Starr Says He'll Finish Probe by 2000 Election

Independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr promised yesterday to wrap up his investigation before the 2000 New York Senate election that is being eyed by Hillary Rodham Clinton. He said he would deliver his final report "at the earliest practicable moment."

"We are trying to move forward very, very rapidly . . . and we are doing so," Starr told reporters in Atlanta, where he attended the American Bar Association's annual meeting.

The prosecutor declined to say whether the president or first lady were out of legal trouble.

Even if he brings no further charges, Starr has gathered evidence for a final report that political opponents could use to question Hillary Clinton's credibility during any campaign.

That evidence includes billing records showing the first lady did legal work in the 1980s for a savings and loan real estate deal that federal regulators concluded was a "sham." Before the records appeared, Clinton testified she knew almost nothing about the deal.

Prosecutors also have gathered testimony from former associates at her former Arkansas law firm and from her former Whitewater partner, the late James McDougal, that could be used to call into question various statements she has made to investigators.

In a separate television interview, Starr praised an Arkansas judge's decision to make President Clinton pay $90,000 for giving false testimony about his intimate relationship with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

"I thought it was very strong language," Starr said of the decision by U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright, who ruled Clinton had been in contempt of court.

"This is a very distinguished judge who looked at the facts and came to these conclusions," Starr said on NBC's "Today" show. "And I would just add that the system, did, in fact, work."

Starr said in Atlanta that his report, which would be submitted to the panel of federal appeals judges who appointed him in August 1994, would not draw any conclusions about conduct and would simply lay out the evidence gathered by grand juries and his investigators.

It would be up to the special appeals court that appointed Starr to decide on how much of his final report to make public.

Helicopters Grounded To Inspect Engines

All U.S. Army CH-47 Chinook troop helicopters have been grounded after a surface crack was found in an engine gear of a Chinook owned by the British Royal Air Force, Army officials announced yesterday.

The Army said the halt was ordered late Friday to allow for safety checks of its fleet of 466 Chinook aircraft. Describing the move as a routine precaution, an Army spokesman said it was the tenth grounding of the twin-engine helicopter since 1983. He said the gear problem had not caused any accidents.

But investigators from the Army and Boeing Co., which makes the CH-47, were said to be going on the assumption that the crack resulted from faulty production of a component known as a bearing raceway. Over the weekend, Boeing found three similarly cracked gears in its own inventory.

The CH-47, which can carry 33 soldiers and a crew of three, was introduced in 1962 and has gone through several model changes over the past four decades.

A number of other countries fly CH-47s, including Britain, Egypt, Greece and Singapore, and they also are being advised to halt flights for possible inspections.

U.S. Denies Report of Commandos in Pakistan

The United States quickly denied a report from Qatar yesterday that U.S. military planes had landed in Pakistan with commandos in apparent preparation for a strike against Afghan-based guerrilla leader Osama bin Laden.

"This is an inaccurate report and should not be taken seriously," David Leavy, a spokesman for the National Security Council at the White House, said after the report was aired by a satellite television station in the Gulf emirate.

Al-Jazeerah television, monitored by the BBC, said the two planes landed at the same time -- one at Islamabad airport and the other at a nearby airport. It said dozens of U.S. military commandos emerged, taking up combat positions near the planes and barring anyone from approaching.

Al-Jazeerah reported that the operation was in apparent preparation for a strike against bin Laden, the exiled Saudi dissident whom the United States holds responsible for the bombing of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania a year ago that killed at least 226 people, including 12 Americans.

Bin Laden has denied responsibility for the embassy attacks.