News In Brief

By , and Cynthia Hanson

The US

Merchants began offering discounts as high as 75 percent, slashing prices after modest retail sales during the holidays. Some of the best prices were expected at computer and electronics stores, where waning demand sent pre-Christmas sales plummeting. Lackluster sales only slightly higher than a year ago were attributed to high levels of consumer debt, fewer shopping days between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and poor weather.

The Federal Communications Commission approved standards for high-definition television to bring movie-quality images to television by 1998. The proposal was ironed out last month among the broadcast, computer, and consumer electronics industries. They disagreed over aspects of the new system for nearly a year.

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President Clinton met privately with the head of a South Korean company at a fund-raising event where the firm made an illegal $250,000 campaign contribution, the Los Angeles Times said. Quoting Clinton administration sources and Democratic Party officials, it contradicts earlier accounts by party officials. Democratic National Committee fund-raiser John Huang arranged the donation and meeting, the DNC said. It returned the money in September.

Mexico's Attorney General, Jorge Madrazo Cullar, denied a request by Clinton administration drug czar Barry McCaffrey that US agents working in Mexico be allowed to carry weapons, The New York Times said. Mexican officials said they would agree to the request only if Mexican anti-drug agents were allowed to carry weapons when on assignment in the US, the newspaper reported. McCaffrey made the request during meetings with officials in Mexico City.

A lawyer for death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal, whose case has attracted an international following, plans to file a second appeal of his conviction today with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Earlier, a judge ruled that prison officials had improperly opened letters from Abu-Jamal's attorney. Abu-Jamal was convicted for the 1981 murder of a Philadelphia police officer. Supporters say the former radio reporter was framed.

A Georgia man was sentenced to more than four years in prison for disrupting a US Air flight. Federal prosecutors say Gary Lee Lougee became angry when flight attendants refused to serve him alcohol. The pilot had to return to the Savannah, Ga., airport.

Dismissing reports of a possible rift with France, the White House expressed confidence that the Paris government would join the US and Britain to renew operations that prevent Iraqi flights over northern Iraq. The new patrols would continue Operation Provide Comfort, whose mandate runs out on Tuesday.

Three federal court judges temporarily lifted a ban that prevented credit unions from enrolling new members from groups that don't share a common occupational bond with their core membership. The decision means that such institutions can continue to sign up new members from groups that are already part of the credit union, but no new groups can be added.

A federal appeals court struck down a Utah law that banned abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, except in limited cases. Utah legislators disregarded US Supreme Court rulings that states can't define when a fetus becomes viable, it ruled.

A Petaluma, Calif., school district tentatively agreed to pay $250,000 to a former student who claimed officials ignored her complaints of sexual harassment by classmates. At issue was whether school officials are responsible for their students' behavior, in light of a 1972 federal law that bars sex discrimination in schools and colleges.

The World

No movement was seen inside the Japanese ambassador's residence in Lima, Peru, after an early-morning explosion that punctuated the city's ongoing hostage drama. Police guarding the site said they did not know what had caused the blast. No casualties were reported. Leftist Tupac Amaru guerrillas released one more hostage Christmas afternoon. They continued to hold 104others.

Chinese Premier Li Peng began an official visit to Russia aimed at strengthening ties between the two former Communist rivals. Li reportedly was to explore joint construction of a natural gas pipeline and a nuclear power plant. The trip also is expected to lay groundwork for a meeting between China's President, Jiang Zemin, and Russia's Boris Yeltsin.

Palestinian and Israeli negotiators both said they expected to finalize a deal next week on redeploying troops from the West Bank city of Hebron. Meanwhile, Israel permitted the reopening to civilian traffic of a key road in Gaza. It was closed in 1994 after three Israeli soldiers were killed in a bomb attack.

Despite icy winds, snow, and a police ban on street demonstrations, Serbian protesters turned out in force for another day of anti-Milosevic rallies in Belgrade. Police said they had orders to break up the demonstration, but no such attempt was made during the morning. A larger rally was planned for the afternoon. Opposition leaders vowed the marches would continue until the embattled president recognizes the results of last months local elections, which his party's candidates lost.

Tens of thousands of South Korean labor-union members answered a call for the country's first nationwide strike, and the action was expected to grow over the weekend. The strike was called to protest the secretive approval by the National Assembly of a controversial new law. The measure makes it easier for companies to lay off employees and bans the formation of new unions until after 2000. Only members of the ruling New Korea Party were present for the pre-dawn vote.

Normal air traffic resumed in Ivory Coast, Senegal, and Mali after a two-day strike by controllers. In all, 15 African countries were affected by the walkout, and airports were still shut down in some of them, pending resumption of negotiations with government agencies. Controllers are demanding pay increases and the reinstatement of certain benefits that had been taken away last year.

Burma's military government blamed insurgent groups for two explosions at a Buddhist shrine in the capital, Rangoon. At least five people died in the incidents, and 18 others were reported injured. A government spokesman said the All-Burma Student Democratic Front and the Karen National Union had set off the explosives after receiving training from "foreign elements." The shrine was visited frequently by members of Burma's ruling Law and Order Restoration Council.

Police and Army troops sealed off the Indonesian city of Tasikmalaya after angry demonstrators set fire to Christian churches, commercial buildings, and vehicles. One official said the rioting was set off by newspaper reports that police had ignored a request to discuss the beatings of a Muslim religious teacher and two of his students. The teacher was accused of pushing a policeman's son into a swimming pool over a stealing incident.

Tropical storm Greg was blamed for at least 88 deaths in the Malaysian state of Sabah. Officials said the storm also washed away more than 500 houses, damaged many others, sank boats and small ships, and cut all communications and highway access to the Sabah capital, Kota Kinabalu.

Etceteras

"It's the Martha Stewart syndrome - people interested in their homes again."

- Clark Johnson, chief executive of Pier 1 Imports, on the strong performance of home furnishings this holiday season after other retailers reported lackluster sales.

Some Royal Air Force crewmen were at a Christmas party on the Welsh island of Anglesey when a rescue call came. Witnesses had spotted a lone mountain climber, night was falling, and the winds were blowing at 60 m.p.h. Eight airmen loaded food and hot drinks into a helicopter and raced off to find that the climber was a well-equipped Buddhist who simply wanted to be alone to contemplate the winter solstice.

Francis Dellenbach has quite a home on the range in Wyoming. The Cheyenne resident's property consists of 16 acres of land that he snapped up for just $3,000. What's more, you could drop a bomb on it and not do any damage. That's because he lives in a retired missile silo, built to withstand a one-megaton nuclear impact. The biggest drawback: no view.

Which US ally is not at war but still requires incoming flights to change course so they won't be hit by gunfire? Answer: Kuwait. It's traditional at Bedouin weddings there for guests to discharge guns into the air. As recently as Oct. 24 two passenger jets had to be diverted. Aviation officials have asked the Interior Ministry to ban the celebrations.

The Day's List

US Editors Rate the Year's Top News Stories

These were the leading stories of 1996, according to an Associated Press poll of newspaper editors and broadcast news directors:

1. TWA Flight 800 explosion off Long Island, N.Y.

2. The November elections.

3. Bomb blast in Atlanta's Centennial Park.

4. Arrest of Unabomber suspect Theodore Kaczynski.

5. Crash of ValuJet Flight 592 in the Florida Everglades.

6. Welfare-reform law signed by President Clinton in August.

7. The Summer Olympics.

8. US government shutdowns that ended in April with a $159 billion budget compromise.

9. The booming economy and soaring stock market.

10. The record-setting blizzard that hit the Northeast and Midwest in early January.

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