Middle East Updates / Explosion and Gunfire Heard in Kabul's Diplomatic Quarter

Mosul residents say ISIS cuts phones in Iraq city; Syria troops kill at least 30 rebels in Damascus suburbs; Iran's leader doesn't oppose more nuclear talks; Five dead after suicide bomber strikes British embassy vehicle in Kabul.

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An Afghan policeman inspects the site of a suicide attack on a British embassy vehicle in Kabul, Nov. 27, 2014. Credit: Reuters

7:30 P.M. Pope condemns ISIS violence

On the eve of a trip to the Middle East, Pope Francis is urging religious and political leaders to speak out against attacks on Christians by Islamic State extremists. In an interview published Thursday, Francis was quoted as saying that the persecution of Christians today is "the worst" it has been since Christianity's earliest days. "In Iraq, for example, barbaric, criminal indescribable things are being committed," he was quoted as telling the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot.

Francis told the newspaper that the persecution of Christians, Yazidis and other ethnic communities requires both political and religious leaders, especially Muslims, to "take a clear and brave stand." Francis is set to travel to Turkey on Friday for a three-day visit.  (AP)

5:00 P.M. Explosion and gunfire heard in Kabul's diplomatic quarter

An explosion shook houses in the diplomatic quarter of the Afghan capital shortly after 7 P.M. Afghani time, according to Reuters witnesses, who also heard gunfire after the blast. 

The explosion followed an attack earlier in the day on a British embassy vehicle that killed five people including one British citizen. (Reuters)

4:01 P.M. Mosul residents say ISIS cuts mobile phone network

Residents in the Iraqi city of Mosul say militants with the Islamic State group have blocked all mobile phone networks in the town. 

Several residents told AP that the move is to prevent residents from revealing the location of militants in town to U.S. coalition forces conducting airstrikes in the area. The militants informed residents of their decision via their Mosul-based radio network Wednesday. All residents spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. Some are still able to access the Internet, which operates under a different network.

The militants seized the city in June during their lightning advance across northern Iraq. The U.S. began launching airstrikes on Aug. 8 and has conducted at least 22 strikes around the city of Mosul alone. (AP)

3:12 P.M. Khamenei open to more nuclear talks

Iran's top leader is saying he won't stand in the way of continued nuclear negotiations with world powers. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei spoke Thursday on Iranian state television, saying "I am not opposed to the extension of the talks, for the same reason that I wasn't opposed to the talks per se."

Iran and the major powers agreed Monday to decide by March 1 about what steps must be taken and on what schedule. A final deal is meant to follow four months later. Khamenei has final say on all state matters in Iran.  (AP)

11:44 A.M. Syria troops kill at least 30 rebels in Damascus suburbs

State media and activists say government forces have killed at least 30 rebels in an ambush in the suburbs of Damascus.

State news agency SANA said Thursday that 50 "terrorists" were killed in an ambush as they tried to flee the eastern suburb of Maydaa toward the nearby area of Dumair. State media refers to rebels as terrorists.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 30 men were killed in the Wednesday night ambush. Another activist said more than 30 rebels were killed. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of fear of retribution.

Syrian troops have been on the offensive in areas near the capital in a bid to secure President Bashar Assad's seat of power. (AP)

11:15 A.M. One British citizen killed in Kabul attack

One British citizen was among five people killed in Thursday's suicide attack on a British embassy vehicle in the Afghan capital, the Interior Ministry said in a statement.

The other four killed in the blast were Afghans, the statement said. The explosion wounded 33 people. (Reuters) 

9:22 A.M. Death toll in Kabul suicide bombing rises to five; Taliban claims responsibility

A suicide bomber attacked a British embassy vehicle in the Afghan capital Kabul on Thursday, killing at least five Afghan civilians and wounding more than 30 others, officials said.

An embassy spokesman confirmed the attack and said some people in the vehicle were wounded, without providing further details. He added that the vehicle was not carrying any British diplomats.

Kabir Amiri, the administrative head of Kabul hospitals, said that at least five Afghan civilians were killed and up to 34 wounded. Afghan Public Health Ministry spokesman Kanishka Bektash Turkistani said the wounded included five children.

The attack took place in the east of the city, shaking parts of Kabul and sending a huge plume of dust and smoke into the air.

"Foreign vehicles were targeted by a suicide attacker on a motorcycle," Deputy Interior Minister Gen. Mohammad Ayub Salangi said. Earlier, a local police officer said the attacker was in a car packed with explosives.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack in a brief statement. (AP)

8:28 A.M. Yemen forces sought to free U.S., British, South Africa hostages in raid on Al-Qaida

An American, a Briton and a South African were among several hostages Yemeni forces sought to free from Al-Qaida this week, the defence ministry said on its website, describing a raid that a U.S. defence official said also involved U.S. special forces.

In Monday night's assault on a cave in remote Hajr as-Say'ar district in the eastern province of Hadramout, Yemeni security forces rescued six Yemenis, a Saudi and an Ethiopian, and killed seven al Qaeda kidnappers, Yemeni officials have said. (Reuters)

8:22 A.M. Suicide attack hits foreign convoy in Kabul, Afghanistan

A suicide bomber struck a British embassy vehicle in Afghanistan's capital on Thursday and there are some injuries, a spokesman for the embassy in Kabul said.

The extent of the casualties was still unclear and British officials were working with Afghan police, the spokesman said.

General Ayoub Salangi, the deputy interior minister, said the bomber was riding a motorcycle. The bombing is the latest in a wave of attacks to hit Kabul as the majority of foreign combat troops withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of the year. (AP)