World

With no takers on the offer by China to stage discussions between the US and North Korea, the government of rival South Korea said it was preparing for a worst-case scenario on the divided peninsula. Defense Minister Lee Jun told parliament in Seoul that if diplomacy failed to resolve the increasingly tense confrontation over the North's nuclear weapons program, war was unavoidable.

UN inspectors zeroed in on two Iraqi scientists identified as participants in banned weapons programs as their boss, Hans Blix, said he'd warn the Baghdad regime that only its fuller cooperation in the searches could avert war. Blix is due to visit Iraq this weekend before submitting his eagerly awaited report to the Security Council Jan. 27. He said his inspectors have found illegally imported "weapons materials." Meanwhile, the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency said it will ask for "at least a few months" to complete its searches and analysis.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his Likud movement surged back into a comfortable lead over their Labor Party rivals in a new opinion poll - a development considered significant since the survey was commissioned by an influential newspaper usually editorially opposed to the conservative leader. Haaretz said the findings indicated Likud likely will win 30 seats in parliament in the Jan. 28 national election, to 20 for Labor. That's an upward shift of three for Sharon and a drop of four for challenger Amram Mitzna's Labor Party over their last previous showings. Despite scandals dogging Sharon and Likud, analysts said Labor's decision not to join a "unity" government backfired with respondents.

At least two people died and 20 others were hurt when a car bomb exploded outside the local prosecutor's office in Medellin, Colombia. There was no claim of responsibility, although police speculated that the attack was in retaliation for the arrests of 68 suspected members of the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia in a sweep of the city's poor neighborhoods. The blast was the fifth in Colombia in the past 10 days.

Embattled President Hugo Chávez headed for consultations with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan as his political opponents in Venezuela threatened round-the-clock street protests if they aren't granted a Feb. 2 referendum on his rule. Chávez wants the Supreme Court to declare the proposed referendum unconstitutional, although it is backed by more than enough petition signatures as required by law and would be nonbinding.

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