Hamas leaders were planning their official visit to Moscow later this month at the invitation of Russian President Vladimir Putin, despite the outrage of senior Israelis. A spokesman for the militant organization said it does not expect Putin to try to impose any conditions for the visit, such as halting attacks against Israelis or recognizing the Jewish state. Putin's invitation is seen as weakening the stand taken earlier this winter by the quartet of negotiators for Middle East peace, which also includes the US, the UN, and the European Union. All had called on Hamas to renounce violence and extend recognition to Israel. One Israeli cabinet minister said Sunday that despite his government's unhappiness over the invitation there would be no harsh response.
Muslim anger at published caricatures of the prophet Muhammad entered a new week, with largely peaceful protests in Paris, Berlin, and Ankara, Turkey. But Denmark withdrew its diplomats from Indonesia, saying there were fears for their safety. Pakistan's ruling party and hard-line Islamists called a nationwide strike for March 3 and urged a boycott of goods from all countries where the images have been reprinted. The top cleric in Saudi Arabia said Muslims should reject all apologies for publishing the art. Meanwhile, there was further violence Sunday at Nebe Elias, a West Bank village, where graffitti equating the prophet with a pig was found on the wall of a mosque. Israeli soldiers erased it but were stoned by Palestinian youths. Three youths were wounded when the soldiers fired to break up the protest.
Worry over bird flu deepened, especially in Europe, after confirmed cases of the most serious strain, H5N1, were reported by Italian, Greek, Bulgarian, and Slovenian authorities. All cases were found in migratory swans. The outbreaks in Italy and Greece were believed to be the first among member states of the European Union, and Italy's Health Ministry was convening an emergency meeting of veterinarians Sunday to discuss responsive measures. Although the virus was detected in southern provinces, winter sports fans from around the world are attending the Olympic Games at Turin, which are in their third day.
Despite his widely expected victory, presidential candidate René Préval appeared to fall just short of the majority needed to avoid a runoff election in Haiti, official results indicated late Saturday. With three-quarters of the ballots counted, he held a 49.6 percent to 11.6 percent lead over his closest rival, Leslie Managat in the race to succeed the ousted Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Both are former presidents, and Preval is an Aristide protégé. A runoff, if necessary, would be scheduled for March 19. The 15-member Caribbean Community said Saturday that Haiti would be eligible to rejoin if the election was deemed fair.
Allies of beleaguered King Gyanendra and other candidates backed by his government won 58 mayoral races in Nepal's controversial local election, authorities said. A spokesman for the Foreign Ministry hailed the results Sunday as "a clear ... victory against terror that has derailed democracy for years." He rejected criticism of the election by the Bush administration, Britain, and other Western governments as "insolent." Fewer than half of the 4,100 offices at stake were contested, however, as opposition parties boycotted and many would-be candidates chose not to run due to threats against their safety by communist rebels.
Fifteen more men died in a coal mine in northern China after test-drilling struck a pocket of poisonous gas. Forty-one other miners escaped harm in the accident, which happened late Friday. The Xinhua news agency said production at the mine recently rose from 60,000 tons a year to 300,000, although there was no indication that the disaster - at least the fifth in China since mid-November - was connected to that expansion.