MOGADISHU, Somalia

Lack of equipment, training stalls Somali army offensive

Somali army recruits are using sticks instead of guns as they train for combat against battle-hardened Islamist rebels. With the army lacking equipment and training, Somalia’s prime minister said an offensive the government has threatened to launch for months will be gradual instead of a blitzkrieg.

The offensive, which has been repeatedly delayed for months, would be the government’s biggest attempt to restore control over an anarchic nation where an Islamist insurgency has taken root and whose coastline is dotted with pirate lairs. Hundreds of extremist foreign fighters have flocked to this African country, which experts fear could become a launching pad for attacks on the West.

Officials familiar with the offensive’s planning said the delays are partly due to the army’s lack of equipment, training and a reliable system to pay its soldiers — problems the European Union hopes to address by training 2,000 troops under a plan it approved Wednesday.

BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan

American, 2 Russians OK’d for trip to space station

A NASA astronaut and two Russian colleagues received the thumbs-up for a mission that will boost the population of the International Space Station to six.

California native Tracy Caldwell Dyson and Russians Alexander Skvortsov and Mikhail Kornienko are to blast off at 10:04 a.m. today from the Russian-leased Baikonur space center in southern Kazakhstan and will reach the orbiting science lab on Easter Sunday.

KABUL

Karzai charges international interference in ’09 election

President Hamid Karzai lashed out at the U.N. and international community Thursday, accusing them of interfering in last year’s fraud-tarnished presidential election and seeking to weaken his authority after parliament rejected his bid to expand his control over the country’s electoral institutions.

Karzai did not specifically mention the United States, but his harsh words — and his practice of blaming foreigners for the nation’s problems — reflect his increasingly difficult relations with Washington and its international allies.

President Barack Obama paid an unannounced visit here Sunday in hopes of setting a new tone in dealings with the Afghan leader, as the U.S.-led coalition prepares for a showdown with the Taliban this summer in its southern stronghold of Kandahar — Karzai’s home province.

The Obama administration has maintained a reliable Afghan political partner is critical to turning back the Taliban, and State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley rejected any attempt to undermine Karzai.

“Karzai has to step forward, lead his government in terms of convincing the international community and the Afghan people that they are taking measurable steps to reduce corruption,” Crowley said in Washington. “It’s not in anyone’s interest to see Afghanistan poorly led or weakly led in the future.”