Bolivia Deploys Forces

As Referendum Nears

LA PAZ, Bolivia -- Less than two weeks before Bolivians head to the polls to decide what to do with the nation's vast natural gas reserves, authorities have deployed security forces to guard against saboteurs.

Aymara Indian leader Felipe Quispe vowed this week to create a "state of siege," blocking highways in Bolivia's western Andean region beginning July 16, to derail the gas referendum two days later. Quispe and labor leaders have rejected the referendum because they want the government to nationalize the gas fields and kick out the foreign companies that are developing them.

"We have taken all of the precautions," Interior Minister Alfonso Ferrufino said Thursday. "I am confident that all of these declarations of war and threats are from a minority that feels impotent and desperate before the failure of its campaign against the referendum."

To head off potential violence near La Paz, the government on Wednesday sent about 200 police officers and soldiers to the town of Ayo Ayo, 54 miles south of the capital. A mob there killed the mayor last month after accusing him of corruption. The mostly Aymara Indian townspeople have threatened to disrupt the referendum, demanding the release of seven suspects being held in the killing.

The Middle East

* CAIRO -- President Hosni Mubarak's cabinet resigned Friday, and the longtime Egyptian leader appointed a relative outsider as prime minister, further consolidating his power at a time of growing calls for political, social and economic change.

State-run television interrupted its programming to report that Mubarak named Ahmed Nazief, a 52-year-old former state minister for communications and information, to replace Atef Obeid, 72, the prime minister of the past four years.

The 76-year-old Mubarak's choice follows a pattern of appointing technocrats -- rather than more politically inclined lawmakers -- to the post, a situation critics say is designed to ensure political power is not placed into the hands of a potential challenger to his presidency.

Asia

* SPIN BOLDAK, Afghanistan -- A captured member of the Afghan Taliban has contacted the movement's leader, Mohammad Omar, a senior Afghan official said, the first indication in months that the fugitive is still alive.

Afghanistan's southern security chief, Abdullah Laghmani, said Mullah Mujahid, whom he described as Omar's former bodyguard, was captured about 50 miles north of Kandahar city this week.

"Last Monday, Mujahid spoke to Mullah Omar in our presence," Laghmani said, using a Muslim title. "But since then, when we tried to contact him on this number, they disconnected it. Mullah Omar is alive."

* HONG KONG -- The bird flu strain that killed 24 people in east Asia this year and resurfaced in recent weeks has become endemic to the region, and the virus could trigger a global health crisis if it goes unchecked, according to a new study by the World Health Organization.

Europe

* TBILISI, Georgia -- Separatists freed 35 Georgian peacekeepers a day after they were detained and forced to kneel in a display that stoked tensions between the region of South Ossetia and the central government.

Irina Gagloyeva, a spokeswoman for the South Ossetia government, said the peacekeepers were turned over to Georgian officials about noon at a checkpoint in a village just south of the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali. Three peacekeepers remained in the separatists' custody, accused of unspecified "grave crimes," she said.

* MOSCOW -- Russia's finance minister firmly rejected the prospect of restructuring back taxes owed by Yukos, the country's biggest oil producer, making state seizure of the company's assets almost certain.

Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin's statement followed assurances by another top official that Yukos's production would not be affected. Those statements appeared to support speculation that the state plans to seize the company's choice assets and redistribute them into Kremlin-friendly hands rather than let the company collapse.

The Americas

* BOGOTA, Colombia -- Luis Hernando Bustamante, an alleged leader of a huge Colombian drug cartel that is suspected of smuggling more than $10 billion worth of cocaine into the United States, has been captured in Cuba, Colombia's police chief said.

The Cuban government informed Colombian authorities that Bustamante, better known by his alias "Rasguno," was detained July 2 after entering Cuba on a false Venezuelan passport, Gen. Jorge Daniel Castro said. There was no immediate confirmation from Cuba.

-- From News Services