Brushing aside the objections of the US and other Western observers, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Sunday's elections for a new lower house of parliament were "another step in strengthening democracy." The main complaint: that voting was skewed by the heavy use of state resources to promote the United Russia bloc, which Putin favors. It and allied parties won a huge majority - close to the two-thirds needed to amend the Constitution, allowing Putin to seek a third term.

Saying, "It's quits," hard-line Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe pulled his nation out of the Commonwealth rather than accept a one-year renewal of its suspension. Leaders of the 54-member bloc, meeting in Nigeria, expressed regret at Mugabe's move, and hoped he'd reconsider. On Sunday, the Commonwealth rejected a campaign by two of Zimbabwe's neighbors to reinstate the Mugabe regime.

Thousands of US troops began the biggest ground offensive to date against Islamic militants in Afghanistan. A spokesman said their goal is to free southern and eastern provinces from sabotage by Taliban and other Muslim militants and make the area safe for the resumption of aid and reconstruction work. The spokesman said, "The enemy isn't going to know when we hit."

A demand that the US issue a guarantee of North Korea's security at the same time the Pyongyang government agrees to end its nuclear weapons program was rejected by the Bush administration, South Korea, and Japan. In an attempt to salvage a new round of six-nation talks on the North's nuclear program before the year ends, the three formally announced their own proposal Monday for "coordinated steps" that would reward the North in stages for an "irreversible" scrapping of the nuclear program.

Hamas will soon resume terrorist bombing attacks against Israelis, senior leaders said after it and other Palestinian militant groups rejected a proposed cease-fire Sunday. But they said Hamas would take part in a further effort to reach agreement on a truce, which they expected Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia to seek. Qureia left the meeting in frustration when it became clear the truce would be rejected.

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