WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration expressed outrage Wednesday over Cuba's arrest of dozens of dissidents and also defended the top U.S. diplomat in Havana against allegations that he was carrying out subversive activities.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher called the arrests "an appalling act of intimidation against those who seek freedom and democratic change in Cuba."
He demanded the U.N. Human Rights Commission, which opened its annual six-week meeting in Geneva on Monday, censure Cuba for the arrests.
"These people have been arrested for simply speaking out, one of the most basic internationally accepted human rights," Boucher said.
An official statement read on Cuban state television's evening news Tuesday accused the chief of Washington's diplomatic mission in Havana, James Cason, of trying "to foment the internal counterrevolution."
The criticism was an apparent reference to the travels around the island of U.S. diplomats, especially Cason. According to U.S. officials, Cason has traveled 6,200 miles since arriving in Cuba last summer.
N. Korea told U.S. military exercises are defensive
SEOUL, South Korea -- The U.S.-led United Nations Command sought Wednesday to ease North Korean fears over joint military exercises in South Korea, saying they are defensive and not related to "current world events."
The statement, made to North Korean officers during a meeting at the truce village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas, comes amid U.S. preparations for war against Iraq.
The North has maintained the exercises signal plans to invade it. Pyongyang refused a request to discuss the matter at a higher military level on Thursday, the U.N. Command said.
Col. Martin Glasser of the command's Military Armistice Commission said the annual exercises are not related to "current world events." North Korea insistes the United States is preparing to attack, a claim it has made in previous years.
Putin approves switch to volunteer armed forces
MOSCOW -- President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday approved the defense ministry's plan to switch the core of Russia's armed forces to volunteers over the next four years.
Putin has long called for the phasing out of the military draft and the forming of a leaner contract military by 2010.
His plan calls for hiring 167,000 volunteers from 2004 to 2007. Putin urged military leaders to finalize the plan so the Cabinet can approve it by June and the government can begin paying for it next year.
SUSPECT BLAMED IN BOMBING: Russian prosecutors Wednesday blamed one of the most hunted rebel field commanders for plotting a December truck bombing that destroyed the headquarters of the Moscow-backed government in Chechnya and killed at least 70 people.
Evidence showed Shamil Basayev organized the attack, Deputy Prosecutor General Sergei Fridinsky said. He did not elaborate.
Serbian judges forced to retire over assassination
BELGRADE, Serbia-Montenegro -- Serbian lawmakers forced 35 judges into retirement Wednesday, accusing the judiciary of failing to prosecute underworld bosses who were plotting the assassination of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic.
"Inefficiency of courts allowed that a number of killers and other criminals have dodged justice for years," said Justice Minister Vladan Batic, referring to crime gangs that thrived under former President Slobodan Milosevic and have not been eliminated.
Boatloads of Nigerians sent to quell violence
WARRI, Nigeria -- Boatloads of Nigerian troops headed into the oil-rich Niger Delta on Wednesday to put down days of ethnic violence that has left 15 people dead and disrupted multinational oil operations.
Hundreds of heavily armed soldiers packed onto government boats leaving the oil port of Warri for villages along swamps and rivers to the south.
Two soldiers and five civilians were killed in a March 12 shootout between Nigerian navy troops and ethnic Ijaw fighters at Okerenkoko village near Warri.
Two camps emerge at world water conference
OSAKA, Japan -- Everyone agrees on the goal -- making sure more of the world's poor have access to water. But two groups at an international conference were severely split Wednesday on how to do it.
On one side were world policymakers, who endorsed hybrid public-private methods, from community management of water to letting companies manage publicly owned water utilities.
On the other were activists, who worried private companies allowed to manage water would be too focused on profits and would ignore the needs of the environment.
The United Nations has set a goal of cutting in half the number of people without access to water by 2005.
The World Water Council, a policy-making group, declared water a human right -- a concession to activist groups. And activists said they weren't opposed to asking private consultants for advice on operating water utilities.
Still, Maud Barlow, who heads an group of 60 activist organizations called Water For All, said her group disagreed with relying so heavily on the private sector.
"There's a big difference between that and transnationals coming in and running water systems on a for-profit basis" because the environment gets ignored, Barlow said.