EUROPE

20 Killed as Blast Rocks Moscow Building

MOSCOW--A massive explosion tore apart a nine-story apartment building in Moscow early today, killing at least 20 people and trapping dozens in the rubble.

First indications suggested the blast was caused by a natural gas leak, but officials said they could not rule out the possibility of a bomb. The blast destroyed 108 apartments, officials said.

Echo of Moscow, a radio station, said authorities were searching for a car that had been seen shortly before the explosion. The report did not say why the car was being sought.

A huge bomb blamed on Islamic radicals destroyed a military housing complex Saturday in the southern republic of Dagestan. The militants, who are fighting for a separate Islamic state, had threatened to strike targets elsewhere in Russia.

Moscow has experienced natural gas explosions in the past because of the city's crumbling infrastructure. A blast in July 1998 killed six people.

Russia Gains Ground in Dagestan

MOSCOW--Russian troops, spurred by criticism from a furious President Boris Yeltsin, said yesterday they had gained ground in fighting Islamic guerrillas in the southern Russian republic of Dagestan.

Russian officials said federal forces had taken two key hilltop positions in the last 24 hours, one overlooking a road to the regional center Khasavyurt, and the other in central Dagestan, near the villages of Karamakhi and Chabanmakhi. Officials said the rebels want to proclaim Khasavyurt the capital of a Muslim state.

The rebels crossed from nearby Chechnya and took several Dagestani border villages on Sunday, just days after Russian forces had beaten back a previous attack.

2 Serbs Killed in Kosovo Mortar Attacks

PRISTINA, Yugoslavia--Two Serbs were killed and six wounded in mortar attacks in the latest ethnic conflicts in U.S.-monitored eastern Kosovo, the NATO-led peacekeeping force said.

Initial investigations indicated that eight to 10 rounds were fired on the Serb-dominated town of Donja Budriga in Kosovo's U.S. sector Tuesday evening, killing two people and injuring four, the peacekeeping force said. In another attack in the same sector, NATO officials reported 12 explosions in the town of Petrovce. Two people were slightly injured in that attack.

Saudi Suspect Met With MI5, Lawyer Says

LONDON--A Saudi sought by the United States in connection with two U.S. Embassy bombings in East Africa was in regular contact with British security services before and after the attacks, his lawyer told a British court. Lawyer Edward Fitzgerald argued that Khalid Fawwaz's contact with MI5, Britain's domestic intelligence agency, was hardly behavior typical of a man who allegedly was party to the deadly bombings last year in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya.

Fawwaz, a Muslim who formerly headed an organization of Saudi dissidents in London, was arrested last September at the request of the United States, which wants to try him on conspiracy charges in the embassy bombings that killed more than 220 people.

The United States has alleged that exiled Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden was the mastermind behind the attacks, but that Fawwaz and others conspired with him through the al Qaeda terrorist organization to kill Americans.

AFRICA

Libyan Leader Seeks a United Africa

SIRTE, Libya--Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi hosted a special Organization of African Unity summit in his home town of Sirte, telling African leaders they should act now to unite the continent.

Gadhafi, for whom the summit marks a return to the world stage, is eager to see the early creation of a United States of Africa, complete with its own parliament and institutions. "Now we are free and independent, it's time to move forward," he said. The reasons that had blocked African federation when President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana proposed it in the early days of independence in the 1960s no longer existed, he added.

Libyan officials said the summit had attracted a record turnout of 43 leaders, topping the 42 who attended the Pan-African organization's annual summit in Algeria in July.

Congo Accused of Cease-Fire Violations

KIGALI, Rwanda--Rebels in the Congo accused government troops and their allies of violating a fragile cease-fire deal, following weekend attacks on two rebel-held towns. Lambert Mende, spokesman for the Congolese Rally for Democracy, said rebels repulsed the attacks at Kole on Saturday and Bokungu on Sunday. The towns are about 500 miles east and northeast of the capital, Kinshasa.

After months of negotiations, a peace deal was signed last week by rebel leaders and the six African nations that have deployed troops on either side of the year-old war. Mende said the new attacks had undermined the accord.

S. Africa Opens Debate on Euthanasia

CAPE TOWN, South Africa--The South African government opened what is likely to be a divisive national debate on whether to legalize euthanasia. Health Minister Mantombazana Tshabalala-Msimang told Parliament that the country's constitution enshrined both the right to life and the right to dignity.

"When we speak of euthanasia we are speaking of the equal constitutional rights to life and to human dignity," she said.

Under existing law, doctors are forbidden to assist in the suicide of a terminally ill patient. But the South African Law Commission has proposed allowing doctors to switch off life support machines, withhold food and water and even administer lethal injections under certain circumstances.

THE MIDDLE EAST

Israel Starts to Free Palestinians

ASHKELON, Israel--Israel began freeing 200 Palestinian prisoners today, carrying out the first stage of a reinvigorated peace process that also requires the transfer of seven percent of the West Bank to Palestinian civilian rule in days.

A first busload pulled out of Shikma prison near here after dawn. By midmorning, a total of 200 prisoners held for anti-Israeli acts, such as killing suspected Palestinian collaborators and wounding Israelis, were to be released.

The releases followed a 54-23 vote in Israel's parliament yesterday approving the amended Wye River accord that Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian President Yasser Arafat signed Sunday.

QUOTE OF THE DAY

"The window of opportunity is almost closed to create a new Russia."

-- Mark Galeotti, director of the Organized Russian and Eurasian Crime Research Unit at Keele University in England -- Page A1