Americans Charged

In Mexican Kidnapping

MEXICO CITY -- A couple from Alabama has been charged with kidnapping a 7-year-old Mexican girl in the northern city of Monterrey, Mexican officials said Friday.

Michael and Kimberly Ray, both 34, were arrested Wednesday after a neighbor of the child chased them in a taxi, police said. The neighbor flagged down a police car, and the Rays were stopped about a mile from where the girl was shoved into their car, the police said.

The couple explained that they had been trying to adopt but were frustrated by the delays, the police said.

The Rays are in jail and face kidnapping charges that carry a penalty of 15 to 40 years, officials said.

Citing privacy concerns, U.S. Embassy officials declined to comment.

-- Mary Jordan

ASIA

* TOKYO -- Japan will offer energy assistance to North Korea at next week's six-way talks over the North's atomic ambitions but only if the communist state freezes its nuclear programs, Japanese media said on Saturday.

Beijing is hosting the third round of six-way talks from June 23-26 involving both Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States.

Africa

* ABUJA, Nigeria -- West African defense chiefs agreed to create a 6,500-member multinational force to respond to "crisis and threats to peace" in the war-ravaged region.

The core of the force will be 1,500 "highly trained and equipped" rapid response troops and 3,500 backups. The remaining 1,500 soldiers will form a reserve, the Economic Community of West African States said in a statement.

Regional officials will assess capabilities and recruit troops to stand by at their home bases, ECOWAS said.

* GOMA, Congo -- The renegade commander of a now-disbanded rebel group blamed for weeks of violence in eastern Congo backed down from threats to renew the central African country's devastating war.

Brig. Gen. Laurent Nkunda told the Associated Press he would follow the lead of political leaders from his former rebel group, the Congolese Rally for Democracy, who have said they want to keep the peace.

The Middle East

* JERUSALEM -- The Palestinian Authority and militant groups have begun putting together an agreement to share power in the Gaza Strip after Israel withdraws from the volatile territory, officials said.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia confirmed that the document was being drafted and said it would be completed after additional talks in Egypt.

Qureia met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo to discuss the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, scheduled to be completed by September 2005.

Europe

* GENOA, Italy -- Thousands of people flocked to see a bronze statue of Christ in Genoa after a woman claimed she saw the face of St. Padre Pio on the statue's chest.

The archbishop of Genoa inspected the statue and said it could be returned next week to its home on the seabed off San Fruttuoso, about 15 miles south of Genoa, local official Alfio Barbagallo said.

Barbagallo attributed the alleged vision to plays of light or stains on the body of the statue.

* AMSTERDAM -- An appeals court upheld the conviction and life sentence of a nurse who killed elderly and young patients, saying the harshest sentence under Dutch law was the only suitable punishment.

Lucy de Berk, 42, was first convicted in March 2003 of four murders at three hospitals in The Hague after administering lethal injections of drugs to patients in her care.

THE AMERICAS

* BUENOS AIRES -- As many as 10,000 unemployed protesters marched to Argentina's Congress and occupied nine McDonald's restaurants to demand more welfare in a nation where half the people live in poverty.

Repsol YPF, a Spanish oil giant that is one of Argentina's biggest foreign investors, closed its local headquarters over fears protesters would occupy its offices to demand free fuel for poor families, which has happened before.

* BOGOTA, Colombia -- Colombia's second-largest guerrilla army warned that a peace accord with President Alvaro Uribe was unlikely as long as the right-wing leader ignored what it said was the social injustice fueling the war.

* TORONTO -- Scientists postponed plans to relocate a killer whale called "Luna" off Canada's west coast so Indians could spend time with the animal they regard as the reincarnation of their late chief.

-- From News Services