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Cosmonauts tackle solar panel job

Two Russian cosmonauts began a spacewalk early this morning to remove a solar power panel on the beleaguered Mir space station, despite a last-minute problem with one of the spacesuits.

Mir commander Anatoly Solovyov and crew Pavel Vinogradov began the walk two hours behind schedule after Ground Control decided to go ahead with the mission.

The cosmonauts said everything was fine as they moved out of Mir's airlock and into space.

The cosmonauts were to remove an old solar panel, which was wearing out, and make way for the installation of a new one in a second spacewalk on Thursday.

U.S. astronaut David Wolf, Mir's third crew member, was at the station's controls, operating the solar panel the cosmonauts were working on.

The mission was delayed when problems were discovered with Solovyov's spacesuit. The suit was not transmitting data to Mission Control that normally allows controllers to monitor oxygen levels and other safety factors.

After efforts to fix the suit failed, Ground Control decided to go ahead with the mission and told Solovyov to monitor his suit regularly while outside Mir.

Deputy Mission Control chief Igor Goncharov stressed the cosmonauts were in no danger despite problems with the suit.

"Solovyov's spacesuit is working fine. The only problem is a communications block," he said.

Solovyov and Vinogradov hope to replace Mir's old solar panel with a new one in an attempt to boost the space station's power supply, which was cut nearly in half when it was hit by a cargo ship during a practice docking in June.

Elsewhere Sunday . . .

+ ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia _ Floods caused by overflowing rivers in eastern Ethiopia have left 57 people dead and more than 4,000 displaced, state-run radio reported. Unusually heavy seasonal rains and flooding have also hit Somalia, Sudan and Kenya.

+ PARIS _ Roadblocks sprang up across France as truckers went on strike after rejecting a tentative wage agreement. Protesters swung into action before the strike deadline, blocking trucks at fuel depots, border crossings and a main north-south motorway. Motorists were allowed through.

+ JERUSALEM _ Israelis and Palestinians return to peace talks in a session hosted by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright today in Washington.

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