EUROPE

Russian Forces Assault Key Chechen Town

GROZNY, Russia--Russian aircraft and artillery kept up their assault on a key rebel stronghold south of the Chechen capital yesterday, while other forces advanced toward rebel towns deep in the southern mountains.

The punishing barrage of bombs and shells on Urus-Martan, 12 miles southwest of the capital, Grozny, is aimed at driving an estimated 3,500 rebels out of the town so that Russian ground forces can enter without resistance. Taking Urus-Martan would give the Russian army a staging point for closing in on Grozny from the south.

Russian troops are entrenched to the north and east of Grozny. But the rebels' top military commander rejected Russia's recent claims that Grozny was 80 percent surrounded.

Sinn Fein Leader Urges Support for Peace

DUBLIN--Appealing to his closest supporters, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams said they must "forge a partnership" with Northern Ireland's Protestant majority.

In a speech to senior members of his party, which is allied with the Irish Republican Army, Adams emphasized there was "no secret deal" struck this month as part of a plan to make last year's peace accord work.

Adams said the IRA's key contribution to that deal--a promise to begin negotiations with a disarmament commission on the same day that a new Protestant-Roman Catholic administration receives powers from the British government--reflected the outlawed group's "courage and discipline."

Croatian President Fighting for Life

ZAGREB, Croatia--Bracing for the worst, parliament paved the way for transferring some essential powers away from ailing President Franjo Tudjman, 77. Tudjman's doctors acknowledged the leader's condition was grave, and a key aide said he was fighting for his life.

A constitutional clause on temporary incapacity of the president was supported by 85 deputies, giving the motion the necessary two-thirds majority in the 127-seat legislature.

Tudjman was treated in a Washington, D.C., clinic in 1996 for what U.S. sources said was cancer. He has been hospitalized in Zagreb since Nov. 1 and has suffered complications following emergency intestinal surgery.

EU Oil Shipment Held at Serbian Border

BELGRADE--A shipment of 350 tons of badly needed heating oil crossed into Yugoslavia, a gift from the European Union to two cities governed by opponents of President Slobodan Milosevic.

The shipment to Nis and Pirot is the first in an EU project to boost the opposition and provide relief to sanctions-bound Yugoslavia without helping Milosevic's regime.

The convoy of 15 oil-bearing trucks, however, was held up by Serbian border guards. Customs paperwork held the convoy at the border between the Yugoslav republics of Montenegro and Serbia for several hours. Then the convoy was sent to the border town of Presevo for additional inspection, a Yugoslav border official said.

AFRICA

Attack in Congo Leaves 200 Dead

ROME--A failed surprise attack by government-allied Mayi-Mayi fighters in rebel-controlled northeastern Congo ended in the deaths of about 200 combatants, an Italian missionary news service said.

The news service, which bases its reports in part on accounts from missionary congregations, gave the first casualty figures on Tuesday's battle outside the town of Butembo. Forces allied with Congolese President Laurent Kabila signed a peace accord in August with rebels backed by Uganda and Rwanda.

Congo's Mayi-Mayi fighters are not party to the accord and have been accused in other recent attacks.

Soldiers Attack Village in Nigeria

MBIAMA, Nigeria--Nigerian soldiers said the Niger River Delta village of Odi had been destroyed and deserted by residents after an attack by the army intended to crush ethnic Ijaw militants blamed in the killings of 12 police officers.

Ethnic Ijaw groups who have been demanding a greater share of the region's oil wealth condemned the assault and said more than 200 people had been killed at Odi, while others had been herded into a military barracks.

Neither soldiers nor local authorities were willing to give a death toll, and independent confirmation was impossible because troops cordoned off the zone.

THE MIDDLE EAST

Israel Bans Crucifixes, Christmas Trees

JERUSALEM--Crucifixes and Christmas trees have been banned from Israeli hotel lobbies during the millennium holiday season because they are offensive to Jews, said Meir Lau, Israel's chief rabbi.

With a flood of Christian pilgrims expected during the holidays, Israel's rabbis earlier this month said Christmas celebrations had to be held out of sight in closed-off rooms. And hotels face further restrictions because both Christmas and New Year's Eve fall on Friday night--the Jewish Sabbath.

There can be no music in the hotels on Friday night, because "music, using microphones . . . is a desecration of the Sabbath," Lau said.

THE AMERICAS

Anti-Corruption Chief Faces Impeachment

ASUNCION, Paraguay--Congress began impeachment proceedings against Paraguay's anti-corruption chief, who faces bribery and extortion allegations.

If impeached by a two-thirds vote of the lower house of Congress, National Auditor Daniel Fretes Ventre, 66, would lose his immunity from prosecution. He is accused of using information from his auditors to strong-arm public companies and ministers into contracting services from three firms under his ownership.

QUOTE OF THE DAY

"For us, it is a social crime not to give the elderly the attention they deserve."

-- Elbio Mendez Areco, general director of Uruguay's Labor and Social Welfare Ministry --Page A40.