Sharon, Arafat Resist

Demands for Change

JERUSALEM -- Embattled leaders Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat rebuffed demands from their backers Thursday, holding steadfast to positions posing great political risk. Sharon insisted he would press efforts to pull out of the Gaza Strip despite a stinging rebuke from his party, while Arafat refused to sign reform legislation.

The internal power struggles foreshadowed difficulties for Sharon's plan to evacuate all 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza and four in the West Bank, as well as hopes for meaningful reform of the corruption-plagued Palestinian administration and its security forces.

Israel's opposition Labor Party leader, Shimon Peres, called for early elections, effectively calling off talks to enter the government after Sharon's Likud party barred him from any negotiations.

ASIA

* SEOUL -- A group of 15 North Korean defectors, including six children, sneaked into South Korea's consulate in Beijing and asked for asylum, the Yonhap news agency reported.

About 110 North Koreans are currently staying in the compound of South Korea's consulate in Beijing, waiting to be sent to the South, Yonhap said.

* KATMANDU, Nepal -- Roads leading to Nepal's capital had little vehicle traffic for a second day as an unprecedented blockade of the city by Maoist rebels triggered fuel rationing and pushed food prices up.

The guerrillas' call for an indefinite blockade -- and an implied threat to attack vehicles that violate it -- has disrupted the supply of food and goods to Katmandu, a city of 1.5 million people ringed by hills.

The Maoists have not physically stopped movement of vehicles in and out of Katmandu, but residents fear they could launch attacks. The army is guarding the roads and there has been no violence.

* SRINAGAR, India -- The head of a guerrilla group fighting for Kashmir's merger with Pakistan was killed by Indian soldiers in a gun battle hours before President Abdul Kalam began a rare visit to the region, an official said.

Manzoorul Islam, identified as the head of the Jamait ul-Mujaheddin, was in a car in Srinagar, the summer capital of the disputed region, when the gun battle erupted after soldiers signaled the vehicle to stop.

THE AMERICAS

* GUATEMALA CITY -- Guatemala agreed to pay former paramilitary fighters hundreds of millions of dollars for wartime activity that human rights activists say included massacres, rapes and torture.

The ex-fighters had threatened to block roads and airports if Congress failed to give them $600 each for helping the army crush a rebel uprising in the 1980s.

The paramilitary veterans say 1.3 million people are due the money. Congress says the number is closer to 700,000.

EUROPE

* WARSAW -- Masked gunmen shot dead a Polish gangster known as Konrad the Oboe, who had been convicted of crimes including assault and extortion, as he lay in a hospital bed recovering from an earlier attempt to kill him, Warsaw police said.

The gunmen fired six shots into the gangster before making their escape late Wednesday, possibly by sliding down a rope to the ground, the Polish daily Rzeczpospolita reported.

* LONDON -- A 19-year-old man was arrested in central England under the 2000 terrorism act, police said.

The arrest in the city of Birmingham came a day after eight British suspects appeared in court charged in a plot linked to security alerts at financial targets in New York, New Jersey and Washington.

An anti-terror police spokesman said Thursday's arrest was not related to the other operation. Two other men, 24 and 36, were arrested in the same area "in relation to immigration matters," the spokesman said.

* MOSCOW -- A Moscow court rejected a defense motion to drop a key part of the criminal case against former Yukos oil chief executive Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his business partner, the Interfax news agency reported.

The court ruled that charges that Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev illegally acquired a 20 percent stake in the Apatit fertilizer plant in 1994 should be left in place.

Khodorkovsky and Lebedev, both billionaires, are facing charges of tax evasion, fraud and misappropriation, and if convicted could be sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Also, Gazprom, Russia's natural gas pipeline monopoly, is being investigated by the country's Anti-Monopoly Service to determine whether the company refused outside producers access to its network.

The authority suspects that Gazprom and two of its units violated laws that regulate competition.

AFRIca

* UNITED NATIONS -- Last Friday's massacre of 160 ethnic Tutsi Congolese refugees in Burundi may spark a fresh "spiral of violence" that could endanger U.N.-backed peace efforts in Burundi and neighboring Congo, according to senior U.N. officials.

The top U.N. peacekeeping official, Jean-Marie Guehenno, told the 15-nation Security Council that tensions in the region have escalated, warning that hard-liners throughout the region were using the attack to justify a return to war.

-- Colum Lynch

* KINSHASA, Congo -- Congo must stick to the terms of its fragile peace agreement, one of the country's vice presidents said, as a dissident army officer said the process was failing and threatened to resume fighting.

Jean-Pierre Bemba, one of four vice presidents and leader of Congo's second-largest ex-rebel group, said the peace deal could not be renegotiated even after last week's massacre of Congolese Tutsi refugees put the process in jeopardy.

-- From News Services