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THE TROUBLING QUIET OF DEEP SPACE Some experts suggest the Mars Observer may have exploded before reaching orbit around the red planet, but NASA was not ready to confirm that yesterday. Whatever the reason for the craft's five-day silence, however, engineers began to concede that the $980 million mission may have been lost. The Observers went out of contact Saturday, when it was due to pressurize its thruster fuel tanks to prepare for orbital entry. A computer program was designed to call Earth if the craft had not received commands in five

days. No signal ever came. Scientists had no reason, however, to suspect that the helium fuel tanks exploded. NASA decided to cut back on the full-time search because its worldwide Deep Space Network of dish-shaped antennas is needed to track the Galileo spacecraft, which is to explore an asteroid tomorrow. The Observer was supposed to spend two years studying Mars' geology, weather, and climate. Its loss would be another setback for an agency already set back by the flawed Hubbel space telescope. China hits US sanctions

China denied yesterday it had violated an international arms control agreement and called US sanctions unjustifiable. But Foreign Ministry spokesman Wu Jianmin did not specifically answer the charge that China had sold M-11 surface-to-surface missiles or M-11 technology to Pakistan.

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The United States announced on Wednesday limited sanctions against China and Pakistan based on evidence of such sales. Pakistani diplomat Ali Sarwar Naqvi said Pakistan has acquired missiles, but denied the purchases were a violation of the missile treaty. Israel strikes back

Israeli warplanes struck suspected guerrilla hideouts in southern Lebanon yesterday after Israeli ground troops and Arab guerrillas clashed, security sources said. At least two fighter jets blasted hills in the Apple Province, a stronghold of the Iranian-backed Hizbullah (Party of God).

The attacks kept tensions running high on the eve of an Arab foreign ministers' conference in Lebanon to chart a united strategy for the Middle East peace talks, which are scheduled to resume next week. Serbs complain in court

Serbia accused the Muslim-led Bosnian government yesterday of using the World Court to scuttle peace talks. The Belgrade government asked the United Nations court for emergency protection from Bosnian Muslim forces, even though Bosnian Serbs backed by Belgrade have overrun 70 percent of Bosnian territory.

The Serb accusation followed an appeal by the Bosnian government to the tribunal Wednesday to halt any partition agreement negotiated in Geneva. Bosnia's three warring factions are scheduled to return to Geneva Monday for further talks on dividing the former Yugoslav republic. Haiti premier approved

Haitian Prime Minister-designate Robert Malval won final parliamentary approval late Wednesday, clearing the way for lifting of international sanctions imposed after a 1991 Army coup. Mr. Malval was endorsed by ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Under a UN plan to bring democracy back to Haiti, the embargoes will be lifted when Malval takes office. He said Tuesday he wanted to be sworn in by Aristide in Washington, where the president lives. No date has been set. Jobless: Up, but also down

The number of Americans filing first-time claims for jobless benefits rose by 8,000 last week, the first increase in four weeks, the government said yesterday. But the less-volatile four-week moving average of jobless claims, which analysts prefer to track because it more accurately reflects the labor situation, fell to the lowest level in nearly four years.

The last increase in the weekly rate occurred during the week ended July 24, when claims jumped after General Motors temporarily laid off workers while its plants were retooled for 1994 models.

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