Fresh fuel rods are being installed by North Korea in a nuclear reactor it intends to reactivate, the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported. But it disputed North Korean estimates that the plant could be back in operation within two months, although its chief called the moves "very worrying." For his part, the outgoing president of rival South Korea said his country "can never go along" with a nuclear weapons-development program by the North.

Iraqi militias were holding war games and the Trade Ministry said rations were being increased so civilians can stockpile three months' worth of food as combat with the US appeared more likely. On Christmas, for the second day in a row, President Saddam Hussein urged Iraqis in a televised speech to find within themselves "great confidence in faith combined with great national pride" to sacrifice "soul and life in defense of the nation."

Israeli troops and a curfew were both back in force in Bethlehem for "operational needs" after a Christmas respite. And fenced-in buffer zones were being set up around Jewish settlements elsewhere in the West Bank to keep would-be Palestinian attackers at bay. Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told a Christmas campaign rally that peace with the Palestinians "is closer than it appears" and vowed he would not "allow this opportunity to slip through our fingers."

Voters go to the polls Friday to choose Kenya's first new president in a quarter-century, in an election almost certain to turn on the issues of corruption and the weak economy. It pits outgoing President Daniel arap Moi's hand-picked ruling party candidate Uhuru Kenyatta against two rivals, chiefly Mwai Kibaki, a former vice president and finance minister. Kibaki is widely expected to win.

A Muslim cleric accused of inciting the murders of Christians was one of four suspects in police custody in rural Pakistan after a grenade attack on a Christmas church service that killed three people and hurt 13 others. Most of those attending the service were women and children. The assailants were dressed as women.

Despite a lack of solid financial backing, a $3.2 billion deal is expected to be signed today for a natural gas pipeline project that would bring an estimated 12,000 new jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in revenues to war-torn Afghanistan. The conduit would be the largest development there since the fall of the Taliban regime. It would bring the gas to distributors in Pakistan from wells in the ex-Soviet republic of Turkmenistan.

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