A six-month truce between Israel and Palestinian militants began Thursday in the Gaza Strip. But up to the last minute, Palestinians fired rockets and mortars into Israel, and the latter retaliatied with airstrikes. If the truce holds, Israel will be obligated to ease its blockade of Gaza in two stages, beginning Sunday, allowing in needed supplies. In a final stage, Israel and Hamas would discuss reopening a key border crossing between Gaza and Egypt in exchange for the release of kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit.

NATO and Afghan forces pushed Taliban guerrillas out of the villages they'd seized earlier this week near the southern city of Kandahar. But an alliance spokesman declined to confirm the regional governor's claim that "hundreds" of Taliban died or were wounded in the offensive. NATO said fighting had been relatively light and that its units had found fewer Taliban than expected. But analysts maintained that the size and swiftness of the NATO/Afghan response suggested otherwise.

Four more of its activists were found murdered in Zimbabwe, the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) said Thursday as another African leader contended that next week's presidential runoff election "will never be free or fair." Tanzanian Foreign Minister Bernard Membe said urgent action was needed "so we can save Zimbabwe." Reports also said that South African leader Thabo Mbeki, visiting Zimbabwe on Wednesday, urged that the runoff be canceled and that the MDC and President Robert Mugabe discuss sharing power.

The former Soviet republic of Lithuania "would consider the possibility" of serving as an alternative site for the proposed US antimissile system, its defense minister revealed. If asked, "we should consider all the pluses and minuses," Jaczas Olekas said. But "there are no negotiations on this issue," he told a public radio station. Lithuania adjoins Poland, currently in US plans for the system. But progress on siting missile silos in Poland has slowed since the latter's new liberal government assumed power last November.

Beginning Friday, anyone on Taiwan may sail directly to mainland China rather than having to enter via a third point, such as Hong Kong, authorities said. The Mainland Affairs Council said travelers will be able to go via the offshore islands of Kinmen and Matsu, a privilege previously open only to island residents. Negotiators for Taiwan and China also recently agreed to allow direct weekend charter flights, beginning next month.

Oil industry giant Royal Dutch/Shell shut down its flagship production platform off the coast of Nigeria until further notice after militants attacked it Wednesday night. The field produces 200,000 barrels of crude a day, and taking it offline cuts Nigeria's output by 10 percent. Shell's rig is 65 miles at sea, a distance previously thought too far for militants to reach by boat. The attackers seized one worker en route but failed in their goal of destroying the computerized control room.

By a five-vote margin, members of parliament in Sweden passed a law that gives authorities broad power to monitor international telephone calls, e-mail, and faxes without a court order. The measure, said to be the most far-reaching in Europe, was vehemently opposed by civil libertarians. But proponents argued it is necessary to strengthen security against the increasing use of technology to plan terrorist attacks.

Forensics experts in British Columbia were investigating whether the latest discovery of a human foot – the second in three days – is related to any of the previous five that have washed up on Vancouver beaches or nearby Vancouver Island in less than a year. None has been linked yet to a missing person, and oceanographers say such discoveries in "one localized area" are highly unusual. The phenomenon has attracted international news coverage.

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