TAX CUT MAY SPLIT JAPANESE COALITION For the third time in three weeks, Japanese Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa faced a crisis that could bring down his government. The Social Democratic Party the biggest party in his ruling coalition threatened yesterday to bolt over his new tax plan. The proposal, which couples a tax cut now with an increase later, is part of a larger package meant to stimulate the economy. The unveiling of that package, originally set for yesterday, was postponed at least until today because of the dispute. The turmoil comes just over a week before the beleaguered prime minister is to meet with President Clinton to negotiate a trade agreement. The political disarray was also causing financial jitters at a time when Japanese business leaders are pressing for government measures to help the economy out of the worst recession since World War II. Retirees win health care

In a landmark ruling, a federal judge in Detroit ruled yesterday that General Motors Corporation cannot force 50,000 retired workers to pay for their health-care benefits. He said GM promised the workers free health care when it offered them early retirement packages between 1974 and 1988. GM had argued that it had the right to modify the plan. The ruling could have wider implications for other industries that have sought to control health-care costs by asking their retired workers to pay for their medical benefits. Soccer star sidelined

Argentine soccer star Diego Maradona, still under siege after firing an air rifle at reporters, may now seek a court order to protect himself and his family from a press corps at war with him. Mr. Maradona, the hero of Argentina's 1986 World Cup victory and soccer's greatest star of the 1980s, lost his temper when asked to comment on his being released this week by his club, Newell's Old Boys of Rosario, for repeatedly failing to show up for practice. Brown cleared

The Justice Department found nothing to prosecute after a yearlong investigation into whether Commerce Secretary Ron Brown accepted $700,000 to help lift the trade embargo against Vietnam. Accordingly, the department said Tuesday it is closing its investigation. Mr. Brown, inspecting earthquake damage in California, said he was ``very pleased.'' Jobless claims soar

The number of Americans applying the first time for unemployment benefits shot up last week to the highest level since July, the government reported yesterday. Economists had expected a steep increase, but the rise of 59,000 bested most expectations. Officials said they would not be able to explain the rise until next week. US/Soviet space mission

The space shuttle Discovery blasted off at dawn yesterday with the first Russian to fly on a US shuttle, opening a new space age free of cold war rivalry. Joining the five Americans on board was cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev. It is the first US-Russian manned mission since the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz docking and the first time ever that astronauts and cosmonauts have been launched in the same shuttle.

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