ASIA

U.S. Craft Head to Troubled Korean Waters

SEOUL -- U.S. ships and planes headed to the waters off the Korean peninsula today, but North Korean vessels were keeping their distance following a deadly exchange with South Korea in the Yellow Sea this week.

A Pentagon spokesman, U.S. Navy Capt. Mike Doubleday, told reporters in Washington the cruiser Vincennes, now off Japan, would move off Korea with another ship he did not identify. A number of EA-6B surveillance and electronic warfare planes were also heading to the area to monitor events, although Doubleday stressed that tension had eased since an exchange of fire Tuesday in which a North Korean torpedo boat was sunk.

N. Korea Reportedly Tests Missile Further

TOKYO -- North Korea has been conducting propulsion tests on a long-range missile that could reach Alaska, Japanese media reported.

Quoting unnamed U.S. military sources, NHK public television said reclusive North Korea in April started experimental propulsion tests of a Taepodong 2 missile with a range of up to 3,750 miles.

The U.S. military sources did not rule out the possibility of Pyongyang test-firing the newly developed Taepodong 2 missile by the end of this year, NHK said.

Citing information obtained through U.S. intelligence satellites, the sources said the launch pad for the Taepodong 2 ballistic missile has been enlarged and fuel has been transported to storehouses, Kyodo news agency said. The sources were quoted as saying, however, that a launch was not imminent because the missile has not been placed at the pad or fueled.

Indonesian Military Boosts Megawati

JAKARTA, Indonesia -- Indonesia's powerful military boosted presidential front-runner Megawati Sukarnoputri's prospects yesterday with a declaration that it would back a woman president if she had strong popular support.

Armed forces spokesman Brig. Gen. Sudrajat said the military would use its political weight to push democracy and protect the unity of the world's fourth most populous nation.

"We do not discriminate between men and women in terms of our leader, as long as the people agree to elect her and as long as the election is democratic, transparent, free and fair," he told Reuters news agency in an interview.

Mahathir Tells Party to Prepare for Elections

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia -- Malaysia's prime minister told his party to prepare for elections but refused to say when they would be held.

Kicking off the annual convention of his United Malays National Organization, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad met with senior leaders and state-level managers at the party's headquarters. "I told them to be prepared," Mahathir said after the closed meeting. "I told them how, if we are not careful, we will lose our support."

Anwar Judge Allows Controversial Evidence

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia -- The judge in Anwar Ibrahim's sodomy trial today dismissed defense objections and admitted as evidence a controversial confession by the former finance minister's adopted brother saying the two had had sex.

High Court Judge Arifin Jaka allowed the prosecution to introduce court documents stemming from the adopted brother's conviction in September on a charge of having been sodomized by Anwar. Defense lawyers strongly objected, saying the documents would prejudice the the separate sodomy case against Anwar and his adopted brother.

The judge yesterday rejected Anwar's motion to have the case thrown out on the grounds the prosecution had tried to frame trumped-up charges against the former deputy prime minister and his adopted brother, Sukma Darmawan.

EUROPE

Pope Returns to Polish Town of His Birth

WADOWICE, Poland -- Back on his feet after a brief bout of flu, Pope John Paul II returned to his birthplace yesterday, recalling his old friends, his days as an altar boy and his mother who "filled my childhood with love."

"Welcome home, welcome home!" the 160,000 townspeople and visitors gathered to greet him shouted repeatedly, starting as soon as his helicopter landed.

The Vatican said the pope, 79, had recovered and would complete the 13-day trip as planned, after canceling all public appearances and staying in bed on Tuesday. Still, the Vatican dropped a last-minute trip to Armenia planned for Friday.

Poland's Former Communists Dissolve Party

WARSAW -- Poland's former communists dissolved their party -- the core of the main opposition in parliament -- and formed a new party, a move critics called an attempt to avoid paying money it owes the state.

The national congress of the Social Democracy of Poland voted 275-1 with two abstentions to dissolve the party that succeeded Poland's communist party in 1990, taking over its property and hard currency accounts. Instead of the Social Democracy of Poland, the ex-communists will be known as the Democratic Left Alliance, to distance themselves from their communist heritage.

THE MIDDLE EAST

U.S. Backs Britain on Easing Iraq Curbs

UNITED NATIONS -- The United States supported for the first time a partial suspension of sanctions against Iraq, providing Baghdad answered outstanding issues on its weapons of mass destruction.

Chief U.S. representative Peter Burleigh told reporters Washington "was pleased" with a British draft resolution circulated Tuesday that would suspend sanctions on Iraqi exports, such as oil, if disarmament requirements were met.

"We have some problems with small parts of it, but by and large it is something the U.S. can support," Burleigh said. But the resolution was expected to be rebuffed by key Security Council members Russia, China and France.

Saudi Arabia Makes Rare Cabinet Changes

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- Saudi Arabia made few changes in its second cabinet reshuffle in nearly 25 years, opting, analysts and diplomats said, for continuity to see through economic and social reforms.

All key ministers, including oil and finance, kept their jobs and just five new ones were named to a cabinet expected to steer the world's largest oil producer through a fragile oil market.

The only ministers to be replaced were labor, planning, Islamic affairs and pilgrimage affairs. A civil service ministry was added to the cabinet.

QUOTE OF THE DAY

"It was a catastrophe up here. We were on the defensive for months."

Jeton Jusufi, a Kosovo Liberation Army guerrilla. -- Page A29