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MIDDLE EAST AND GULFA car bomb devastated streets and shops teeming with New Year shoppers in west Beirut yesterday, killing 15 people and injuring about 100 in the worst bombing since civil war ended more than a year ago. The area hit is a stronghold of Lebanon's pro-Iranian Hizbullah (Party of God).... Algeria's Islamic Salvation Front plans to demand the release of its jailed leaders and name its detained president, Abassi Madani, as prime minister of a new government.... Iranian Defense Minister Akbar Torkan left Doha y esterday winding up a three-day visit to Qatar, during which he held talks on military cooperation between the two countries. UNITED STATES Chicago-based political consultant Philip Krone says he has heard from several hundred people from across the country since he announced his campaign to draft New York Gov. Mario Cuomo as the Democratic presidential nominee.... President Bush left yesterday for a 12-day trip to Australia and Asia, vowing to improve trading ties with the Pacific region in a bid to generate new jobs by expanding markets for US goods.

EUROPE British businesses were going broke at the rate of 995 a week by the end of 1991, Dun and Bradstreet reported yesterday. And the Labour Party took a 6-point lead over the ruling Conservative Party, according to a poll published in The Sunday Times.... Leaders of the 11-member Commonwealth of Independent States began their first summit meeting yesterday morning in Minsk. The meeting will focus on reorganizing control over former Soviet armed forces. While Russia backs joint commonwealth troops, the Ukrain e, Moldavia, and Azerbaijan have announced the formation of independent armies.... Administrators of the late Robert Maxwell's empire are investigating the US banks that acted as custodians for Mirror Group Newspapers pension funds and may consider suing them. Administrators have found large sums of money missing from Mirror pension funds and company coffers.... Corsican separatists blew up 30 vacation villas on the east coast of the island Sunday night after the independence movement pledged to step up its campaign against French rule.

ASIA AND THE PACIFIC An unexpected cut in the Bank of Japan's key lending rate to 4.5 percent yesterday fueled a 500-point rally on the Tokyo stock market.... China and South Korea are set to sign a landmark agreement that will complete the cementing of the two former enemies together as trading partners, a South Korean official said yesterday.... Vietnam yesterday unveiled a new draft constitution that formalizes free-market reforms but reaffirms one-party communist rule.... The Thai cabinet yesterday decided to buy another squadron of US-made F-16 jet fighters, Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun said.

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