The Middle East

Muslim Militant Group Blamed

For Kurdish Official's Slaying

SULAIMANIYAH, Iraq -- Kurdish leaders yesterday blamed a Muslim militant group believed to be linked to al Qaeda for the weekend slaying of a prominent Kurdish official and five other people in northern Iraq.

The assassination of Gen. Shawkat Haji Mushir, 55, a senior official in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, underscored increasing tensions between the autonomous Kurdish administration and Ansar al-Islam, which Secretary of State Colin L. Powell accused of harboring al Qaeda fugitives from Afghanistan.

Mushir was attacked Saturday night in Qamesh Tapa, 45 miles east of the Patriotic Union capital of Sulaimaniyah. He had been trying to use his influence and standing as a prominent member of the Jaf tribe to lure Ansar al-Islam fighters out of their mountain stronghold and into the fold of the Patriotic Union.

But three Ansar members apparently laid a trap by posing as would-be defectors, witnesses and party officials said. After coming to negotiate, they turned on Mushir with Kalashnikovs and grenades, killing him, two other party officials and three civilians. The Ansar attackers escaped, officials said.

Associated Press


Chavez Threatens to Imprison Thousands of Oil Strikers

CARACAS, Venezuela -- President Hugo Chavez threatened to jail the thousands of oil workers fired for leading a two-month strike against him.

"Fired is nothing! Many of them should go to prison for sabotaging the Venezuelan economy," Chavez said of the more than 9,000 workers dismissed from the state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela SA.

Chavez's threats came one day after more than 100,000 Chavez opponents protested in Caracas in support of the fired oil workers. Thousands more held a similar protest yesterday in the state of Carabobo, 66 miles west of the capital. A bicycle protest also was organized in Caracas.

The nationwide strike was called Dec. 2 to demand Chavez's resignation or early elections. But its leaders -- business groups, labor unions and leftist and conservative politicians -- agreed to end the protest last week in all areas but the crucial oil industry.

Chavez today called the strike an "oil coup" aimed at unseating him by paralyzing the oil industry, which provides half the government's income. He also has accused his opponents of waging an "economic coup" that he blames for Venezuela's deteriorating economy.

Associated Press


British Researcher Released From Prison in Indonesia

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia -- A British researcher jailed for five months after being accused of spying in Indonesia's Aceh province was released from prison.

"I'm free. It feels fantastic to be out. It's been a long five months," Lesley Jane McCulloch said, hugging fellow prison inmates as she walked out of her cell.

McCulloch, a British citizen who works at Australia's University of Tasmania, was arrested in September along with Joy Lee Sadler, a nurse from Iowa.

The two were initially accused of spying in Aceh, where rebels have waged a 27-year war for independence, but were later convicted of a lesser charge of violating the terms of their tourist visas.

Indonesian authorities, fearing outside interference in the long-running conflict, have been sensitive to the presence of foreigners in the province.

Sadler was released Jan. 13 after serving a four-month sentence.

Both women staged hunger strikes to protest their detention. Sadler said she was in Aceh for vacation and that she had treated children and the elderly at a refugee camp there. McCulloch has studied the separatist uprising in Aceh for several years, but said she was not conducting any research when she was detained.

Associated Press


Election in Montenegro Fails

For 2nd Time After Low Turnout

PODGORICA, Serbia and Montenegro -- Montenegro failed to elect a president for the second time in three months because turnout was below the 50 percent required by law, monitors said.

The result came days after Montenegro replaced the Yugoslav federation with a loose union with its neighbor, Serbia, where a low turnout also led to the failure of two presidential votes last year.

The Center for Monitoring Elections said 47.1 percent of the electorate had cast votes when the polls closed at 9 p.m. The turnout was even lower in the Dec. 22 election, at 45.9 percent.

Filip Vujanovic, candidate of the main ruling party and the front-runner, won the support of 81.7 percent of voters, and the rest of the votes were shared among eight candidates, the center said.

About 1.5 percent of the 450,000-strong electorate did not vote because of bad weather in the north. The vote will be held there when the weather improves, but monitors predicted this would not be enough to make the overall election valid.

Opposition parties, led by the Socialist People's Party, boycotted the election again.