News In Brief

Direct elections for prime minister were abolished by Israel's parliament, a move that was seen as giving incoming government head Ariel Sharon increased stability and his broad-based coalition a lengthier life- span. But a cloud still hung over his inauguration as the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party threatened to back out of its partnership agreement with him if religious students were not guaranteed continued exemption from military duty.

The first gun battle between NATO-led troops and ethnic Albanian guerrillas along the Kosovo-Macedonia border resulted in two casualties and an arrest, a spokesman for the peacekeepers said. The NATO unit included US soldiers, none of whom were hurt. NATO has beefed up its ranks in the area to try to keep an Albanian insurgency under control, and the clash took place during a search for weapons. But Albanian leaders sharply criticized NATO's proposal to allow Serb troops into the zone as "a provocation" that could incite a whole new round of violence.

The interim Army-backed government of Fiji bowed to a Supreme Court order and resigned, TV reports said. The Cabinet had been given until next Thursday to quit in a ruling last week by the high court, which said it is serving illegally. Ousted Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry (above, embracing Lauinia Padarath, his former culture minister, after his return from exile) called for new elections within six months to end the island nation's year-long constitutional crisis.

"Very reliable" sources report that the most famous Buddha statues in Afghanistan have yet to be destroyed under orders from the nation's ruling Taliban movement, a senior UN cultural representative said. But Pierre Lafrance told the BBC he now believes there's little hope they'll be spared. In Egypt, the state-run news agency said the UN has asked President Hosni Mubarak to use his influence to try to spare the statues. Meanwhile, Sri Lanka's government offered to pay for transporting them to India, which has said it would provide shelter.

A series of steps will begin in the next two days to bring down the Mir space station, Russian mission control officials said. Since its batteries are unstable, the abandoned orbiter will be allowed to drop to about 155 miles above Earth before going into its final plunge so as to conserve as much fuel as possible, they said. They also revised its timetable for splashdown in the South Pacific between Australia and Chile to "around March 20."

At least 41 people - most of them young children - died and 30 others were hurt when an explosion destroyed an elementary school in southeastern China, apparently as they were assembling firecrackers. The practice is a local cottage industry and a source of revenue for the school, despite the objections of pupils' parents. The father of one of the victims said pupils were punished if they refused to participate.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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