News In Brief

The Iraqi government claimed vindication for its accusations that international weapons inspectors had spied for the US. Officials in Baghdad said reports in The Washington Post and Boston Globe that UN teams had collected intelligence used by the US in trying to undermine President Saddam Hussein were "nothing new" and "stressed Iraq's credibility." Meanwhile, a US jet fired another missile at an air-defense site in the "no fly" zone over northern Iraq.

Displaying discipline and politeness, thousands of leftist rebels streamed into rural San Vicente del Caguan, Colombia, for the opening of long-awaited peace talks with government negotiators. But although the process opened with a prayer - "Lord, make me an instrument of peace" - no agenda had been agreed to, and rebel chief Manuel Marulanda had yet to arrive, out of concern that he'd be the target of an assassination attempt.

For the first time, Congo President Laurent Kabila offered a face-to-face meeting with representatives of the rebels seeking to topple him, according to state TV reports. Until now, the self-appointed leader had refused all efforts to include the rebels in cease-fire discussions. He said he'd guarantee the security of rebel envoys, an offer diplomats said they believed was credible. But Kabila said any meeting would have to take place in Kinshasa, the capital.

Protesting Serb villagers were demanding that Yugoslav President Milosevic come with a personal guarantee of their safety in mostly Albanian Kosovo. The spreading demonstration grew out of funeral preparations for a Serb security guard who was killed in an attack earlier this week by the Kosovo Liberation Army on an electric power plant. Serbs were blocking a major highway, and security police set up a buffer zone to keep them and Albanians apart.

As expected, former Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit was invited to try again to form a Cabinet that will pass a vote of confidence in Turkey's parliament. Ecevit admitted failure Dec. 21 in his first attempt to end the country's political crisis. His new invitation from President Suleyman Demirel came one day after centrist politician Yalim Erez also handed back a mandate. Caretaker Mesut Yilmaz has fulfilled the duties of office since he was toppled by parliament Nov. 25. New elections are due in April.

Retreating rebels were accused of using civilians as human shields as they sought to escape from central Freetown, Sierra Leone's capital. Nigerian-led West African troops reportedly were pushing the rebels from the area and had airlifted President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah and members of his family to safety at a military base outside the capital.

In an election Sunday that international critics already say they won't recognize, Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev appears certain to win another term with ease. Nazarbayev moved the vote up from its original date in late 2000, which human rights groups say gave rivals almost no time to mount serious campaigns. Nazarbayev has attracted billions of dollars in foreign investment to the oil-rich former Soviet republic, but critics say he rules with a heavy hand.

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