THE MIDDLE EAST

Likud Close to Joining Barak's Coalition

TEL AVIV -- After a series of secret contacts, the hard-line Likud party appeared poised to take a central role in the next Israeli government, despite concerns by Prime Minister-elect Ehud Barak's dovish allies that the coalition would slow the peace process.

Ariel Sharon, the hawkish leader of Likud, met twice with Barak in less than 24 hours and told members of his own party that the two leaders had been secretly working out terms for Likud's participation in the new government.

Barak has said he wants to establish the broadest coalition possible to give him a free hand in peace talks, but Sharon hinted that Likud's role would be more senior to that of other partners in a coalition.

Iran Blames Slayings on `Foreign Hands'

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- Foreigners trying to tarnish Iran's image aided in a string of murders of dissident intellectuals late last year, Iran's military prosecutor said.

The killings, which shocked the nation because of acknowledged involvement by Iranian intelligence agents, made headlines again when the top suspect reportedly killed himself Saturday in prison.

Military prosecutor Mohammad Niyazi said in a Tehran radio interview: "We have evidence and confessions that foreign hands were involved in the killings. We cannot say more because the investigations are not over. But the aim of the murders was to start infighting among the different political groups in the country."

Iranian Opposition Denies Arrest of Guerrillas

CAIRO -- Iran's main rebel group denied that the government had detained some of the guerrillas who killed a senior general.

Iranian television reported Monday that security forces in southern Iran had killed a dissident and detained others suspected in the April 10 assassination of Brig. Gen. Ali Sayyad Shirazi, deputy chief of the joint staff command of the armed forces.

"This claim is a sheer lie," said the People's Mujaheddin Organization. In a statement faxed to the Associated Press in Cairo, the Iraq-based group said the guerrillas who "punished" Shirazi were "all safe and sound and unharmed."

EUROPE

N. Ireland Protestant Leader Rips U.K. Official

BELFAST -- Northern Ireland's main Protestant leader, David Trimble, effectively demanded the resignation yesterday of Marjorie Mowlam, Britain's Northern Ireland secretary.

"One of the great difficulties we have had in implementing the Good Friday agreement has been the widespread lack of confidence in the community with regard to what the secretary of state does," Trimble was quoted as saying in the London Evening Standard.

But British Prime Minister Tony Blair dismissed the idea and, sticking firmly to a June 30 deadline to end a deadlock over last year's Good Friday peace agreement, delivered a take-it-or-leave-it warning last night to politicians whose feuding over guerrilla disarmament has paralyzed the peace process.

"We have gone on talking and talking and talking," Blair said on Northern Ireland television. "At some point people have got to make up their minds."

Bomber Who Targeted Thatcher Set Free

BELFAST -- The Irish Republican Army member who tried to kill British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1984 was freed from Northern Ireland's main anti-terrorist prison.

Patrick Magee received eight life sentences for his role in the bombing of the Conservative Party annual conference in southern England, an attack that killed four people but missed Thatcher.

The judge who sentenced Magee recommended no parole for at least 35 years, but he became the 277th paramilitary prisoner -- about half of them IRA members -- to be freed early as part of the 1998 Good Friday peace accord.

Belgians Link Food Scare to Motor Oil

BRUSSELS -- Belgium charged two managers of a fat recycling firm with fraud as the inquest into a tainted food scare focused on possible contamination of animal feed with motor oil.

"There are two people who have been questioned by the judge, a brother and sister, the two managers of the business. The woman was released, but with conditions," said Nicole De Rouck, spokeswoman for the Ghent public prosecutor.

De Rouck, whose office is investigating how cancer-causing dioxin entered the food chain, said it was possible that motor oil had been mixed with frying fat at Fogra, a fat- and oil-recycling firm that supplies fat to animal feed makers.

French Health Insurer Sues Tobacco Firms

PARIS -- A local branch of France's national health insurance program has filed suit against four tobacco companies for $8.1 million, blaming them for smoking-related diseases.

The lawsuit against Philip Morris, Rothmans, R.J. Reynolds and the French giant Seita is a first in France, where smoking remains widely tolerated and socially acceptable.

Seita called the lawsuit "groundless," saying in a statement it plans to claim damages for "improper procedure." The suit against the tobacco manufacturers was filed last week in a court in the Atlantic coastal city of Saint-Nazaire.

ASIA

N. Korea Demands Apology Before More Talks

BEIJING -- North Korea accused South Korea of deliberately pushing their rivalry "to the brink of war," marring the highest-level talks between the two governments in 14 months.

After just 90 minutes of talks, the North Korean delegation said it would not meet again with South Korean officials until Seoul was ready to apologize for a naval clash last week in disputed waters of the Yellow Sea.

The meeting, taking place on the neutral ground of Beijing, was scheduled to deal with reuniting families separated by the Korean War and aid for the famine-stricken North. But after a friendly greeting to his South Korean counterpart in front of reporters, the North's negotiator, Pak Yong Su, accused Seoul of engineering the Yellow Sea clash.

Bomb in Indian Rail Station Kills Eight

NEW DELHI -- A bomb packed inside a suitcase exploded at a railway station in northeastern India, killing at least eight people and wounding 58 others. The dead included three soldiers sipping tea on the platform of New Jalpaiguri station, 400 miles north of Calcutta, the Press Trust of India news agency said.

QUOTE OF THE DAY

"I have lived in a decadent capitalist society where the workers are slaves."

Lee Harvey Oswald, asking for Soviet asylum in a 1959 letter that Russian President Boris Yeltsin handed over to President Clinton on Sunday -- Page A15