EUROPE

N. Ireland Official Arrested

BELFAST -- Efforts to resume Northern Ireland's peace process suffered a fresh blow yesterday with the arrest of a government official in a probe into an Irish Republican Army spy scandal that caused Britain to suspend self-rule in the province.

The civil servant, who was being questioned by police, had worked in the office of the former first minister of Northern Ireland, David Trimble, who said the political consequences of the revelation were huge.

"The individual concerned worked for several months as my ministerial diary secretary and therefore had access to a range of very sensitive information," Trimble said in a statement.

The Protestant leader, who headed the province's power-sharing government until it was put in cold storage last month, added that "it does look as if there has been a huge breach of security."

Allegations of IRA spying at the heart of Northern Ireland's government last month prompted Britain to suspend the power-sharing assembly of Protestants and Roman Catholics set up under the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement.

Reuters

Kazakhstan Charges Journalist

MOSCOW -- Prosecutors in Kazakhstan formally charged Sergei Duvanov, an opposition journalist and human rights activist, with raping an underage girl, and his supporters said that his health had worsened markedly as a result of a hunger strike he launched to protest his detention.

Duvanov -- editor of the weekly bulletin of the International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law and a prominent member of the democratic opposition in this former Soviet republic -- was charged on Wednesday, said Yesim Abdrakhmetov, chief investigator in the case.

Duvanov went on a hunger strike after he was detained Oct. 28. He has denied the accusations, which he and his supporters say are retribution for his criticism of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev.

The journalist is accused of raping a 14-year-old girl who visited his home after his neighbors asked to use his Russian-style sauna. He has rejected the charges, saying he was drugged with a glass of tea he drank after the neighbors left.

Associated Press

THE MIDDLE EAST

Scholar Sentenced to Death

TEHRAN -- A prominent reformist scholar was sentenced to death on charges of insulting Islam's prophet and questioning the hard-line clergy's interpretation of Islam, his lawyer said.

A court in Hamedan, in western Iran, issued the sentence against university professor Hashem Aghajari, said his lawyer, Saleh Nikbakht. Nikbakht said Aghajari, a close ally of President Mohammad Khatami and a leading member of the reformist political party Mujahedeen of the Islamic Revolution, also was sentenced to 74 lashes, banned from teaching for 10 years and exiled to three remote Iranian cities for eight years.

Iran frequently issues such multiple sentences in cases where it wants to make an example of the accused. In cases where the death penalty is imposed, other long-term punishments are not carried out.

Judiciary officials were not available for comment because it was the beginning of the weekend in Iran.

Associated Press

Red Cross Official Detained

JERUSALEM -- Four Palestinian men abducted a German official of the International Committee of the Red Cross in the southern Gaza Strip city of Khan Younis as helpless colleagues watched from a balcony, then released their captive 11 hours later, according to a Red Cross spokeswoman.

Spokeswoman Jessica Barry said the seizure happened suddenly and quickly, before several witnesses in broad daylight. The Red Cross official, Nicolai Panke, was released unharmed at about 11:30 p.m., with the reasons for the abduction still unknown.

Panke, who had been allowed to speak with representatives of his agency several times during the ordeal, had been working for the international relief agency in Gaza since April, Barry said. He was responsible for distributing supplies such as blankets and tents to Palestinians whose homes had been destroyed by Israeli military forces in the southern part of the Gaza Strip.

Molly Moore

THE AMERICAS

Suspect Held in '89 Killing

LIMA, Peru -- Anti-terrorism police have detained a suspect in the 1989 murder of American journalist Todd Smith, who was killed while investigating links between guerrillas and drug traffickers in the Peruvian jungle.

Police captured Pedro Roberto Villacorta on Sunday in Tumbes, 625 miles northwest of Lima near the Ecuadorean border, Lt. Armando Rodriguez said by telephone from Trujillo.

Smith, a 28-year-old reporter for the Tampa Tribune, had come to Peru on vacation in 1989 to investigate ties between Shining Path rebels and drug traffickers.

Associated Press

Venezuela Foes Agree to Talks

CARACAS, Venezuela -- President Hugo Chavez and his opponents, locked in a fierce conflict over his rule, agreed to talks aimed at negotiating an electoral solution to the nation's political crisis.

But disagreements over the timetable for a vote and opposition threats to call a strike still clouded the fledgling peace talks planned for today.

The secretary general of the Organization of American States, Cesar Gaviria, who brokered the talks, cautioned the government and opposition about the price of failing to break the stalemate.

"Everyone knows that if there is no agreement and the negotiating sessions fail to produce results, the country will move to a higher level of confrontation," Gaviria said. "But I think we must approach it with a degree of optimism."

In April, rebel military officers briefly ousted Chavez. Since then, Venezuela has been beset by growing social tension, a sharp economic downturn and concern about a new rebellion.

Reuters