NATO spokesmen conceded Thursday that they had "credible reports" of civilian casualties as the result of operations in southern Afghanistan and that, if confirmed, they'd be taken "very seriously." Alliance forces were accused of killing as many as 85 noncombatants in targeting Taliban guerrillas in an area of southern Kandahar Province. A local council member said some of the deaths occurred when guerillas ducked into civilian homes during a bombing raid. President Hamid Karzai frequently has condemned civilian loss of life at the hands of Western forces, and last week he urged NATO to use "maximum caution" to avoid causing more.

"Residents welcomed us warmly," a spokesman for Somalia's Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) said as the militia's fighters seized another key town without firing a shot. The take-over of Sakow, a farming community, puts the UIC within 105 miles of Baidoa, the seat of the weak interim government. There have been conflicting reports about whether the militia would attack Baidoa. But with that possibility at hand, the two sides are scheduled to make another try at holding peace talks Monday.

Hundreds of reinforcements are expected to help UN peacekeepers patrol Congo's capital for the runoff election Sunday between incumbent President Joseph Kabila and his challenger, Jean-Pierre Bemba. Tensions in Kinshasa and elsewhere are high because of fighting between supporters of the two candidates since the first round of balloting July 30. Kabila, who took 44.8 percent of that vote, is expected to be returned to office when results are announced next month. Bemba, a former rebel leader, finished second in a field of 32 candidates, with 20 percent of the vote.

President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and his challenger made their final campaign appearances in Brazil before Sunday's runoff election amid opinion polls showing that the incumbent would win handily. But rival Geraldo Alckmin insisted that his internal polling indicated a much closer outcome and said he expected to whittle away at the remaining margin before voters cast their ballots. Lula had been expected to win the Oct. 1 first round, but he was denied the majority needed for a second term.

A runoff Sunday also appeared likely to return Bulgaria's incumbent president to office. Low voter turnout last week cost Georgi Parvanov the majority he needed for reelection, but he since has picked up support even from key right-wing leaders who dislike his challenger, Volen Siderov. Siderov is widely seen as too nationalistic at a time when Bulgaria is about to enter the European Union. A victory by Parvanov would make him the nation's first head of state to be returned to office since the fall of communism 15 years ago.

More violence by immigrant youths erupted in Paris suburbs Wednesday night as vandals stopped buses, forced the passengers off, and then set the vehicles on fire. The attacks were the second and third in the area in a 24-hour span. They followed a march on parliament by hundreds of young immigrants earlier in the day to present a list of 20,000 grievances to legislators. Friday is the anniversary of the start of rioting by disaffected youths that rocked France for three weeks last year.

Seven Muslim groups vowed to appeal the dismissal of their lawsuit against the Danish newspaper that first published caricatures of the prophet Mohammad. The suit, which claimed that Jyllands-Posten had insulted the prophet and mocked Islam, was rejected by Aarhus City Court Thursday. The court acknowledged that the drawings, which appeared Sept. 30 last year, may have "offended some Muslims." But it found "no sufficient reason" to assume that their publication was intended to be insulting. At least 50 people were killed in rioting by mobs in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia as word of the cartoons spread and other publications reprinted them.

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