan civilian staffers and their dependants.

Newspapers in Venezuela printed the first in a new series of columns by President Hugo Chávez Thursday, in which he pledged to quit if he loses next month’s referendum on amending the Constitution. The current charter bars him from running again once his term expires in 2013. The proposed change would allow him to seek reelection as often as he wishes. Chávez also wrote that a defeat in the Feb. 15 vote would condemn Venezuela to “the tomb of history.”

Clean water was restored by Red Cross technicians Thursday to the neighborhood in Zimbabwe’s capital where a nationwide cholera outbreak is believed to have begun. But with without more financial help from donors, the agency’s coordinator said the goal of halting the epidemic in seven months is at risk of not being met. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization raised the number of deaths from cholera in Zimbabwe to more than 2,700 and said almost 50,000 other cases had been diagnosed.

Sony Corp., the Japanese electronics giant, expects to post the first annual net loss in 14 years, it announced. The company revised its fiscal 2008 balance sheet to show a probable $1.7 billion loss, reversing a $4.1 billion profit for 2007. Chief executive Howard Stringer said the global recession “is sparing no one in the consumer electronics world” and that Sony must impose salary cuts and develop trendier products to compete with its rivals.

– Compiled from the wires

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