Gunmen assassinated an Oil Ministry engineer in Baghdad on Thursday, while an aide to Iraq's top Shiite cleric, a policeman, and the policeman's father were shot dead in separate attacks elsewhere, officials and relatives said. Amid the violence, Iranian foreign minister Kamal Kharrazi met here Thursday with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's top Shiite Muslim cleric. No details were immediately available on the meeting's agenda, but both men have called for calm in Iraq amid an increased number of apparent tit-for-tat killings between the Shiite and Sunni populations.

Nur-Pashi Kulayev, the sole defendant in the trial over last September's deadly school hostage seizure in Beslan, Russia, pleaded innocent Thursday in an emotional session that saw angry relatives hurling themselves at court bailiffs in frustration over the slow pace of the proceedings. The attack ended on Sept. 3 in the deaths of more than 330 people, more than half of them children. Prosecutors spent nearly two two days reading a list of victims and medical details in the Vladikavkaz courtroom.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair met Northern Ireland's hard-line Protestant and Catholic leaders Thursday in hope of reviving a stalled power-sharing agreement. Gerry Adams, whose Sinn Fein party is backed by most Catholics, repeated his call for the Irish Republican Army to abandon its arms in favor of politics.

Government troops easily retook an eastern Uzbek town from a rebel group that had earlier vowed to fight to build an Islamic state in the former Soviet republic, and arrested their leaders, residents said Thursday. About 200 government forces reportedly moved into Korasuv overnight, occupying the town that lies on the border with Kyrgyzstan. Relatives of a farmer turned rebel leader who claimed Wednesday to have 5,000 supporters who would fight government forces with knives if necessary, said his house was raided before dawn by special forces, who hauled him and his teenage son away.

South Korea couldn't get North Korea to agree Thursday to return to the nuclear negotiating table but did convince the communist country to set talks next month where the issue is certain to come up again. In the meantime, the North is expected to respond to an apparent overture from Washington, which held a secret meeting last Friday at Pyongyang's UN office.

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