THE AMERICAS

Venezuelans Say Missing Plane Hijacked

CARACAS, Venezuela -- Leftist rebels have hijacked a commercial airliner that went missing with 16 people aboard, a Venezuelan army general said yesterday.

Searchers have failed to locate the plane, which left Friday from the Venezuelan city of Barinas for the town of Guadualito on the Colombian border.

Authorities have concluded the plane was hijacked by Colombia's National Liberation Army, or ELN, said Gen. Vidal Rigoberto Martinez.

"We are sure the aircraft is in the hands of a Colombian guerrilla group," Martinez said.

There was no immediate reaction or confirmation from the ELN, Colombia's second-largest rebel band.

Colombians Search for Car Bomb Suspects

MEDELLIN, Colombia -- Security forces picked through ruined buildings and scoured the city of Medellin for signs of Marxist rebels who set off a huge car bomb that killed 10 people and maimed 38 others Friday.

The blast was one of the worst car bomb attacks in Colombia in two years and the latest sign that the guerrillas are fulfilling their pledge to bring the long-running war from the countryside to the cities.

The 220-pound device exploded as government peace envoy Victor Ricardo was meeting Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia leaders in the south. He did not agree to relaunch stalled peace negotiations.

Meanwhile, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Cali, Colombia's second-largest city, excommunicated the members of the National Liberation Front, another Marxist rebel group, responsible for the abduction of 143 of his churchgoers.

Honduran President Fires 4 Military Officials

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras -- The Honduran president has fired four top military officials in an attempt to quell a military power struggle, but emphatically denied media reports of an attempted coup.

In a three-hour statement released on national radio Friday, President Carlos Flores Facusse announced the dismissal of the vice minister of civil defense, Brig. Gen. Roberto Lazarus Lozano, and the joint chief of staff of the armed forces, Col. Eugenio Romero Euceda. The president also replaced the military's second-in-command and the inspector general.

The changes took place two days after the opposition National Party urged Flores to exercise his power to put an end to a climate of unrest in the army.

Sao Paulo Reports Rise in Violent Crime

SAO PAULO, Brazil -- There were some 6,392 murders in Brazil's economic heartland, Sao Paulo, in the first half of this year -- an increase that was echoed by worsening rates of other crimes such as robbery and kidnapping.

The murder rate in the country's largest city represented a 6 percent rise on the same period last year, according to crime figures released by the state security office.

Sao Paulo, a sprawling metropolis of 12 million people, is known as one of Latin America's most dangerous cities.

ASIA

Taliban Forces Push Near Key Air Base

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Taliban forces battled to within three miles of a key air base controlled by opponents of the militia that rules most of Afghanistan, an opposition spokesman said.

Taliban forces pushed forward in the Bagram district of Parvan province after fierce fighting, Hussain Sohail, a spokesman for the northern-based opposition alliance, told the Associated Press. Bagram is the only air base under the control of the opposition forces led by commander Ahmed Shah Massoud of the Jamiat-i-Islami group.

AFRICA

Morocco Releases Thousands of Prisoners

SALE, Morocco -- Morocco started releasing thousands of prisoners, including foreigners and some Muslims, following an amnesty decree by the North African country's new king, Mohammed VI, officials said.

An official at the Sale prison told Reuters that about 700 inmates were affected by the royal pardon. Sale is the twin city of the Moroccan capital of Rabat. Officials said thousands of other pardoned prisoners were being freed elsewhere across the country.

THE MIDDLE EAST

Arafat Tries to Unite Palestinian Faction

CAIRO -- Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat led a meeting of his divided Fatah faction, seeking to unify Palestinian ranks ahead of final talks with Israel on Palestinian statehood. This was the first time in years that the meeting of the Fatah central committee included three top party officials who are opposed to Arafat's peace deals with Israel.

The meeting signals an apparent desire by Arafat to unify his faction before beginning reconciliation talks with other radical Palestinian factions opposed to the 1993 Oslo agreement that has formed the basis of Arafat's off-and-on peacemaking with Israel.

EUROPE

U.S. to Extend Ukraine Disarmament Aid

FRUNZENSKOYE, Ukraine -- The United States and Ukraine agreed to extend for another six years a program helping the former Soviet republic dismantle its ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons infrastructure.

Ukraine inherited the world's third-largest nuclear arsenal with the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, but pledged to become nuclear free. The United States has contributed more than $500 million to help Ukraine dismantle the weapons. The program was initiated in 1991 to promote nuclear disarmament in the former Soviet Union. The Ukrainian portion was slated to expire in 2000.

Missing Body in Swiss Accident Recovered

INTERLAKEN, Switzerland -- Rescuers using underwater cameras have recovered the body of one of the last people missing after a river accident last week in the Swiss Alps, police said. The discovery brings to 20 the number of people confirmed killed in the flash flood.

The body was found Friday night in Lake Brienz, about 2 1/2 miles downstream from the scene of the accident, at a depth of more than 200 feet, Bern state police said.

QUOTE OF THE DAY:

"Oh, yes, we'll have druids, necromancers, New Agers -- the whole sun-worshiping lot."

-- Gage Williams, who is overseeing plans in Cornwall, England, for viewing the Aug. 11 solar eclipse. -- Page A1