News In Brief

THE US

Thousands of northern Californians began returning home after rains caused extensive flooding. But about 100,000 others remain evacuated, mostly from four towns north of Sacramento where the Feather River broke through a levee, flooding some 450 homes. In the Central Valley near Modesto, another levee broke, prompting 1,500 people to flee their homes. President Clinton declared parts of California, Idaho, and Nevada disaster areas, making them eligible for federal relief. Preliminary damage estimates from six northern and central California counties - a small proportion of those affected - exceeded $50 million, federal officials said. More than 20 people have been killed by the storms and flooding in five Western states.

Congress is likely to be dominated by the budget as it convenes tomorrow. Clinton will not propose any increases in costs for Medicare beneficiaries but will try to save money by cutting back payments to hospitals, doctors, and others who provide health care to the elderly, The New York Times reported.

On the House's docket tomorrow: reelection of House Speaker. A dozen Republican lawmakers who had been withholding support for reelection of Newt Gingrich signed a letter to GOP colleagues stating they plan to throw their support to him. Some Republicans are considering electing a temporary House Speaker to serve until the issues surrounding Gingrich are brought to judgment.

Eight letter bombs sent to an Arabic-language newspaper and a federal prison in Kansas from Egypt apparently were armed with Semtex. The plastic explosive was used to blow up Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, and was a detonating charge in the World Trade Center bombing. The bombs in greeting cards were discovered by postal inspectors before they reached their destination. The FBI is pursuing the possibility they were sent by followers of an Egyptian cleric imprisoned at the Levenworth federal prison for conspiring to wage terror in the US.

Clinton announced he is suspending the Helms-Burton Act for six months, a move cosponsor Jesse Helms complained amounted to an "indefinite suspension." The provision allows Americans to sue foreign companies using seized US property in Cuba. European countries have complained the law is an attempt by the US to extend its jurisdiction beyond US shores.

The abortion rate in the US dropped to its lowest level in nearly two decades. Only 21 out of every 1,000 women between ages 15 and 44 had an abortion in 1994 - the smallest level since 1976, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported. It was the fourth year in a row abortions have declined in number.

Clinton announced a national strategy to combat teen pregnancies in his radio address while noting a decline in teen birth rates in some states. He said a key feature of the program would be encouraging teens to abstain from sexual relations, stay in school, and prepare for their careers. He also cited new teen birth data that shows 37 states with a sustained decline in teen birth rates between 1991 and 1994. Meanwhile, Republicans cited a sharp increase in teen drug use in their radio address, noting that since 1991, the use of marijuana has tripled among eighth graders.

Consumers will pay 10 to 15 cents a gallon more for heating oil this season than they did last winter, the Energy Department announced. Despite a mild December in the Northeast, fuel stocks remain below normal, and prices averaged as high as $1.16 a gallon around Christmas - almost 20 cents a gallon higher than the same time a year ago.

The man who masterminded a 1989 wave of mail bombing in the South faces a possible death sentence for the murder of a federal judge in Alabama. Walter Leroy Moody Jr., whose bombing campaign raised racial tensions in three Southern states, was due to appear in a Birmingham court today for sentencing.

THE WORLD

A secret meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Yasser Arafat failed to break the deadlock on a self-rule deal for the West Bank city of Hebron. The four-hour summit was held after midnight at the Erez crossing between Israel and the Palestinian-ruled Gaza Strip. The unresolved issue: the Palestinian demand for a timetable for further Israeli withdrawals from rural areas of the West Bank, sources said.

The mayor of Belgrade, Nebojsa Covic, reportedly quit in an apparent protest against Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic's refusal to concede losses in local elections, Belgrade newspapers reported. If the report is true, it would mark the first major defection from Milosevic's party since street protests began seven weeks ago.

Peruvian rebels are seeking a $30 million ransom from major Japanese companies, the Japanese newspaper Mainichi Shimbun reported. But Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto said he was not aware of any ransom demands from the rebels, who are holding 74 hostages in the Japanese ambassador's residence in Lima, Peru.

