In another new sign of the growing warmth between China and Taiwan, the former offered $19 billion in loans for companies that do business on the mainland. The Beijing government also will consider any request for help during the global economic downturn, senior officials said. Taiwanese exports hit a three-year low last month. Last week, the two sides agreed to lift three-decade-old barriers to air and sea travel.

If ordered, Israeli forces could "conquer" the Gaza Strip, senior officers told the Jerusalem Post as Palestinian rockets fell on Ashkelon and the border town of Sderot. Israeli jets responded with a missile strike that took out a rocket launcher and killed one Palestinian. Tensions along the border have escalated rapidly since the cease-fire between Hamas and Israel ended last Friday.

In a defiant speech to his party's annual convention, President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe said he'd never go to his "political death" by surrendering power. He also vowed not to allow a unity government to reverse his controversial policy of confiscating white-owned farms. Mugabe urged the ZANU-PF movement to prepare for a new national election if the stalled power-sharing negotiations collapse. Against that backdrop, the US no longer can support the power-sharing plan if it leaves Mugabe in office, senior envoy Jendayi Frazer said Sunday.

With invocations by both Hindu and Muslim clerics, two hotels in Mumbai, India, that were at the center of last month's terrorist attacks reopened partially Sunday. But guards at the Oberoi and Taj Mahal checked the identity papers of all arrivals, and they and their luggage had to pass by sniffer dogs and through metal detectors and X-ray scanners. The reopening was largely symbolic, since India's vital tourism industry already was experiencing a down year when the attacks occurred.

Riot police waded into an apparent Christmas celebration Sunday in Vladivostok, Russia, beating and arresting dozens of participants as well as journalists covering the event. The gathering came one day after an estimated 1,000 residents demonstrated against the Kremlin's announced tax increase on foreign-built cars. The cars are in high demand even when used because drivers consider them superior to Russian-made vehicles. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said the tax hike is necessary to protect the domestic auto industry.

Even though Ecuador's government defaulted on $31 million worth of debt repayments, earlier this month, leftist President Rafael Correa sought to assure most other lenders Saturday that they'll get their money back. He specifically cited the Inter-American Development Bank and Corporacion Andina de Fomento, saying, "they are ours." But he warned that the plummeting price of crude oil on international markets likely will cause his government to seek new loans.

Deposed President Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi of Mauritania was freed from house arrest Sunday, 4-1/2 months after soldiers toppled him from power. It was not clear, however, whether the move was in response to international pressure. The US, France, and the African Union all suspended aid to Mauritania, pending his release. Reports said Abdallahi is expected to participate in a "national consultation meeting" on Saturday.

Rebels staged a pre-dawn attack on an Army base in northern Mali Saturday, and both sides reportedly took heavy casualties. At least 20 people were killed, the Defense Ministry said, and an unspecified number of others were wounded. Still more were taken hostage by the attackers. The battle was the first since the government and Tuareg militants signed a peace accord in July.

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