Chavez Won't Challenge

Recall Referendum

CARACAS, Venezuela -- Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said Thursday he will accept a probable recall referendum on his presidency, predicting he will defeat the opposition in "the decisive battle."

"I accept it. I accept it," Chavez said in a nationwide broadcast hours after Venezuela's elections council projected that Chavez would face a recall vote.

Chavez said the news was a triumph for Venezuelan democracy. He said it disproved opposition allegations that he was steering the country into dictatorship -- and he vowed to win the referendum. Chavez noted that the elections council had yet to officially call a referendum.

Earlier, sporadic political violence gripped parts of the capital, with Chavez supporters setting fire to cargo trucks, severely beating an opposition lawmaker outside Congress, and opening fire on the offices of Caracas's opposition mayor and a television station. One police officer died after being hit by a vehicle fleeing from the violence, said Caracas Police Chief Lazaro Forero.

Based upon a count of roughly 40 percent of voter signatures, Chavez opponents had gathered 2.45 million signatures on petitions to demand the referendum, surpassing the required 2.43 million, National Elections Council director Jorge Rodriguez said.

Asia

* SEOUL -- North and South Korean generals agreed Friday on measures to ease military tensions along the Cold War's last frontier, according to a joint statement released after all-night negotiations.

Both sides agreed on adopting a standard radio frequency and signaling system for their navies and to exchange data on illegal fishing. They also decided to set up a hot line to improve communication. They will also end propaganda efforts along their border -- via loudspeakers and billboards -- by mid-August, the joint statement said.

The statement made no mention of North Korea's development of nuclear weapons, and no agreement was reached to reduce the number of troops along the world's most militarized border.

* TAIPEI, Taiwan -- Taiwan's cabinet will seek parliament's approval for an $18 billion special budget to buy advanced U.S. weapons, including anti-missile systems and submarines, to counter China's war threats, officials said on Thursday.

But opposition lawmakers plan to reject the cabinet's request for an additional $18.2 billion to be spent over 15 years on a massive arms deal offered by President Bush in 2001.

The United States, Taiwan's biggest arms supplier, has warned Taipei that it was not spending enough on defense against China, which views the self-governing island as a renegade province and has threatened to invade if it declares formal independence.

* KARACHI, Pakistan -- A Sunni Muslim militant group linked to al Qaeda is the prime suspect in a suicide attack on a Shiite Muslim mosque Monday in the southern city of Karachi that killed 21 people, police said. Police suspected the suicide bomber belonged to the outlawed group Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, said senior investigating officer Gul Hasan Sammo.

* KABUL, Afghanistan -- U.S. and Afghan troops backed by American warplanes fought Taliban militants in the mountains of southern Afghanistan, killing 13 insurgents and arresting eight, an Afghan official said. Two U.S. troops and one Afghan soldier were wounded in the fighting in Miana Shien district of Kandahar province, 150 miles southwest of Kabul, said Khalid Pashtun, spokesman for the provincial government.

The Middle East

* JERUSALEM -- Prime Minister Ariel Sharon decided to fire two hard-line government ministers, officials said, a move that would give him a one-vote majority in the cabinet for his Gaza withdrawal plan.

The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Sharon called the two ministers of the National Union Party, Avigdor Lieberman and Benny Elon, to his office Friday to deliver the dismissals. They would take effect in 48 hours, before the cabinet session Sunday in which a vote on Sharon's plan is expected.

Africa

* GENEVA -- The United Nations gathered donor countries to appeal for an immediate $236 million in aid to Sudan's western Darfur region. But Andrew Natsios, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, warned that 300,000 people in the region could die from hunger and disease, regardless of the success of the U.N. call for help.

-- From News Services