The US and Britain are moving ahead with plans to invade Iraq regardless of whether UN weapons inspectors find any evidence of a banned arms program, that nation's deputy prime minister alleged Thursday. Tariq Aziz spoke to a delegation of European antiwar activists in Baghdad as UN inspectors checked, and rechecked, sites in and around the Iraqi capital. US defense officials, meanwhile, said more than 11,000 troops trained in desert warfare were being sent to the Persian Gulf in the first deployment of a full combat division to the region since the 1991 Gulf War.

Israeli forces backed by helicopter gunships raided three refugee camps in the central Gaza Strip Thursday, clashing with gunmen in the militant strongholds. An unspecified number of Palestinians were injured and at least 13 others were detained, Palestinian emergency workers and security officials said. Elsewhere, Israeli police killed an armed Palestinian who invaded a home in the Israeli village of Maor, near the West Bank.

Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was sworn in as Brazil's president Jan. 1, pledging in his inauguration speech to make ending hunger, poverty, and corruption his top priorities. The first leftist to rule South America's largest economy in 40 years asked for patience in implementing his ambitious social agenda. "No one can reap the fruit before planting the trees," he said. Among foreign dignitaries attending the ceremony were embattled President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and Cuba's Fidel Castro.

China plans to launch its first manned space mission by the end of this year, the state-run China News Service reported. The announcement followed Monday's successful launch of Shenzhou IV, a spacecraft carrying equipment, but no occupants. To date, the US and Russia (and formerly the Soviet Union) are the only nations to have sent humans into space on their own.

Authorities in Veracruz, Mexico, were investigating an explosion and fire that killed at least 28 people and consumed an entire city block on New Year's Eve. More than 40 people were injured in the blaze, set off by boxes of illegal fireworks, and 47 others remain unaccounted for, officials said.

At least 19 people have died since Dec. 25 due to subzero cold in northern India, officials for Uttar Pradesh state said. Temperatures in parts of the neighboring state of Himachai Pradesh fell to 14 degrees F. Wednesday. The region is home to the bulk of India's poor population.

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