THE MIDDLE EAST

Russia to Proceed With Reactor

TEHRAN -- Russia yesterday brushed aside strong U.S. criticism and said it had agreed with Iran to speed up the building of an $800 million nuclear reactor and to consider constructing another.

The United States, which has branded Iran part of an "axis of evil" for allegedly developing weapons of mass destruction, fiercely opposes Tehran's nuclear program. But Russia's atomic energy minister, Alexander Rumyantsev, said Washington had failed to show that Iran had broken any international regulations.

"We always tell our American colleagues that all Iran-Russia cooperation is in accordance with international regulations and the resolutions of the International Atomic Energy Agency," Rumyantsev said at a news conference.

Moscow's participation in the project to build a nuclear reactor near the southwestern port of Bushehr had depended on Iranian assurances that all spent fuel would be returned to Russia, a demand advanced by U.S. experts.

Iran insists the Bushehr reactor is for purely civilian power production.

Reuters

THE AMERICAS

Castro Recovering After Infection

HAVANA -- Out of public view for more than a week, President Fidel Castro told Cubans in a published letter that he is recovering from a serious infection caused by a bug bite to his left leg.

"I am fine, dear compatriots, and I feel more optimistic than ever about the future of the Revolution," the 76-year-old leader wrote in the letter, entitled "Chronicle of Repose" and published on the front page of the Communist Party daily Granma.

The letter was the first public word about Castro's current illness since Saturday, when he excused himself from a session of the National Assembly, Cuba's unicameral parliament, saying doctors had ordered him to rest following an unspecified injury in his leg.

Castro, who has ruled Cuba for nearly 44 years, said in the letter that doctors informed him that he had a staphylococcus infection and ordered more cold compresses, antibiotics and bed rest.

"It was my duty to protect my beloved left leg," he wrote.

Associated Press

EUROPE

Pope Pleads Against Iraq War

VATICAN CITY -- War must and can be avoided even in a world made fearful by terrorism, Pope John Paul II insisted in a Christmas message that stepped up the Vatican's campaign against a war in Iraq.

"May humanity accept the Christmas message of peace," he said.

Thousands of tourists and pilgrims stood in a light drizzle at St. Peter's Square to hear the ailing pontiff deliver his annual Christmas Day message, "Urbi et Orbi," Latin for "to the city and to the world."

The 82-year-old pontiff's voice sometimes trembled and he often slurred his words as he spoke from the central steps of St. Peter's Basilica.

"From the cave of Bethlehem there rises today an urgent appeal to the world not to yield to mistrust, suspicion and discouragement, even though the tragic reality of terrorism feeds uncertainties and fears," the pope said.

Associated Press