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World in brief

Venezuelans decry midnight arrest of strike leader

Compiled from Times wires
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 21, 2003

CARACAS, Venezuela -- Thousands of angry government opponents chanting "This is a dictatorship!" rallied in the capital's streets Thursday, protesting the midnight arrest of a strike leader by secret police.

But President Hugo Chavez proclaimed that he authorized the arrest of Carlos Fernandez even though it threatened to reignite massive demonstrations and again paralyze the country.

"One of the coup plotters was arrested last night. It was about time, and see how the others are running to hide," Chavez said at the foreign ministry. "I went to bed with a smile."

Carlos Fernandez, head of Venezuela's largest business federation, Fedecamaras, was seized by about eight armed agents at midnight Wednesday as he left a restaurant in Caracas' trendy Las Mercedes district, said his bodyguard, Juan Carlos Fernandez.

He faces charges of treason and instigating violence for leading the two-month strike that began Dec. 2, seeking to oust Chavez and force early elections. The strike ended Feb. 4 in all sectors except the critical oil industry.

North Korean fighter jet breaches South's airspace

SEOUL, South Korea -- Rattling nerves along the border, a North Korean fighter jet violated South Korean airspace over the Yellow Sea on Thursday before turning back as warplanes in the South scrambled. The flight -- the first such incursion in 20 years -- was the latest in a series of North Korean provocations.

The incursion, which lasted two minutes, came only days after North Korea threatened to abandon the armistice keeping peace along the border if the United States imposes sanctions on the communist regime.

The flight also underlined heightened tensions just days ahead of a visit to South Korea by Secretary of State Colin Powell to discuss the standoff over the North's nuclear program.

South Korea protested the intrusion, the first by air since 1983.

"Our military sternly protests the North Korean provocation and demands that the North take actions to prevent a recurrence of similar incidents," said Brig. Gen. Hwang Young-soo, a Defense Ministry spokesman.

He said the incursion "could result in very serious consequences in the current situation on the Korean Peninsula."

Pyongyang made no comment.

Controllers told train to proceed despite fire

DAEGU, South Korea -- South Korean subway operators allowed a second train to pull into a blazing underground station, then hesitated to evacuate passengers as it was consumed by flames -- errors that may have doubled the death toll from this week's arson attack, investigators said Thursday.

More than 70 of the estimated 126 victims from Tuesday's blaze apparently died on that second train.

The blaze was set on one train in Joongang Station, reportedly by a 56-year-old passenger who has a history of mental illness, police said.

The second train then was allowed to enter the station even as the first train burned at the platform, investigators said, citing transcripts of radio exchanges between the engineer and rail control officials show.

"When you enter the Joongang Station, drive carefully. There is a fire," controllers told the driver.

After the second train arrived, its driver said, "It's a mess. It's stifling. Take some measures please. Should I evacuate the passengers? What should I do?"

But moving the train was impossible by then because electricity had been cut. The second train then was engulfed in flames.

Mideast diplomacy, Israeli dragnet coincide

JERUSALEM -- Israeli troops killed three Palestinians during a West Bank dragnet Thursday and locked down the Gaza Strip in an operation against the militant Islamic group Hamas.

The tough military measures were in tandem with tentative steps toward a possible truce to end 29 months of Mideast violence.

Meeting in London, envoys from the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union -- the so-called Quartet putting together the "road map" -- called Thursday for an immediate, comprehensive cease-fire by Israelis and Palestinians.

Israeli and Palestinian officials also have been holding talks in London, where U.S. Assistant Secretary of State William Burns met Palestinian Cabinet ministers.

Elsewhere . . .

WEATHER STALLS SEARCH: Strong wind, fog and rain forced authorities to call off efforts late Thursday to recover the remains of 302 elite troops killed in the Iran's deadliest plane crash about 500 miles southeast of Tehran.

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