EUROPE

Deadly Storm Strikes Western Europe

PARIS--Powerful winds and rain swept across Western Europe yesterday, ripping trees out of the ground, tearing roofs off buildings and killing at least 50 people in France, Switzerland and Germany. Paris was buffeted by the strongest winds to hit it in 50 years.

Gusts of up to 105 mph tore through northern France, where authorities said at least 26 people were killed, some when trees fell on their cars. In Paris, where winds reached 98 mph, a couple was killed when a chimney collapsed into their apartment. Their newborn baby was found alive.

In Switzerland, at least 11 people were killed and several injured, mostly by falling trees. Two of the victims were killed at a southern ski resort when a tree severed a ski lift cable and sent a gondola crashing to the ground, police said. Eleven people were killed in auto accidents or by falling trees in Germany, where winds reached 124 mph. Across southern Germany, people were warned to stay indoors.

French Coast Faces Oil Disaster

NOIRMOUTIER, France--France's Atlantic coast faces a significant ecological catastrophe from an oil spill that is washing up on beaches and rocky coastlines, Environment Minister Dominique Voynet said.

The thick, foul-smelling oil, with the consistency of chewing gum, washed up on the coast from northwestern Brittany to the Vendee region, an area famed for its beaches and oyster farms.

Voynet, who visited the region, told France Info radio that it was too early to fully assess the effects of the spill, which occurred after a 24-year-old tanker broke apart Dec. 12 and sank off Brittany.

THE MIDDLE EAST

Israel Releases Lebanese Guerrillas

JERUSALEM--Israel released five Lebanese Shiite Muslim guerrillas in an apparent goodwill gesture before the start of a new round of peace talks with Syria.

In addition, an Israeli official said 26 more Palestinian prisoners will be released as part of an accord reached in September. For the first time, that release will include Palestinians who killed Israelis, the official said. Another official confirmed the impending release, though the second official said 24 prisoners will be freed.

The actions come as Israel moves ahead with peace talks on two fronts, trying to negotiate a final agreement with the Palestinians while resuming discussions with Syria, the power broker in Lebanon, after a four-year hiatus.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's office confirmed the release of the five Lebanese but would not elaborate.

Troops, Kurds Clash in Southeast Turkey

ISTANBUL--Turkish soldiers clashed with Kurdish guerrillas in the southeast, killing 11 rebels and three soldiers, private NTV television reported. The clash took place in Sirnak province, NTV said. It did not give more details or specify when the fighting occurred.

The battle was the second major outbreak reported this month after the rebels warned Turkey that they might resume fighting if authorities keep dismissing their appeals for peace. Ten rebels were killed in clashes in the southeast two weeks ago.

Israeli Publisher Charged with Conspiracy

TEL AVIV--Ofer Nimrodi, publisher of the daily Maariv, was indicted for allegedly trying to arrange the murder of a witness against him in a newspaper wiretapping scandal.

He was also indicted on charges of allegedly infiltrating the top echelons of Israel's police and interfering with their investigation. Nimrodi, who was been jailed since his arrest on Nov. 23, could face seven years in prison on the murder conspiracy charge and up to nine years for each witness tampering charge.

The 20-page indictment mentions top police commanders and hundreds of thousands of dollars in payoffs to witnesses.

ASIA

Fire in Chinese Bath House Kills 20

BEIJING--Fire engulfed a hotel bath house in northeast China on Sunday after a late night Christmas party, killing 20 people and injuring at least 51.

Firefighters saved 150 people, including seven Japanese, from the Hawaii Grand Hotel in Changchun, capital of northeastern province of Jilin, the Changchun Evening News said.

City fire officials had concluded a fire safety inspection of the bath house in the basement of the hotel less than two hours before the fire broke out, the newspaper said. It was unclear what had caused the fire, but a Changchun journalist said an underground gas pipe had cracked and exploded.

AFRICA

Angola Ousts Rebels From Stronghold

LISBON--Capping a series of key government victories in Angola's long civil war, Angolan troops have forced UNITA rebels from their last major stronghold, news reports said.

Government forces, with help from Namibian troops, captured Jamba at dawn Saturday, the official Angolan news agency Angop reported. The army also took control of the entire southern border with Namibia, preventing the rebels from falling back into that country, Portuguese state radio RDP Africa reported.

Some 200 rebel soldiers were imprisoned after the government gained control of Jamba, according to Portuguese radio TSF. There was no independent confirmation of the government's reported gains.

QUOTE OF THE DAY

"It's not like they held a knife to people. ... It's not a cult. It's a belief."

-- Li Zhechen, on the sentencing of his father, Li Chang, to 18 years in prison for involvement in the Falun Gong movement --Page A1

CAPTION: A boat lies on the shore of Lake Leman in Geneva after a powerful storm swept through France, Germany and Switzerland, killing dozens.