A powerful bomb in a van disguised as an ambulance exploded outside a hotel favored by Westerners in Baghdad early Wednesday. US military sources said only the driver died in the attack, disputing reports that at least four others had been killed. But 17 people were hurt and property damage was heavy. The blast contributed to what has been one of the worst weeks of postwar violence so far. On Tuesday, six US soldiers, two Iraqi civilians, and two CNN employees were killed in bombings and ambushes. Against that backdrop, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan stressed Wednesday that his decision to send a team to Iraq to assess whether national elections are feasible does not mean an early return of the organization's other missions. "Security will be determinate," he said.

US forces in Afghanistan were alerted to prepare for a new "spring offensive" against Taliban and Al Qaeda elements, but defense officials refused to discuss the possibility that it might extend into neighboring Pakistan. That is the region in which Osama bin Laden has long been believed to be hiding. The Chicago Tribune, which broke the news, cited defense officials as saying the offensive is aimed at hitting Al Qaeda units hard because of its suspected role in two recent assassination attempts on Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, a key US ally. Meanwhile, the Taliban claimed responsibility for the car-bomb explosion Wednesday in Kabul that killed a British NATO soldier, the second such incident in two days.

The BBC came under withering criticism for its report on the British government's handling of prewar intelligence on Iraq's weapons program - a situation that led to the suicide of the only source for the story. In a nationally televised summary of his findings, the judge assigned to investigate the matter exonerated Prime Minister Blair's government of any blame for the death last July of weapons expert David Kelly. The BBC's account alleged that the government had "sexed up" its dossier on Iraq to justify British participation in the war. Blair demanded a "full, open, and clear" retraction of the BBC account. The exoneration was his second major victory Tuesday. Earlier, Parliament narrowly passed his controversial plan to hike tuition for university students.

Admitting to "human errors," the contrite prime minister of Thailand drew parallels between the spreading "bird flu" virus and last year's SARS outbreak in Asia. But Thaksin Shinawatra told an emergency conference of health experts in Bangkok, "Our top priority is to get the situation under control." Thaksin has been accused by political opponents of covering up evidence of the disease for weeks, until two children died. Meanwhile, human deaths in the region from "bird flu" rose to 10 in as many countries, and China announced the slaughter of 60,000 chickens as a precaution.

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