The confrontation with Western governments over Iran's nuclear ambitions has reached "its climax," former President Hashemi Rafsanjani acknowledged Thursday. But Rafsanjani, who now heads the powerful Expediency Council, told state-run radio that the government in Tehran is determined to press ahead with its agenda despite "colonial taboos," which he said will be "ignored." His comments came as the three European Union governments with which Iran has been negotiating - Britain, France, and Germany - met to decide on a response. Follow-up meetings are expected next week with Russian and Chinese representatives. A senior Chinese official told visiting US congressionmen that his government "agrees that [Iran] should not have nuclear weapons. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said it is "highly probable" that Iran will be referred to the UN Security Council for the imposition of possible sanctions.

Mehmet Ali Agca, who shot Pope John Paul II 25 years ago, walked out of prison in Istanbul, Turkey, after completing his sentence Thursday. But the nation's justice minister said the case would be reviewed "to make sure that no errors were committed" and suggested that a return to incarceration was not out of the question. As supporters cheered, Agca was driven to a military recruiting center for a physical exam to determine his fitness for army duty, which is mandatory for Turkish males. He has never offered a motive for shooting John Paul, although the pontiff forgave him two years later.

Millions of domesticated fowl will be vaccinated in Russia in the spring to try to prevent the spread of bird flu, the nation's chief epidemiologist announced Thursday. The announcement came as neighboring Turkey reported two new cases of people infected with the the deadliest strain of the virus. Those cases bring to 18 the number of Turks diagnosed with the illness. The Turkish government said it now has slaughtered 355,000 chickens, ducks, and other fowl as a precaution.

Eight more sailors were killed and eight others were wounded when suspected Tamil separatist rebels in northern Sri Lanka exploded an antipersonnel mine Thursday. The blast was the second targeting sailors in less than a week and caused the number of military deaths to rise to 69 since rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran warned two months ago that his followers would intensify the "struggle ... to establish self-government in our homeland" unless the government proposed terms that satisfied their aspirations. Analysts say the incidents threaten a return to all-out civil war.

Emergency medical personnel said at least 345 Muslim pilgrims were trampled to death on the last day of the annual hajj at Islam's holiest shrine and cautioned. Hundreds more were hurt at Mecca, Saudi Arabia, as crowds surged to complete a symbolic ritual meant to purge themselves of sin. The crush began when someone tripped over luggage and panic ensued. The tragedy was the second at Mecca in two weeks. Last Thursday, 76 pilgrims were killed in the collapse of a hostel in which they were staying.

Soldiers shoveled their way to within half a mile of a town in northwestern Japan where hundreds of people were trapped because the only access road is buried under a record 13 feet of snow. But even after the road is cleared, it is expected to remain closed for the time being because of rising temperatures that could collapse huge accumulations of snow. At least 81 Japanese have died of snow-related causes since early December. In China, avalanches due to almost continuous snow trapped hundreds of cars at a resort area, and 3.5 million head of livestock were in danger of starvation because they are unable to forage for food.

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