Radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's aide said he was hoping for a deal to spare the Iraqi holy city of Najaf from assault by US troops as 64 of his followers died in the heaviest fighting since their revolt began three weeks ago. Sadr is taking refuge in the city, but is under an ultimatum to empty its mosques of his militiamen. A US military spokesman said the battle outside Najaf began as American troops moved into a base that had been occupied by Spanish soldiers.

The new prime minister of Spain won applause from parliament for announcing that all of the nation's soldiers in Iraq were en route home. "We should not have gone," José Luis Rod-riguez Zapatero said. "Therefore, we had to return as soon as possible." Only logistics specialists who are shipping home materiel used by the troops remain behind, and their work should be complete by May 27, he said.

The damage from last week's devastating explosion at a railway station in North Korea was estimated by the government at $356 million. But it set a 90-day target for completing rebuilding efforts "to enable the people in the affected area to live better than before." The government rejected an offer from South Korea to send doctors to the scene, but it asked for bulldozers, cement, diesel fuel, and school supplies. The UN appealed for 1,000 tons of donated food for survivors.

South African President Thabo Mbeki hailed "our second decade of democracy" as he took the oath of office for a new term on Freedom Day, the anniversary of the end of apartheid, April 27, 1994. But he acknowledged the nation has yet to conquer widespread poverty, high unemployment, and an AIDS epidemic. He told hundreds of visiting dignitaries and guests: "We are determined that no one ever has grounds to say he or she has been denied [a] place in the sun."

Nine political dissidents were sentenced in the first trial of Castro regime opponents in Cuba in a year. Blind human rights activist Juan Carlos Gonzalez Leyva drew the stiffest sentence, four years, but he and his codefendants already have been behind bars since March 4, 2002, when they were arrested as they tried to visit a journalist who'd been beaten by police. Last April, a court found 75 dissidents guilty of conspiring to overthrow the regime and sentenced them to prison terms of up to 28 years.

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