News In Brief

With a broad coalition government that will have at least 68 seats in parliament, Israeli Prime Minister-elect Ariel Sharon is to assume office today, amid threats by a militant Palestinian group to launch an immediate round of suicide attacks. Sharon's most urgent challenge, however, is expected to be passage of his first proposed budget by the end of the month. Unless he can muster at least 61 votes in the Knesset, his fledgling government will be dissolved, forcing another new election. Meanwhile, a wing of the Hamas movement claimed responsibility for Sunday's suicide bombing in the Mediterranean resort of Netanya that killed four people and injured 50 others.

Spending on the People's Liberation Army, already the largest in the world, will increase by 17.7 percent this year, Chinese Finance Minister Xiang Huaicheng told the National People's Congress. He cited a need to "prepare for combat" in the face of "drastic changes" due to high technology - seen as a reference to the planned US national missile defense system and a theater missile defense aimed at protecting Taiwan. Analysts said actual defense spending could be four times the $17 billion announced by Xiang.

Reinforcements for NATO peacekeepers were rushed to the border between Kosovo and Macedonia amid warnings that activity by ethnic Albanian guerrillas is still spreading. Although the council of Albanian and Serbian leaders that administers Kosovo condemned the guerrillas for "extremist actions," local police in Macedonia reported hearing overnight gunfire and diplomats cited reports that armed Albanians were ordering villagers in the area to leave.

A no-confidence vote on the presidency of Russia's Vladimir Putin, the first since he assumed office a year ago, was scheduled for next Wednesday in the lower house of parliament. The motion, proposed by the Communist Party, won the unexpected backing of the largest pro-Putin faction in parliament, the Unity Party. Analysts said the vote appears to offer Putin an ideal opportunity to replace Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, a protege of former President Boris Yeltsin. Kasyanov is accused of failing to forge an agreement with Western lenders to reschedule Russia's massive Soviet-era debts.

A new case - for ordering that state pension funds be used to buy stock in a gambling operation - was filed against deposed Philippines President Joseph Estrada after the Supreme Court extended his immunity from arrest until March 22. Estrada is seeking a judicial ruling that he was wrongly declared out of power after a popular revolt Jan. 20 cut his term short. He also was put under round-the-clock surveillance to keep him from fleeing the country amid reports that he uses a private plane to help his wife campaign for a Senate seat.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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