Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert promised to meet soon with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas "to exhaust progress" toward a settlement on the Jewish state's final borders. Meeting with King Abdullah II of Jordan, Olmert said: "Political stalemate in the Middle East is bad for Israel, bad for the Palestinians, and bad for Jordan and the region." For his part, Abdullah said there could be no substitute for a negotiated settlement to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. He also expressed worry at the "deteriorating economic and humanitarian situation" in Palestinian areas under the new Hamas-led government, with which Abbas is feuding.

Already tenuous relations between the Bush administration and the UN worsened after Secretary-General Kofi Annan's top deputy accused the US of withholding support and not defending the organization against its critics. Annan refused to repudiate Mark Malloch Brown's remarks and said through an aide that he "agrees with" their thrust. Brown complained in a speech Wednesday that the UN receives little gratitude for advancing American policies in sensitive areas of the world and warned, "You will lose the UN one way or another" unless support increases. US Ambassador John Bolton hit back, calling the remarks "patronizing" and the worst mistake he'd seen by a UN official in more than a decade.

What was to have been the first meeting in months between Tamil separatist rebel representatives and those of Sri Lanka's government failed to take place Thursday. Negotiators for the rebels refused to attend because the government had sent a civil servant rather than a cabinet minister to lead its delegation, a Tamil news outlet reported. The meeting in Oslo was to have covered the role of a Scandinavian team that is monitoring the increasingly fragile 2002 truce between the two sides. Meanwhile, a rebel statement blamed government troops for a land-mine explosion that killed 10 Tamils and wounded 13 others Wednesday in a town in eastern Sri Lanka. The Army denied that its forces operate in that area.

Five foreign employees of a natural gas plant in the Nigerian delta who were kidnaped 24 hours earlier would be set free Thursday afternoon, their captors pledged. The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) said the decision to release the five South Korean contractors was made because its imprisoned leader had appealed for their freedom. It was the leader's own release that MEND had sought by seizing the Koreans in a predawn raid Wednesday. A MEND spokes-man, however, warned Royal Dutch/Shell, for which the five were working, to pull out of the area or "face even more drastic action" in the weeks ahead.

Two huge paper mills being built on the border between Uruguay and Argentina will cause serious pollution and wreck tourism, the latter argued before the UN's International Court of Justice Thursday. Argentina's lawyers asked the court to order an immediate halt to work on the $1.9 billion project. Uruguay is scheduled to present its case before the 15-judge panel Friday. It maintains that effluent discharged by the plants will be within internationally tolerated levels. The dispute, which has soured relations between the two nations, reached the court after 10 rounds of negotiations failed to resolve it.

Eighteen thousand frightened villagers boarded all available means of transportation or fled on foot Thursday as Indonesia's Mt. Merapi volcano vented searing heat and its largest burst of gas, ash, and lava yet. Some scientists speculated that the increased activity may have been stimulated by the powerful earthquake that struck central Java May 27 and by subsequent aftershocks. Still, vulcanologists said Thursday's activity wasn't "the major slide we are waiting for" and that they could not project when that might come. Merapi last erupted in 1994, killing about 70 people.

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