In some of its most belligerent language yet, the North Korean government said it would deal "merciless punishment" if "arrogant US hawks" dared to provoke a nuclear war. It said its forces would "destroy the earth" in such an event. The tone followed a warning by US Defense Secretary Rumsfeld Monday that the communist North should not try to take advantage of US preoccupation with Iraq to further its nuclear ambitions.

Christmas Eve was spent by many Venezuelans in long lines, at banks, supermarkets, and gas stations, waiting to draw out cash to buy food and fuel that the government was putting into distribution. Tens of thousands of antigovernment protesters (some of them above) also staged another demonstration outside the idle national oil company, which President Hugo Chávez has vowed to restart. Since the nationwide strike against him began Dec. 2, the world's fifth-largest oil exporter has shipped only 2.7 million barrels of crude, an amount usually sent out each day.

A new 10-point peace plan was to be offered by Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo as the Monitor went to press Tuesday. First reports said it would propose a referendum on some issues behind the ongoing revolt by dissident Army troops as well as a government of national unity. In October, the two sides agreed to a truce and peace negotiations. But fighting has resumed, and the talks have made little headway.

A leading activist for democracy was expected by relatives in the US after being freed from prison in China Tuesday. Xu Wenli was granted early release on medical grounds after an appeal to Chinese authorities by the State Department. He was jailed in 1998 for "endangering state security" because he and others had tried to found the China Democracy Party.

Suspicion fell on Muslim rebels for a Christmas Eve bomb explosion in the southern Philippines that killed 13 people, one of them a mayor, and injured 12 more. The attack came despite intense security in the region to guard against potential terrorism at churches and other sites frequented by Christians. The mayor had survived a previous assassination attempt, apparently for his efforts to build a road into a zone used as a Moro Islamic Liberation Front base.

Pilot error was blamed for the crash of a turboprop airliner on approach to Isfahan, Iran, Tuesday, killing at least 46 people. Most were engineers sent to watch the first test flight of a new plane jointly built by Iran- ian and Ukrainian companies.

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