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Palestinian elections might come by October

Palestinians could have elections by October if Israel withdraws from major population centers, with Yasser Arafat likely to be the only major presidential candidate, the Palestinian foreign minister says.

Arafat's re-election would likely frustrate Washington's moves to sideline him and nurture an alternative Palestinian leadership. It remains unclear what would happen to the post of prime minister, created under intense U.S. pressure to reduce Arafat's role.

With a cease-fire agreement holding, Israeli soldiers withdrew from parts of Gaza and the West Bank town of Bethlehem last week. The Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers, Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas, will meet Tuesday to discuss further pullbacks.

"We can conduct elections by October," Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath said. "We have told all the parties that Israel should conclude its withdrawal from Palestinian cities within six weeks."

Shaath said Arafat would be the candidate for president from the ruling Fatah movement. Since Hamas, the other major faction, has been boycotting elections, Arafat would be the only major contender.

But Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi said Shaath's timetable was too optimistic.

"It is very ambitious," she said, adding it would take at least six months to prepare elections officials, register voters and set up election places after an Israeli withdrawal. The Palestinian parliament also would have to adopt an elections law.

U.S. fighters go into attack mode with Indonesian warplanes

JAKARTA, Indonesia _ In a tense encounter above the Java sea, U.S. fighter planes went into attack mode and locked their missiles on Indonesian warplanes deployed to intercept them, an Indonesian air force official said Friday.

Rear Air Marshal Wresnowiro said air force radar detected the F-18 Hornet planes maneuvering over Bawean Island off the northern coast of Java island on Thursday. He didn't say how many American planes there were.

Two Indonesian F-16 fighter jets intercepted the U.S. planes and warned them they were in Indonesian airspace, he said.

"It was tense as the F-18 planes went into attack positions," said Wresnowiro, who goes by a single name. "They adopted an attack maneuver and had their missiles locked on our planes, ready to fire."

The U.S. planes were spotted flying for more than two hours above the islands, 500 miles east of Jakarta.

Wresnowiro said the planes were guarding an aircraft carrier, two frigates and a tanker traveling in the area.

The naval convoy was not in an international sea lane and had sought permission from the Indonesian government, he said, "but our bureaucracy is too slow to pass the security clearance."

Military officers have long complained about espionage flights across Indonesia's 13,000 islands.

A U.S. Embassy spokeswoman said officials were looking into the report.

Construction crew finds cistern believed to be 1,000 years old

JERUSALEM _ A construction crew digging near a major Christian shrine in Nazareth, the boyhood town of Jesus, discovered a cistern that crusaders might have built 1,000 years ago, archaeologists said Friday.

Archaeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority plan to excavate the site next week to learn more about the cistern that was unearthed Wednesday.

The cistern, which is 40 feet deep in some places, is close to the Basilica of the Annunciation, where Christians believe the Angel Gabriel appeared before the Virgin Mary and foretold the birth of Jesus.

Elsewhere . . .

POPE WON'T VISIT MONGOLIA: The Vatican has dropped plans for Pope John Paul II to visit Mongolia next month, deciding a papal pilgrimage to the nascent Catholic community in the predominantly Buddhist country is premature, officials said.

Vatican officials insisted the decision is not connected to John Paul's frail health and stressed he intends to make the trip later.

IRANIAN MISSILE CAN REACH ISRAEL, REPORT SAYS: Iran has successfully tested an intermediate-range ballistic missile that can reach Israel, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported Friday. The test of the Shahab-3 was conducted last week and was the most successful of seven or eight launches over the past five years. The newspaper said the Shahab-3 has a range of more than 812 miles.