Hundreds of civilian contractors were being evacuated from Iraq by the Russian government, but coalition partners of the US reaffirmed their commitment to stay the course. Despite the kidnappings or executions of their nationals by Iraqi resisters, Italy, Japan, and the Philippines pledged to keep their troops in place. Meanwhile, US marines were building an earthen barrier around Fallujah as heavy fighting with resisters resumed.

A new taped message, the 16th purportedly from Osama bin Laden since the 2001 terrorist attacks in the US, offers a three-month truce to European nations "that do not attack Muslim countries." The message, referencing the March 11 terrorist bombings in Spain, says the truce would begin as soon as European troops are withdrawn from Iraq and that it could be extended. The British, Italian, and German governments quickly rejected the offer, which analysts said is aimed at driving a wedge between them and the US.

Urgent meetings of the Palestinian leadership were being held in the West Bank to decide on a response to the backing Wednesday by President Bush of Israel's "disengagement" plan. But support for their cause came quickly from the Arab League, the European Union, and the UN's top human rights agency, and Yasser Arafat vowed that Palestinians never would give up their demand for the "right of return" to properties inside Israel abandoned in the 1948 war. Meanwhile, Palestinian legislators said Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia was weighing whether to resign and abolish the post.

Voters punished the members of South Korea's National Assembly who impeached President Roh Moo-hyun last month, giving a leftist party control of the legislature for the first time. Exit polls showed the Uri Party, which backs Roh, winning as many as 172 seats in the 299-seat assembly. The opposition Grand National Party conceded defeat, but called the election "flawed."

With vote-counting almost complete, Macedonian Prime Minister Branko Crvenkovski held an eight-point lead over his closest rival in Wednesday's presidential election - too small a margin to avoid an April 28 runoff. Although the nation remains divided between Macedonian nationalists and the ethnic Albanian minority, which fielded two candidates against Crvenkovski, foreign poll-watchers said the election was "largely consistent with international standards."

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