World

An airstrike ordered by US forces in southern Afghanistan killed 21 civilians, many of them women and children, local officials claimed Wednesday. The accusation came amid increasing public discontent over the number of civilian casualties as NATO units work to clear the area of Taliban and Al Qaeda militants. President Hamid Karzai complained last week that Afghanistan "can no longer accept civilian casualties the way they occur." A US spokesman said, "We don't have any report of civilian casualties. There are enemy casualties [and] I think the number is significant."

Less than 24 hours after the historic installation of Northern Ireland's power-sharing government, Protestant and Catholic Cabinet ministers fanned out Wednesday to discuss issues of local importance, such as improvements in education and highway maintenance. In another sign that the political situation was normalizing, the Belfast Telegraph said correspondents from international news organizations conceded they "may have made their last trip here."

A bridge linking Russia and the ex-Soviet republic of Estonia was closed to heavy trucks Wednesday in another escalation of the feud over a relocated war memorial. Russia's state railway halted passenger service between St. Petersburg and Tallinn, Estonia's capital, Tuesday. Russian President Vladimir Putin also kept the issue alive in a Victory Day speech in Moscow, blasting "those who desecrate monuments [and sow] discord and distrust between ... people." Estonians regard the memorial as a symbol of Soviet occupation.

A remote-controlled roadside bomb exploded in southern Thailand Wednesday, killing seven soldiers riding in a pickup truck. The attack was the worst so far this year by Muslim separatists against government targets. Local officials saw irony in the incident, since the soldiers had been assigned to outreach work with Islamic leaders in the volatile region. Police said they caught two armed men who may have participated in the attack.

For the first time since his kidnapping March 12, Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip issued terms for the release of BBC reporter Alan Johnston. A group calling itself the Army of Islam demanded that the British government "release our prisoners." In particular, it cited "Sheikh Abu Qatada, the Palestinian," a radical cleric suspected of having close ties to Al Qaeda. A Palestinian Authority spokesman said the demand could not be verified and did not appear "doable."

Four American oil-industry employees were kidnapped at sea off Nigeria's delta region, local officials said. The incident came less than 24 hours after militants blew up three pipelines in the delta. Earlier in the day, three South Koreans and eight Filipinos who'd been kidnapped last week were freed. It was not clear whether a ransom was paid for their release.

Vote-counting was under way in East Timor after a presidential runoff election that was peaceful, in contrast to the violence that has marked much of the past year. Final results of what was shaping up to be a tight race are not expected until Friday. After last month's first round of voting, 1996 Nobel Peace Prize winner Jose Ramos-Horta held a 6 percent lead over former resistance leader Francisco Guterres. Both said they were confident of victory but would accept the final result regardless.

Authorities raised the number of Haitians who died at sea to 61 after more remains were recovered off the Turks and Caicos islands Tuesday. More than a dozen others remain missing and are presumed dead. Their boat, apparently headed for Florida, sank last Friday. Haiti's National Migration Office said survivors accuse a Turks and Caicos Coast Guard vessel of twice ramming their boat before it capsized.

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