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In our news wrap Wednesday, American and Russian military officials held their third round of video conferencing in an attempt to set rules for airspace above Syria after a close call over the weekend. Also, Iraqi forces say they’ve launched a new offensive to recapture a key city from the Islamic State.
The situation in Syria had U.S. and Russian military officials talking today, at least by long distance. They discussed ways to avoid confrontations between warplanes crisscrossing Syrian skies.
Meanwhile, the war on the ground raged on. Rebels in Northern Syria fought using American-made anti-tank weapons today, trying to slow a government offensive in Hama province. The Assad regime is taking advantage of Russian airstrikes currently hitting targets in Hama and Aleppo.
That has raised concerns about possible midair incidents between U.S. and Russian pilots, and Moscow now acknowledges that one of its planes came within a few miles of a U.S. jet on Saturday.
MAJ. GEN. IGOR KONASHENKOV, Russian Defense Ministry Spokesman (through interpreter):
While moving to the area, the plane's threat alert system fixed on the activity of an unknown flying object. The jet turned and approached it, not to scare someone, but to identify the object and whom it belongs to.
In a bid to set rules of the air, Pentagon officials held a third round of videoconference talks with the Russian military today, but White House spokesman Josh Earnest confirmed there are no plans for wider-ranging talks on Syria.
JOSH EARNEST, White House Press Secretary:
We have said that we're not interested in doing that as long as Russia is not willing to make a constructive contribution to our counter-ISIL effort. Russia has their own agenda, and it's an agenda right now that they're pursuing on their own.
Meanwhile, Iranian lawmakers visited Syria's capital, Damascus, amid reports that hundreds of Iranian ground troops have joined the fight to shore up the Assad regime.
In Iraq, government forces say they have launched a new offensive to recapture Baiji from the Islamic State militants. The key northern city sits about 90 miles south of Mosul, and is home to the country's largest oil refinery. Caravans of vehicles carrying Iraqi army and Shiite militia fighters could be seen on the move there in recent days. The city has changed hands several times in the last year.
The Iranian nuclear deal cleared what appears to be a final hurdle in Tehran today. A majority of the country's Guardian Council, made up of both Muslim clerics and lawyers, ruled the accord does not violate religious law. This comes a day after Iran's legislature approved the deal, and it means dismantling of nuclear infrastructure can begin.
For the first time in six years, Afghanistan may produce less opium. A joint U.N. and Afghan survey reports the acreage planted in opium poppies is down 19 percent. Officials say that's due mainly to bad weather, but also to a change in how farmed areas are measured. As a result, the country's potential output of opium could fall by nearly half this year.
Pope Francis apologized today for what he called scandals that have recently occurred in the church. The pontiff spoke during a general audience for the public at the Vatican. He didn't elaborate or cite any examples.
POPE FRANCIS (through interpreter):
The word of Jesus is strong today. He says it is inevitable that there will be scandals. But woe to the man who causes them. Therefore, I ask for forgiveness for the scandals that have occurred recently either in Rome or in the Vatican. I ask you for forgiveness.
A spokesman wouldn't specify which incidents the pope had in mind. They may have involved a monsignor who was fired after he announced he was gay or a priest who said children are at fault for pedophilia.
Volkswagen now says its 2016 diesel models contain even more software that could cheat on emissions tests. The company says it told the Environmental Protection Agency last week. The information didn't appear in V.W.'s initial applications to meet U.S. emissions standards. For now, thousands of 2016 Volkswagens are quarantined at U.S. ports.
Meanwhile, Toyota announced that it hopes to eliminate nearly all gasoline-powered vehicles from its lineup by 2050. Instead, it's shifting to hybrids and fuel cell technology that converts hydrogen into energy and water. Toyota aims to cut emissions from its cars by 90 percent below 2010 levels.
And on Wall Street, stocks gave ground after Wal-Mart issued a warning about future profits. The Dow Jones industrial average lost 157 points to close below 16925. The Nasdaq fell 13 points, and the S&P 500 slipped nine.
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