News In Brief

By a vote of 227-to-3, the parliament of Serbia OK'd sending a delegation to participate in peace negotiations on Kosovo beginning this weekend. But a senior official said the delegates would take two "unconditional" positions to the talks outside Paris: no constitutional separation of Kosovo from the rest of Yugoslavia and no foreign peace-keeping mission. The vote came two days before the deadline set by NATO to attend or be bombed. Leaders of Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority already had agreed to join the talks.

Defiant political dissidents set up five more branch offices of an opposition party that has been banned by the Chinese government. The move is the first the dissidents have dared to attempt since the Communist regime in Beijing began a crackdown against the China Democracy Party in November. Three of its founders were sentenced to long prison terms in December. The new branches bring to 16 the number set up since the party was launched in June.

A North Korea offer of high-level government-to-government talks with rival South Korea by the end of the year was "positively evaluated," the Unification Ministry in Seoul said. But it urged the North to drop conditions attached to the offer, such as an end to joint US-South Korean military exercises. Said one Western diplomat: "It's not what South Korea wants, but it's part of the road back" to normal relations on the long- divided peninsula.

In the Philippines, all signs pointed to the carrying out today of the first execution by the state in 23 years. President Joseph Estrada ignored street protests outside his home and said he was too busy to read an appeal by convicted rapist Leo Echegaray to Pope John Paul II to intercede and stop the scheduled lethal injection. Churches throughout the country, the only one in Asia that's predominantly Roman Catholic, were to ring their bells at the scheduled time of the execution.

Much of new German Chancellor Gerhard Schrder's ambitious legislative agenda is at stake in a key election Sunday in Hesse, one of the country's wealthiest and most populous states. His Social Democratic Party (SPD) held leads of as narrow as two percentage points there over the opposition Christian Democrats in late opinion polls. But Hesse sends five members to the upper house of parliament, the Bundesrat, and if the SPD were to lose, Schrder's coalition government would no longer have an absolute majority need-ed for passage of such initiatives as reform of citizenship laws, increased funding for child support, and some tax cuts.

Russian cosmonauts aboard the Mir space station failed to unfold a giant mirror that's the basis of a controversial experiment to reflect sunlight to frigid northern regions on Earth. Another attempt to deploy the mirror is expected today.

Rigid Islamic law was ordered in the breakaway republic of Chechnya as President Aslan Maskhadov gave in to the demands of his political opponents. Maskhadov ordered members of parliament to work with Muslim leaders on writing a Constitution based on Islamic law, or shariah, within three months. Opponents had accused him of being too sympathetic to Russia, from which Chechnya won de-facto independence in 1996. It was not immediately clear whether the new law would be as strict as that imposed by Afghanistan's Taliban movement.

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