No Evidence Planes

Hijacked, Russians Say

MOSCOW -- Russia's transportation minister, citing a "black box" recording from one of two planes that crashed minutes apart last week, said Monday there was no evidence of a hijacking attempt or any other disturbance before explosions aboard the jetliners.

The conversation inside the cockpit of the Tu-154 plane indicated the crew was unable to contact traffic controllers and tried to manage the jet for some time after the blast on board. "The words spoken by the crew members among themselves are [about] work by the crew to save the plane," the minister, Igor Levitin, said.

Two Chechen women are the focus of suspicions that the planes were blown up by terrorists. All 90 people aboard the aircraft were killed.

Gen. Andrei Fetisov, chief of the scientific department at the Federal Security Service, said there was no longer any doubt that "both planes crashed as a result of explosions," the ITAR-Tass news agency reported. He reiterated that traces of the high explosive hexogen were found in the wreckage.

AFRICA

* EL FASHER, Sudan -- As a U.N. deadline expires for Sudan to ease the crisis in Darfur, the situation on the ground remains bleak. Villagers forced from their homes by gunmen on horseback still cower in camps for the displaced while witnesses report the Sudanese military is still bombing the area.

The Sudanese government, which was given 30 days by the United Nations to rein in Arab militiamen or face penalties, appealed to the Security Council to make a "reasonable decision."

* CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- Two South Africans who were acquitted in Zimbabwe on charges related to an alleged coup plot in Equatorial Guinea were charged with violating their native country's anti-mercenary laws.

The Justice Ministry also said South Africa was considering a request by Equatorial Guinea to question Mark Thatcher, son of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, about his alleged involvement in the foiled coup plot in the oil-rich west African nation.

THE AMERICAS

* BOGOTA, Colombia -- The government said it would consider a demand from Colombia's main rebel group to hold face-to-face talks over swapping jailed insurgents for dozens of hostages, including three U.S. military contractors.

President Alvaro Uribe's administration had wanted to conduct the negotiations over the Internet. Resolving the differences could lead to the first negotiations between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC, since peace talks failed more than two years ago.

* MEXICO CITY -- Some 180,000 Mexican public health and welfare employees will stop work for 24 hours Wednesday to protest a new law that cuts pension benefits for social security staff, union officials said.

* PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- Gunmen opened fire on a Haitian hospital with a top French official inside, sparking a battle that left at least one gunman dead and two people wounded, officials said.

EUROPE

* AMSTERDAM -- Former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic has promised to open his defense today by fighting what he called "monstrous" accusations that he masterminded ethnic cleansing in the Balkans in the 1990s.

Milosevic is charged with genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo. He is expected to launch his defense with a four-hour opening statement.

the MIDDLE EAST

* RAMALLAH, West Bank -- The Islamic Resistance Movement, known as Hamas, will help monitor voter registration for next year's Palestinian elections, officials said. Although the militant group plans for the first time to take an official role in Palestinian Authority balloting, it will not take part in the elections themselves.

In the Gaza Strip, Israeli soldiers at a border terminal captured a Palestinian suicide bomber today before he could detonate his explosives belt, the army said, and Israeli forces shot dead a 14-year-old Palestinian during an incursion into a refugee camp, witnesses said.

* JERUSALEM -- Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon failed to persuade his security cabinet to speed up a Gaza withdrawal agreed to in principle by the government two months ago, political sources said. In a sign of the internal political opposition Sharon faces over his plan to pull Israeli settlers and soldiers out of Gaza by the end of 2005, hard-liners in the group resisted his call to evacuate quickly, the sources said.

-- From News Services