Israel Widens Offensive Against Gaza Fighters

JERUSALEM -- Israel shut down charities with ties to Hamas throughout the West Bank on Wednesday as it widened a five-day offensive against Palestinian guerrillas despite their pledges to stop firing rockets at Israel.

Israeli aircraft fired missiles at several Gaza targets Wednesday, knocking out power in Gaza City for most of the night, damaging buildings and destroying an overpass.

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said Israel was trying to teach the militants that it would not tolerate any more attacks from Gaza.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas traveled to Cairo to seek the aid of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in mediating.

On Thursday, Israeli soldiers raided the West Bank town of Jenin and a nearby village, sparking shootouts with local fighters that left three militants dead, according to witnesses and Palestinian security officials.

Europe

* BERLIN -- Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and conservative challenger Angela Merkel did not resolve their dispute over who should be Germany's next leader during a 21/2-hour meeting Wednesday, but they called the session helpful.

Merkel came out of the meeting at the Reichstag building looking relaxed and describing the talks as "constructive and serious." Franz Muentefering, head of Schroeder's Social Democratic Party, called the preliminary discussions "fruitful."

* STRASBOURG, France -- The European Parliament, frustrated over Turkey's refusal to recognize Cyprus, postponed a vote to ratify Turkey's customs union with the European Union, a requirement for membership in the 25-member bloc.

Days ahead of scheduled membership talks, lawmakers also called on Turkey to recognize the 1915-23 killings of Armenians as genocide.

* GENEVA -- Escalating violence in Sudan's Darfur region is threatening aid for millions of people as increasing numbers of international workers come under attack, the U.N. humanitarian chief said.

"My warning is the following: If it continues to escalate, if it continues to be so dangerous on humanitarian work, we may not be able to sustain our operation for 2.5 million people requiring lifesaving assistance," said Jan Egeland, the U.N. emergency relief coordinator.

ASIA

* COLOMBO, Sri Lanka -- Sri Lanka's top court ordered investigators to delay a probe of accusations that Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse misappropriated tsunami aid after he complained it was overshadowing his presidential election bid, officials said.

Sri Lanka's main opposition United National Party accused Rajapakse of trying to siphon off more than $800,000 in relief money after an aide moved it to a fund set up to help rebuild his tsunami-hit constituency.

* SHANGHAI -- A prominent activist in China's underground Protestant church has been released from a labor camp after serving a two-year sentence, a U.S.-based monitoring group reported.

Zhang Yinan, 47, left a camp near the central city of Zhengzhou on Sunday, according to the China Aid Association, headquartered in Midland, Tex.

China's officially atheist Communist authorities allow worship only in tightly controlled state churches.

The Middle East

* BEIRUT -- FBI agents sifted through the debris of the latest in a spate of bombings in Lebanon, an action certain to prompt a reaction in Syria as it comes under stepped-up U.S. pressure to stay out of its neighbor's business.

The Lebanese government's inability to identify those behind the explosions since former prime minister Rafiq Hariri's murder in February has led authorities to turn to Washington for help.

-- From News Services