If Palestinian militants "agree to a cease-fire," Israel will reciprocate by scaling back military operations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, a senior defense official suggested. Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and other Palestinian radical organizations opened a conference in Cairo Thursday to consider proposals for a partial halt in attacks against civilians inside Israel and a broader truce aimed at inducing significant concessions by the Jewish state. Previous meetings in Egypt have accomplished little, however. And an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said a cease-fire would be only "the first step," that it must be total and must be followed by the dismantling of militant groups.

Defense Secretary Rumsfeld was unhurt after a rocket exploded near the US Embassy in Afghanistan's capital shortly after he'd met with President Hamid Karzai. The attack was blamed on Taliban militants. An ambush in southwestern Farah Province a few hours earlier, also blamed on the Taliban, killed a government census-taker and wounded 11 others traveling in a convoy. Still, Rumsfeld and Karzai told a news conference in Kabul that such incidents cannot prevent Afghanistan's "path to freedom" and were not likely to delay next June's national election.

Citing its own strategic interest, Australia announced it will join the US antiballistic missile-defense program against potential attack by rogue states such as North Korea. Defense Minister Robert Hill said participation would be limited to research and to the deployment of antimissile hardware aboard new naval destroyers. There are no plans to base such hardware on Australian soil, he said. Meanwhile, Tokyo's Mainichi newspaper said Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koi-zumi soon will ask "top government officials" to approve joining the US in the antimissile system against possible attack by neighboring North Korea.

With hard-line President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe conspicuously absent, the 54-nation Commonwealth opens its summit conference Friday in Abuja, Nigeria. Host President Olusegun Obasanjo told Mugabe last week he wasn't welcome, and British Prime Minister Tony Blair is expected to ask for consideration of tougher sanctions against Zimbabwe because of the Mugabe government's authoritarian approach to human rights and dissent. Mugabe has threatened to pull Zimbabwe, which is already suspended, out of the bloc.

There will be no further cutback in the production of crude oil for the duration of winter in the Northern Hemisphere, delegates to OPEC's meeting in Vienna decided. But the cartel, which controls half the world's trade in crude, scheduled a meeting in February at which it's expected to approve a cut as demand for home-heating oil eases. The cartel OK'd a 900,000-barrel-a-day production cut Sept. 24.

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