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Putin expands role of Russian security agency

President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday expanded the turf of the country's domestic security agency, giving it responsibilities in government communications and border control that were once handled by the Soviet KGB.

The changes are part of a pattern of growing influence of the Federal Security Service, the KGB's domestic successor, in the three years since Putin became president. A 16-year KGB veteran, Putin has picked a number of his own top aides from the ranks of the FSB, which former President Boris Yeltsin had treated with suspicion.

On Tuesday, Putin also set up a new department to fight illegal drugs, a growing problem in Russia. He abolished the tax police as an independent agency, transferring its powers to the Interior Ministry, the main federal law enforcement agency.

In televised remarks to his Cabinet, Putin said the changes would stem the drug trade and terrorism.

But Lyudmila Alexeyeva, who heads the Moscow Helsinki Group, a human rights organization, said the FSB's enhanced role is a step backward. "They are recreating the old monster," she told the Associated Press.

New international court, minus the U.S., opens

THE HAGUE, Netherlands _ Fiercely opposed by the Bush administration and long awaited by other countries, a new and permanent international criminal court for dealing with dictators and war criminals formally opened on Tuesday with the swearing in of its bench of 18 judges.

The court's task will be to try individuals accused of large-scale crimes against civilians.

Absent was an official representative of the United States.

A 1998 accord, known as the Rome Treaty, established the International Criminal Court and was ratified by the United States during the Clinton administration. But President Bush withdrew U.S. support, expressing concern that an independent court could be used for frivolous or politically based prosecutions of American citizens.

Mideast violence persists; Arafat delays signing bill

JERUSALEM _ An Israeli soldier and a Palestinian gunman died in a nightlong gunbattle in the tense city of Hebron that ended early Tuesday when Israeli forces destroyed a building where the gunman was holed up. In Gaza, Israeli forces killed two armed Palestinians near a Jewish settlement.

Meanwhile, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat spent Tuesday studying a parliamentary measure to name a prime minister with authority over internal affairs, sending the bill to a committee instead of signing it as expected.

Arafat aide Nabil Abu Rdeneh said Arafat would sign it in the next two days, then appoint longtime deputy Mahmoud Abbas premier.

Also . . .

A LANE FOR BUSSES: Passionate kisses may be good for body and soul, but not for commuters stuck behind couples taking their time saying goodbye in Norway.

So many doctors, nurses and patients spent so long kissing their loved ones goodbye before getting out of their cars in front of St. Olav's Hospital in Trondheim that city officials decided to build a separate "kiss-n-ride" lane to ease traffic congestion. The new lane is expected to be built this spring.

SHOUTED DOWN: In the United States, lawmakers filibuster. In India, they scream at the top of their lungs. Upset by a budget proposal to raise the price of fertilizer, lawmakers in India's lower house of parliament shouted their opposition for four hours on Tuesday. The tactic was so effective the finance minister withdrew the plan.