Claiming it had the active help of American troops, the opposition Northern Alliance said it captured three towns near the strategic city of Mazar-e Sharif from Taliban forces as Afghan-istan drew ever-closer to the onset of winter. But the claim could not be independently verified. The alliance, however, appeared no nearer to launching an assault on Kabul, the capital. Meanwhile, US military specialists were inspecting airfields in neighboring Tajikistan that could be useful in the effort to topple the Taliban, with senior officials saying they were in no rush for a major ground offensive. (Story, page 1.)

In a "good atmosphere," Israeli Foreign Minister and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat held a 90-minute discussion late Monday on the sidelines of an economic development conference in Belgium - their third set of talks in less than a week. But although they discussed details of a new peace plan, there was renewed fighting near Nablus in the West Bank that killed combatants on both sides. And an aide to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Israel would shift to using "guerrilla warfare" rather than large-scale troop movements to deal with Palestinian militants. (Related story, page 1.)

Angry hard-line Protestants scuffled and jeered as Northern Ireland's newly reelected first minister met with the news media to discuss his plans for governing the province. David Trimble will resume the duties he quit in July to protest the failure of the Irish Republican Army to begin disarming. But analysts said the bitter feelings among Protestants who failed in a bid to block his return was not a good sign for the future.

Blaming the US for "very strong interference," Nicaragua's onetime leftist president, Daniel Ortega, conceded defeat in his bid to return to power in last Sunday's election. But the Sandinista candidate congratulated his victorious rival, Enrique BolaƱos, and pledged a "constructive" role in opposition. Political analysts said Ortega's defeat, his third in as many tries at the hands of US-backed candidates, likely signaled the end of his presidential ambitions. (Story, page 7.)

The outcome of Saturday's long-awaited national election in Australia appeared too close to call, based on late opinion polls. The campaign, a roller-coaster ride for both parties, had conservative Prime Minister John Howard's government all but written off until its recent hard-line stand against illegal immigration and support for the US-led counterterrorism campaign. But the opposition Labor Party of Kim Beazley was closing a 5.5 percent gap in the polls because of a shift in focus back to domestic issues.

Two suspects were arrested in Madrid shortly after a car bomb exploded during rush hour, injuring 99 people. Reports said a senior Science and Technology Ministry official appeared to have been the target of the attack. Suspicion fell on a local cell of the Basque separatist movement, ETA, which detonated another bomb last month that wounded 20 people.

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