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Venezuela appeared more deeply split along class lines than ever after a national referendum on its proposed new constitution was overwhelmingly OK'd by voters. The measure was headed for approval by a 71-percent to 29-percent margin. It entitles controversial President Hugo Chvez to serve two consecutive six-year terms, allows him to disband what remains of the National Assembly, and reduces civilian control of the military. The new charter, written by a Constitutional Assembly packed with Chvez backers, was bitterly opposed by Vene-zuela's wealthy elite.

Stung by the failure of its first penetration into Chechnya's capital, Russia told a meeting of senior NATO ministers to mind its own business and stop meddling in the breakaway region. Journalists in Grozny reported seeing the burned wrecks of 15 tanks and personnel carriers trapped in a large, open square of the city by Muslim rebels. At least 115 soldiers died in the clash, perhaps the Russians' worst defeat since the Chechnya campaign began in September. NATO foreign ministers, meeting in Brussels, issued a new statement of regret over the Chechnya offensive.

A stronger criticism of Russian actions in Chechnya was expected to come from a meeting of Group of Eight ministers in Berlin. Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov would be told, European Union sources said, that the conflict was likely to result in proposed trade restrictions, among them the loss of Russia's most-favored-nation status.

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Intensified fighting in the occupation zone of south Lebanon wounded 20 school children, security officials in the Beirut government said. The clashes took place against the backdrop of resumed Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations in Washington. Syria is the main power broker in Lebanon. In Damascus, meanwhile, reaction to the opening ceremonies appeared favorable. But there was angry criticism in Israel at the failure of Syria's representative to shake hands with Prime Minister Barak and at his opening remarks, which contained detailed grievances against Israel.

Thirteen men believed to have ties to suspected terrorism-financier Osama bin Laden were planning year-end attacks on Israelis, Americans, and tourist destinations in Jordan, the Amman government said. The "well-financed" group was arrested earlier this week by security forces. Three others were said to remain at large. The arrests - not immediately announced - were behind the State Department's global warning last weekend to Americans about a threat to their safety.

Three rebel forces opposed to Congo President Laurent Kabila were meeting in neighboring Uganda to try to unify their ranks. A merger is seen as crucial to the outcome of new negotiations over power-sharing and democratic elections in the fractious nation, where a cease-fire signed last summer has been violated repeatedly.

Leftist members of parliament pushed through a measure to shorten the workweek in France to 35 hours. Passage means employers with staffs of more than 20 people must adopt the practice beginning next year; smaller businesses may wait until 2002. The measure is a key part of Prime Minister Lionel Jospin's strategy to cut France's 11 percent unemployment rate.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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