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Palestinians approve limited scope for premier

The Palestinian parliament approved the appointment of a prime minister Monday but vested the new position with only limited powers, making the reform fall short of U.S. and Israeli hopes of sidelining Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Still, the move did amount to the first formal curbing of Arafat's sweeping powers, and the planned appointment of Mahmoud Abbas _ a moderate who has spoken out against armed conflict with Israel _ seemed to offer hope of at least easing the deadly violence of the past 29 months.

"Enough of putting our destiny in the hands . . . of one person," said Jibril Rajoub, who was fired by Arafat as West Bank security chief last year. Abbas' expected appointment, said Rajoub, meant "it's time to end the patriarchal regime which we were suffering from."

Many Palestinians were skeptical that the longtime leader would truly cede significant powers. Reaction from U.S. and Israeli quarters was cautious.

In Washington, the Bush administration pledged Monday to stick with its plan for a Palestinian state by 2005, despite fears of war with Iraq.

Meanwhile, violence continued. One Israeli was killed and three wounded in an exchange of fire late Monday with Palestinian gunmen in the West Bank city of Hebron, the Israeli rescue service and Israel Radio said.

Also late Monday, about 20 tanks entered the village of Karara in the Gaza Strip, residents said. The Israeli military would say only that an operation was in progress. Israeli incursions in Gaza occur almost nightly.

China's Communist leader retires; ministries merge

BEIJING _ The chief of China's parliament, Li Peng, gave his last major speech as a central leader, effectively ending a long and contentious political career.

Whatever his achievements as a legislator, Li will be forever despised as the leader who announced the imposition of martial law in June 1989, signaling the army's arrival in Beijing to break up prodemocracy student protests in Tiananmen Square.

Li's departure is a watershed of sorts in that he was the last Communist hardliner in a top leadership position. But, in practical terms, his absence will not make much difference because his faction lost nearly all its influence in the past few years.

Li, 74, is expected to be replaced by Wu Bangguo, 61, who is widely regarded as more liberal and open to reform.

Li also announced the approval of a plan to restructure the government, which will reduce the number of ministries to 28 from 29 by folding together two trade bodies.

The government restructuring plan, revealed last week, tackles enormous economic and social changes unleashed by two decades of economic reforms that streamlined China's sprawling ministerial system.

Endorsed by the National People's Congress by 2,699 votes to 88, the plan consolidates trade and economic operations in a new Commerce Ministry. It creates a single Cabinet-level oversight agency for banks and a State Food and Drug Administration.

Colombia rebel group denies role in bombing

BOGOTA, Colombia _ In a rare denial, Colombia's largest rebel group says it wasn't behind last month's social club bombing, the worst urban terrorist attack here in a decade.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, an insurgent group known as the FARC, is responsible for hundreds of acts of terrorism and kidnappings a year here, but says it was not to blame for the explosion that killed 37 people at the El Nogal social club in northern Bogota on Feb. 7.

The Colombian government blamed the leftist rebel group and said the denials do not dissuade investigators.

"After conducting a patient, rigorous and serious investigation inside all political-military structures . . . we concluded: Units of this organization are not responsible," said a March 9 statement on the organization's Web site.

The FARC communique is significant because the rebel group, waging war for nearly 40 years to overthrow the state and enact a socialist agenda, rarely speaks out after acts of terrorism. In fact, the organization often admits its role in kidnappings, such as the recent abduction of three American defense contractors.

"For them to say they weren't responsible is something we should look into _ and believe," said Daniel Garcia-Pena, a former peace commissioner. "It definitely should be taken seriously."

Elsewhere . . .

MALTA: Two days after Malta voted to join the European Union, Prime Minister Eddie Fenech Adami on Monday announced early parliamentary elections in an apparent bid to take advantage of the decision. The elections are scheduled for April 12, four days before Malta would sign an accession treaty to the EU. The decision could backfire because opposition leaders, who demanded the early election shortly after the referendum, said they will reverse the decision if they win.

MEXICO: Mexico's former ruling party bounced back from its first national election defeat in seven decades with a strong showing in the country's largest state. With nearly all of the votes counted, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, had outpaced President Vicente Fox's National Action Party in municipal and legislative elections in Mexico state, which nearly circles Mexico City. Returns gave the PRI 35 percent of district races for the state legislature and 34 percent of the municipal races, compared to 29 percent of legislative and 28 percent of municipal for National Action. The Democratic Revolution Party, which controls Mexico City's government, came in third.

SIERRA LEONE: Former rebel leader Foday Sankoh, whose followers were known for mutilating civilians, was indicted Monday along with six others by Sierra Leone's war crimes tribunal. The indictments were the first handed down by the special court for human rights abuses during the 1991-2000 civil war in the West African country.