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Monday, January 17, 2005; Page A14

Protests by Retirees Spreading in Russia

ST. PETERSBURG -- Retirees and veterans angered over the cutoff of welfare benefits clogged streets and paralyzed traffic in St. Petersburg, the home town of President Vladimir Putin, for a second day Sunday, and the demonstrations spread to other Russian cities.

Top government officials sought to shift the blame by accusing regional leaders of botching the management of new social programs that replaced benefits such as free medicine and public transportation with monthly government stipends.

Although St. Petersburg authorities promised to restore some benefits after 10,000 people jammed the center of Russia's second-largest city on Saturday, demonstrators returned Sunday, again snarling traffic in the center of the city.

Since the new social benefits program went into effect Jan. 1, the protests have spread to several cities across Russia's 11 time zones. Retirees were in the streets of Volga River city of Samara for a fifth day, and a rally in the southern city of Stavropol drew as many as 5,000 people.

Many of the elderly, already complaining they are treated like second-class citizens, consider the changes a final insult as they struggle to survive on meager pensions in a capitalist Russia that is plagued with double-digit inflation. Those affected by the new program lived most of their lives under a cradle-to-grave welfare system until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.


• KABUL, Afghanistan -- The U.S. military freed 81 prisoners who had been held in Afghanistan, according to Afghan officials, and the country's senior judge said the government was pressing for the release of hundreds more from U.S. custody.

President Hamid Karzai's office said the prisoners were freed before the Muslim feast of Eid al-Adha, which begins Thursday.

Two buses brought the 81 Afghan prisoners from the main U.S. base at Bagram to the Supreme Court in the capital, Kabul, where the chief justice warned them to stay out of trouble and say little about their detention.

• SEOUL -- A day after indicating a willingness to rejoin nuclear disarmament talks, North Korea returned to its anti-American rhetoric, accusing the United States of being a "nuclear criminal" with double standards. North Korea's state-run newspaper Rodong Shinmun accused Washington of "conniving at, patronizing and cooperating with the pro-American forces" in Israel, Japan and South Korea to develop nuclear arms while pressuring North Korea to abandon its program.


• PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- The interim prime minister's chief adviser was shot and wounded during a failed carjacking attempt in Haiti's capital, police said.

Raymond Lafontant was shot once in the stomach in a Port-au-Prince neighborhood when a small group of men trying to steal his car could not get it started, government spokesman Mike Joseph said.

Lafontant, chief of staff in the office of Gerard Latortue, the U.S.-backed interim prime minister, was in stable condition at a hospital in the capital, Joseph said. It did not appear Lafontant had been targeted because the gunmen did not kill him, he said.

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