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Operation Mountain Thrust, the largest counterterrorism offensive in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban regime is scheduled to begin Thursday. More than 11,000 coalition forces aim to flush Taliban remnants from four volatile provinces in southern Afghanistan, which the latter have been using as bases for their fiercest attacks in five years. The American operational commander said the goal was to "put simultaneous pressure" on Taliban havens and "to cause their leaders to make mistakes." The Taliban already have taken heavy casualties since their campaign began in mid-May, compared to far fewer for coalition troops.

"Conditions ... were humane. What we have seen was OK," a delegation of Afghans said after returning from a 10-day inspection of the US prison for terrorist suspects at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Their assessment appeared to contradict the view of five UN human rights experts who issued a statement Wednesday urging that the facility be closed after the suicides last weekend of three detainees. The UN panel called conditions there "harsh." But the Afghans, who were led by a senior Interior Ministry official, said they'd spoken freely with all 96 of their countrymen who are being held and that "only one or two" had complaints.

Munitions experts defused a bomb found under the seat of a civilian bus in Sri Lanka's capital Wednesday, increasing tensions further between the government and Tamil separatist rebels. Twenty-five passengers were aboard the vehicle, some of whom discovered the bomb and alerted the driver. Army sources said it lacked a detonator and apparently was being transported to the main bus terminal in Colombo for use there. The incident came as a gunfight between government forces and the rebels in northern Sri Lanka killed three more people. The two sides blame each other for the spike in violence. Rebel representatives returned Wednesday from Norway after refusing to meet a government delegation for peace talks there last week.

Pointedly excluding controversial Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, the leaders of four South American countries agreed to seek renewed trade benefits from the US. At a summit Tuesday in Ecuador, they pledged to respect each other's right to negotiate free-trade deals with the Bush administration and to seek a similar relationship with the European Union. Analysts saw special significance in the fact that one of the four was Evo Morales of Bolivia, who'd previously said he was considering pulling his country from the Andean bloc because he shared Chávez's view that such deals would flood the region with subsidized US foodstuffs. The other participants: Alvaro Uribe of Colombia, Alejandro Toledo of Peru, and Alfredo Palacio of the host country. Chávez was not invited to the meeting.

Weeks of violence have "shaken" the leaders of East Timor, President Xanana Gusmao acknowledged Wednesday in his first address to parliament since the trouble began. He described the fledgling nation as "paralyzed" by the rioting. But Gusmao, the hero of East Timor's campaign for independence from Indonesia, appeared to distance himself from demands that embattled Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri resign. The chaos erupted in March after Alkatiri fired almost half of the Army's soldiers for striking over what they claimed was discrimination. Alkatiri has agreed to an investigation into the causes of the trouble by a special independent commission.

No sooner had they returned to their homes than thousands of villagers from the slopes of Indonesia's Mt. Merapi had to be evacuated to refugee camps again Wednesday as the volcano vented searing clouds of gas and ash that extended 4.5 miles from its crater. Authorities reinstated the highest alert level around Merapi, calling the situation "life threatening." The volcano has been in the early stages of a major eruption for weeks. But after a spike in activity June 8, it had been quiet enough for scientists to lower the alert level.

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