18 Afghan rebels die fighting U.S. troops

BAGRAM, Afghanistan

Hundreds of U.S. troops pressed toward rebel fighters in rugged mountain caves yesterday, while warplanes bombed dug-in enemy positions in the fiercest battle in Afghanistan in nearly a year.

At least 18 rebels were killed in the assault. The U.S. military believes the fighters are loyal to renegade warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a powerful Pashtun strongman who has vowed to link his forces with remnants of al-Qaida and the ousted Taliban regime.

About 80 rebels were believed to be remaining in the southeastern cave network, under attack from 350 troops, including soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division, U.S. Special Forces and allied Afghan militia.

“It’s the largest concentration of enemy forces since Operation Anaconda,” military spokesman Col. Roger King said, referring to a fierce eight-day battle in March against Taliban and al-Qaida holdouts in a different area of southeastern Afghanistan, about 250 miles northeast of the current fighting.

While King said evidence pointed to Hekmatyar’s military arm, the Hezb-e-Islami movement, he gave no further details, and a former high-ranking Taliban member questioned that.

Strike continues despite high oil production

CARACAS, Venezuela

President Hugo Chavez’s government scored a victory in Venezuela’s political crisis by producing more than 1 million barrels of oil yesterday, frustrating a 2-month-old opposition drive to strangle the world’s No. 5 oil exporter.

By raising production to a third of its normal rate, Chavez seized another advantage over his opponents – jump-starting Venezuela’s oil industry while defeating calls for a February referendum on his rule.

But the 58-day-old strike has put Venezuela on the verge of economic collapse, caused long-term damage to oil infrastructure and forced Chavez to extend his ban yesterday on U.S. dollar purchases to preserve foreign reserves.

Chavez surpassed the 1 million-barrel benchmark by focusing on newer oil fields where crude is easier to extract. But production may not reach 2 million barrels a day if the government doesn’t revive older wells, said Ed Silliere, vice president of risk management at Energy Merchant LLC in New York.

“They are going for the lowest hanging fruit on the tree, the easiest to grab,” Silliere said. “In a few weeks, it is going to be a struggle.”

Fox proposes name change for country


“Get the U.S. out of Mexico” isn’t just a leftist slogan anymore.

It’s a serious proposal by President Vicente Fox’s conservative party – to delete “United States” from the name of a country where national pride permeates every aspect of society, including titles.

As it is, few people use Mexico’s official name: United States of Mexico (Estados Unidos Mexicanos).

And to some Mexicans it’s an unwelcome reminder of the powerful northern neighbor that took half of Mexico’s land in the 1847-48 war. Indeed, some joke about the official name, calling it “United States, Mexico Branch” – a rueful commentary on what they consider overbearing U.S. influence.

The name United States of Mexico was adopted in 1824, not in emulation of the United States, but in hopes of developing a federalist system of government. It didn’t work; power remained centralized in Mexico City.

Fiscal crisis leads to $487 million cutback


With New York City facing its worst fiscal crisis since the ’70s, Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed a $44 billion budget yesterday that includes $487 million in cuts and assumes passage of a commuter tax that the governor is against.

Bloomberg’s spending plan does not call for any immediate layoffs in the city’s work force of 250,000.

In Philadelphia, Mayor John Street proposed the elimination of about 1,600 jobs through layoffs and attrition.

Bloomberg’s spending plan also includes $600 million in savings from the city’s municipal work force – such as making employees help pay for their own prescription drugs.

Essential to the budget, the mayor said, is $1 billion from a commuter tax that Gov. George Pataki has repeatedly said he does not support.

Trial date set for sniper shootings suspect


A judge set a Nov. 10 trial date yesterday for 17-year-old Lee Boyd Malvo, who could face the death penalty for his alleged role in the sniper attacks that terrorized the Washington area.

Prosecutors had asked for a trial date in late June, while the defense had requested February 2004. Circuit Judge Jane Roush picked a date in between, saying it allowed twice the time normally granted under Virginia law for a speedy trial.

“I am not going to be ready by Nov. 10. It’s an impossible date. It’s not a realistic date,” defense attorney Michael Arif complained.

Malvo is being tried in Fairfax County on murder charges in the Oct. 14 slaying of FBI analyst Linda Franklin outside a Home Depot store.

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