Efforts were going forward to ease tensions that have built close to the boiling point in the Middle East. Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat conferred by telephone, and, Peres said, the latter pledged "to do whatever he can to bring an end to the firing" in the West Bank town of Beit Jala. Palestinian sources said European mediators had helped reach an understanding that Israeli tanks and troops would withdraw from the town if they were not shot at for at least three hours. (Story, page 7.)

The surrender of weapons by ethnic-Albanian insurgents in Macedonia so far won praise from NATO's secretary-general. George Robertson said the fact that the self-styled National Liberation Army was doing so voluntarily was more significant than the number of guns handed in. Parliament is due to consider ratification of its peace deal with the Albanians once a third of the weapons have been given up, perhaps as soon as tomorrow. Above, a NATO soldier carries away several Albanian guns at a collection point.

Eight Christian foreign aid workers arrested in Afghanistan will be tried for proselytizing, the ruling Taliban announced. But it said an investigation into the case must be completed first. Under Taliban law, the penalty for preaching Christianity is up to 10 days in jail, followed by expulsion. The eight already have been in detention for more than three weeks.

A national election five years ahead of schedule appeared possible in Sri Lanka after President Chandrika Kumaratunga's Peoples' Alliance failed to forge a unity government with the main opposition party. The alliance said it now was considering a union with the Marxist Peoples' Liberation Front, although the latter insists that Parliament be reconvened. Kumaratunga suspended it in June rather than risk losing a no-confidence vote. She can't legally disband it, forcing a new election, until Oct. 10.

Almost half a million voters were preparing to go to the polls in East Timor to choose their own leaders for the first time. UN officials, who will supervise the voting today, predicted a turnout of at least 90 percent. Sixteen parties and more than 1,000 candidates are vying for 88 seats in the constitutional assembly that will draft the fledgling nation's charter.

Despite technical problems almost up to the last minute, Japan successfully launched a new domestically built 174-foot rocket that boosted its payload into orbit. The mission carried with it hopes that the struggling space program can yet compete for a share of the global satellite-launching business. After a series of early successes in the mid-1990s, the space agency has been under intense criticism for its high cost and mechanical breakdowns.

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