News In Brief

House Democrats chose Jim Wright, a hardworking, legislatively savvy Texan with an oratorical bent, as the new Speaker of the House yesterday. The appointment of Mr. Wright, currently the House majority leader, to the post being vacated by the retiring Speaker, Thomas (Tip) O'Neill, was approved by acclamation. The full House must ratify the nomination on Jan. 6, when the 100th Congress begins. Democrats hold an 81-vote majority, and party allegiance in such a vote is nearly absolute.

Wright's move up clears the way for Rep. Thomas Foley (D) of Washington, to become majority leader.

256 youths being held, South Africa reports

In its first official accounting of detained children the South African government said yesterday that 256 youths under age 16 are being held without charge under state-of-emergency regulations, including an 11-year-old. Anti-apartheid monitoring groups have estimated that between 1,300 and 4,000 children under the age of 18 are in detention and have appealed for their release before Christmas. The groups contend the government detained many children without formally notifying their parents.

Meanwhile, the End Conscription Campaign, an antidraft group that opposes the use of white army draftees in black townships, said yesterday there had been a ``massive concentration of troops'' in townships over the past week.

Soldiers set up roadblocks at the entrances to townships around Johannesburg area and conducted house-to-house searches for suspected activists, the organization said. It added that the army had mobilized thousands of conscripts in the past two weeks and was not granting leaves during December.

Weinberger announces more SDI work for U.K.

US Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger announced the awards yesterday of another $10.1 million in Strategic Defense Initiative contracts to Britain's Ministry of Defense, bringing to $34 million the value of participation in the controversial program by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's government. Mr. Weinberger made the announcement after talks with British Defense Minister George Younger which focused on developing ways for NATO to begin negotiations with the Soviet Union and reduction in conventional weapons.

Weinberger was to meet Mrs. Thatcher later in the day.

Army threatening truce, Filipino communists warn

Communist leaders warned the Philippine government Monday that a 60-day cease-fire agreement to go into effect tomorrow was in jeopardy because the Army insists on its right to arrest guerrillas caught bearing arms and to send patrols into their strongholds. Armed Forces Chief of Staff Fidel Ramos said this weekend soldiers would continue patrols in rebel-held areas and he instructed them to arrest guerrillas caught with guns after the cease-fire takes effect at noon Wednesday.

Communist negotiators also said that a lasting peace in the Philippines is impossible unless US military bases are closed.

Australia OKs treaty on nuclear-free zone

Australia ratified a treaty yesterday declaring the South Pacific a nuclear-free zone only hours after France conducted its seventh nuclear test in the region this year. Australia was the eighth country to ratify the treaty and its signature brings it into force, Prime Minister Bob Hawke said. The treaty bars the possession, testing, and use of nuclear weapons or dumping of nuclear waste in the South Pacific.

Scientists said the French nuclear explosion had an estimated yield of 10 kilotons, the equivalent to 10,000 tons of TNT.

Supreme Court to review eligibility for US welfare

The Supreme Court agreed yesterday to judge the validity of requirements for eligibility for benefits under the federal Aid to Families with Dependent Children program. The court said it will review a ruling by a federal judge in North Carolina that says the calculation method used since 1984 is unconstitutional.

Congress amended the program, part of the social security system, in 1984 to require that the income of a parent and all minor children who live with a dependent child be taken into account in calculating the child's eligibility. As a result, some children living in fatherless families -- with brothers and sisters of the same mother but differing fathers -- lost their benefits.

USAir seeks to buy Pacific Southwest

USAir announced Monday it has tentatively agreed to purchase Pacific Southwest Airlines for $400 million, combining USAir's strong operation in the East with PSA's system concentrated on the West Coast. The merger must be approved by the Transportation Department, but USAir chairman Edwin Colodny said he expects no opposition, because the two carriers do not compete directly. Mr. Colodny said that USAir Group has agreed to purchase the airline for $17 a share.

The merger is the latest in a series of airline mergers this year. USAir was one of the few major airlines that had not been the subject of a merger or seeking a partner.

Iran-contra update. Paper points to Poindexter

Vice-Adm. John M. Poindexter, then the newly appointed national-security adviser, persuaded President Reagan to resume arms shipments to Iran in January in a renewed bid to free American hostages, the New York Times reported. In a story in yesterday's editions, the Times quoted unnamed Reagan administration officials as saying Admiral Poindexter argued the resumption of arms sales to Tehran - halted by Mr. Reagan in December 1985 - was the only way to secure the hostages' freedom. The sources told the Times Reagan had agreed in mid-January to resume the shipments after Poindexter reminded him that only one hostage, the Rev. Benjamin Weir, had been freed after a US-backed shipment of arms from Israel to Iran in September 1985.

Newsweek, however, quoting sources in its Dec. 15 issue, said Poindexter was neutral on whether to resume shipments at a Jan. 7 meeting with the President. The magazine said CIA Director William Casey pushed for the arms shipments. The Times's account said Mr. Casey's position was unclear.

In a related development yesterday, the Swiss federal prosecutor's office opened an inquiry to determine if US arms shipments to Iran were sent through Switzerland in violation of Swiss law, a government spokesman said.

The Swiss Sunday newspaper Sonntagsblick quoted unidentified arms dealers as saying US deliveries shipped to Iran through Switzerland included at least three Cobra helicopter gunships, howitzers, and spare parts for tanks.

The United States formally asked Switzerland for legal help yesterday in tracking down payments made through Swiss banks in conjunction with arms sales to Iran. The US request involved asking the Swiss to lift banking secrecy concerning two accounts alleged to have been used in the transfer.

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