Russia reiterated its staunch opposition to NATO's proposed eastward expansion. The comments by a Kremlin spokesman dampened optimism expressed by German Chancellor Helmut Kohl after weekend talks with President Boris Yeltsin in Moscow. Separately, Russia completed the pullout of its troops from Chechnya, defense officials said.

French troops killed 10 Central African Republic Army mutineers in the capital, Bangui, after two French soldiers were killed. The former French colony is in the grip of its third Army revolt within a year. Under a defense pact, the French intervened last May to keep President Ange-Flix Patasse in power. The mutineers are demanding the resignation of Patasse.

British Prime Minister John Major pleaded for restraint after pro-British loyalist guerrillas threatened to end a two-year truce and avenge a new campaign by the IRA. The loyalist threat came after the IRA abandoned a truck loaded with explosives in Belfast last week when they failed to break through tight British security.

A Rwandan court sentenced two Hutu men to death in the country's first efforts to punish those responsible for the 1994 genocide of nearly half-a-million minority Tutsis. Deo Bizimana, a former hospital aide, and Egide Gatanaza, a former local administrator, were the first to be convicted.

A plea for an immediate cease-fire in Afghanistan was made by Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan, each of whom support a different faction in the war-ravaged country. At a meeting in Istanbul, the three countries also called for peace talks aimed at forming a coalition government. Meanwhile, jets belonging to warlord Rashid Dostum continued to bomb the capital, Kabul.

A Muslim fundamentalist group rejected a new plan by Somali faction leaders to form the first national government in six years. The Islamic Unity group said the plan was not acceptable because it was not based on the teachings of Islam.

Singapore's ruling People's Action Party took 81 of 83 parliamentary seats in the general election. The PAP had won the election even before a vote was cast after the opposition put up candidates for only 36 seats. Voter turnout was 96 percent.

The Gambian ruling party won 33 of the 45 seats at stake in parliamentary elections. The victory gives President Yayha Jammeh's party the majority it needs to pass any bill in the National Assembly. About 1 million people live in Gambia, a sliver-shaped country that gained independence from the British in 1965.

ETCETERAS

''If you go down the route of a Scottish tax-raising Parliament, you are lighting the fire

toward an independent Scotland and the break up of the United Kingdom."

-- British Prime Minister John Major, reacting to proposals by opposition parties for a separate Scottish parliament.

A new Islamic court in Chechnya ordered a man to pay 63 camels to relatives of a person he killed in a traffic accident. Since no camels reside in mostly Muslim Chechnya, he was told he could pay them $63,000 after the judge equated one camel to two $500 bulls. The judge revised the sum to $360 after the man called it too high for anyone in the republic to pay.

The newly restored dome above the traditional site of Jesus's tomb was unveiled in Jerusalem's 900-year-old Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Blocked for decades by scaffolding and sectarian squabbles, light now streams through golden rays on a backdrop of pearly white, surrounded by stars.

Former marine Guy Hunter buried his wallet in Kuwait's desert to protect his family from being targeted when he was shot down by Iraqis in 1991 during the Gulf war. The mud-soaked billfold appeared in his mailbox with all its contents - including family photos and $47 - intact. Apparently, a Sri Lankan laborer found it.

THE DAY'S LIST

Top 10 Mergers of 1996

Mergers announced totaled $658.8 billion, up from a record $519 billion in 1995, Securities Data Company reported. The biggest mergers/acquisitions:

1. Bell Atlantic-Nynex, $21.34 billion, pending.

2. British Telecommunications-MCI, $21.27 billion, pending.

3. SBC Communications-Pacific Telesis, $16.52 billion, pending.

4. WorldCom-MFS Communications, $13.56 billion, completed.

5. Boeing-McDonnell Douglas, $13.34 billion, pending.

6. US West Media-Continental Cablevision, $11.40 billion, completed.

7. Norfolk Southern-Conrail, $10.32 billion, hostile bid pending.

8. CSX-Conrail, $9.76 billion, friendly deal pending.

9. NationsBank-Boatmen's Bancshares, $9.47 billion, pending.

10. Aetna Life and Casualty-U.S. Healthcare, $8.77 billion, completed.

- Associated Press

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