Peace between Israel and the Palestinians never has been closer, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Sunday. He and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas met on the sidelines of a conference in Paris to form the 43-nation Union for the Mediterranean. At the same time, in Jerusalem, Israel's prison system said it will exchange five Hezbollah militants Wednesday for two soldiers captured in 2006. Both of the latter are believed to be dead, however.

Twenty-four people, most of them civilians, were killed Sunday in Kandahar, Afghanistan, when a terrorist aboard a motorbike rode up to a busy intersection and detonated a bomb. The attack was the second of its type in a week. Fifty-five others died last Monday when a bomber rammed the gates of India's Embassy in Kabul, the capital. The Taliban did not immediately claim responsibility for Sunday's incident but did say its militants executed two women Saturday night for allegedly working as prostitutes at a US military base.

Saying, "I am ready today," President Mahinda Rajapakse of Sri Lanka offered negotiations to the nation's Tamil separatist movement, reported Sunday. But the latter must first "keep their weapons down [disarm]," he added. Thirty-one more Tamil rebels were killed in fighting over the weekend, the military said, although the claim could not be verified independently because the war zone is closed to journalists.

Pope Benedict XVI flew to Aus-tralia Sunday for the longest visit of his papacy, suggesting that he'll use the occasion to address the issue of sexual abuse there by priests. He told reporters aboard his plane he'll work "for healing and reconciliation with the victims ... just as I did in the United States" earlier this year. Victims' activists, however, said "general remarks about regret to reporters [are] not good enough. We want action, not words." Thousands of Australians are estimated to have been molested by Roman Catholic clergymen.

With a critical deadline bearing down on him, Belgium's prime minister called off his trip to the European Union-Mediterranean summit to try to achieve a compromise between Dutch- and French-speakers that would keep his coalition government from collapsing. Yves Leterme is bound by an agreement made when he came to power in March to present a formula to parliament by Tuesday. The two sides have been deadlocked for months on constitutional reforms that would ensure a balance of power.

An estimated 10,000 protesters converged on Venezuela's Supreme Court Saturday, demanding that it overturn a "blacklist" of candidates for November's state and local elections. Most of the 272 people disqualified are affiliated with parties opposed to leftist President Hugo Chávez. Chávez has denied issuing orders that they be banned and said the protesters "should be ashamed of themselves" for supporting candidates suspected of corruption.

With US-Ecuadorean relations at a low ebb, leftist President Rafael Correa said over the weekend his government will undertake a campaign to improve them. He said the effort would focus on "disproving the lies" of neighboring Colombia, a close US ally, that Ecuador has aided the rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. At the same time, he said, Ecuadorean "sovereignty has been trampled on" by Colombia and he won't follow the lead of Venezuela in repairing those damaged ties.

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