THE MIDDLE EAST

Israelis Kill 4 in Gaza

JERUSALEM -- Israeli soldiers yesterday shot and killed four Palestinians, at least two of them armed, in the Gaza Strip, and Israel eased a key travel restriction in the West Bank.

The Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, meanwhile, accepted an invitation from British Prime Minister Tony Blair to send a delegation to London to discuss peace prospects in the Middle East, said Saeb Erekat, a Palestinian negotiator. Neither side provided details about the members of the delegation.

Arafat has been confined to his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah for a year. Israel has said he may leave, but might not be allowed to return.

In Gaza, where armed clashes are a daily occurrence, Israeli soldiers opened fire on two Palestinians near the fence dividing Gaza from Israel, killing them. Israelis and Palestinian witnesses said arms and ammunition, including grenades and bombs, lay next to the bodies after a long gun battle.

The Israeli military said soldiers thwarted a Palestinian attempt to infiltrate Israel and carry out a terrorist attack. The Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, claimed responsibility for the attempt.

In the southern part of the Gaza Strip, another Palestinian was killed during a gunfight between armed Palestinians and Israeli soldiers guarding a Jewish settlement, the army said. Palestinians said the man was a farmer, not a gunman.

In Rafah, next to the Gaza-Egypt border, a Palestinian was shot dead when he approached an army patrol, Palestinians said.

Meanwhile, Israel announced it would allow Palestinians to run buses between towns and cities in the West Bank again, restoring service that has been cut off for more than two years, a key move to ease travel restrictions.

Associated Press

Assad Meets With Blair

LONDON -- President Bashar Assad of Syria warned against a war with Iraq and said he was optimistic military action could be averted.

Assad, in London on the first official visit to Britain by a Syrian leader, said Iraq was cooperating with U.N. weapons inspectors searching for evidence of weapons of mass destruction.

"No one is seeking war. . . . Anybody who looks for war as a goal in itself is psychologically ill," Assad said. "But I am optimistic now. What we have seen is good cooperation from the Iraqi government and we hope this cooperation will continue until this crisis is solved peacefully."

Prime Minister Tony Blair, Washington's ally in its attempts to disarm Iraq, made clear that differences with Syria remained after his talks with Assad. He added that he believed "action should follow" if Baghdad were shown to be in breach of U.N. demands.

Assad said last week that military action against Iraq could plunge the region into turmoil and provide fertile soil for terrorists.

Syria, one of 15 members of the U.N. Security Council, which unanimously demanded last month that Iraq disarm or face "serious consequences," says the resolution was aimed at avoiding, not triggering, war.

Assad, who became president two years ago after the death of his father, Hafez Assad, has close links with Britain.

Reuters

AFRICA

Ferry Wreck Kills 60

MONROVIA, Liberia -- At least 60 people drowned and many more were feared dead after an overloaded ferry carrying 200 passengers capsized in a river in the West African country of Liberia, officials said. The passengers were returning from a funeral.

"The number of people who drowned has increased, by now the number has risen to 60," said James Harris, a military officer who had been helping the rescue effort. He said one of the victims was a diver looking for survivors.

"There are many, many bodies. There is no time to identify them, they are buried immediately. There's no time for a funeral or coffins," he said, adding that it was unlikely any more survivors would be found.

The wooden ferry, Papa Friends 2000, threw its passengers into Lake Piso near the coastal town of Robersport in northwest Liberia Saturday as they returned from the funeral of a popular local soccer player, Defense Ministry officials said.

Reuters

europe

Chechen Warlord Dies

MOSCOW -- A Chechen warlord who died in a Russian labor camp at age 35 will likely be buried with other prisoners, a Russian official said.

Salman Raduyev, who led a 1996 raid in southern Russia in which 78 people were killed, died of internal bleeding in a labor camp in the Perm region, about 750 miles east of Moscow, officials said Sunday.

Vladimir Yermolayev, chief of the local penitentiary department, said he had not heard from Raduyev's relatives about claiming the body, the Russian Tass news agency reported. If no request is received in three days, Raduyev will be buried in a plot reserved for prisoners in the city cemetery, Yermolayev said.

Russian officials have said Raduyev died Saturday of natural causes. However, the Kommersant newspaper cited an unidentified prison source as saying Raduyev died after a guard struck him repeatedly during a check of inmates' cells. Prison officials denied the allegation, Kommersant said.

Associated Press

Serbian Appeal Denied

BELGRADE -- Serbia's highest court rejected a complaint from the party of Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica that he was the rightful winner of two invalid presidential elections.

According to official results of the Dec. 8 election, voter turnout was 44 percent, less than the required 50 percent, making the election invalid for the second time this year. The first vote two months ago also failed because of insufficient turnout.

In its appeal to the Supreme Court, Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia claimed the Serbian Election Commission had inflated voters' lists by as many as 835,000 with names of deceased or nonexistent people.

The party also claimed that turnout reached 50 percent and that Kostunica, who finished well ahead of the two other candidates, should be proclaimed the winner.

But the Serbian Supreme Court ruled the Election Commission "has acted in accordance with regulations."

"The Election Commission correctly established the number of voters," a court statement said.

It was unclear if and when new elections would be held.

Associated Press

FOR THE RECORD

A judge found four Indians guilty in a treason trial linked to an attack last year on India's Parliament complex that almost led to war with neighboring Pakistan. Judge S.N. Dhingra convicted three men of waging war against India, a conspiracy charge that carries the death penalty. They will be sentenced today. . . . French police arrested three people with links to Islamic militants near Paris in the latest development in a major crackdown on extremists, a source close to the police said.