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NORTH KOREA

N. Korea opens door to talks with South

PYONGYANG | North Korea is open to immediate talks with rival South Korea if Seoul responds to several preconditions for dialogue, a North Korean military official told the Associated Press on Thursday.

Ri Son Gwon, a colonel working for the policy department of the North's National Defense Commission, also challenged South Korea to "state to the world whether it honestly intends to enter into dialogue with us."

The comments came a day after a senior U.S. diplomat said Washington is open to settling a nuclear standoff with North Korea through diplomacy if Pyongyang first improves ties with Seoul.

"The South speaks loudly of dialogue in public, but behind the scenes, it also says it cannot shake the principles that plunged North-South Korean ties into complete deadlock," Col. Ri said in an interview in Pyongyang.

"If clear answers are given, dialogue will resume immediately," he said. "The resumption of dialogue and the improvement of relations hinge completely on the willingness of the South's government."

In the form of an "open questionnaire," the North's defense commission laid out nine points for South Korea to respond to, including ending U.S.-South Korean military drills. The statement, however, backed away from earlier vows to shun Seoul's conservative leader.

South Korea quickly called the statement "unreasonable."

JAPAN

Snow paralyzes north; 3 die in avalanche

TOKYO | An avalanche killed three bathers at a hot spring in northern Japan, where heavy snow has paralyzed traffic and forced schools to close.

The deadly avalanche hit Thursday in Akita.

Officials said snowstorms have battered coastal cities along the Sea of Japan and large parts of northern Japan since late last year. Some areas have received more than twice as much snow as normal.

The snow has played a role in 56 deaths and more than 750 injuries since November. Most of those killed fell from rooftops while shoveling snow.

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda called a ministerial meeting Thursday to discuss relief measures. Defense troops have been dispatched to worst-hit areas, including Aomori, where hundreds of people were evacuated.

MYANMAR

Mon ethnic rebels agree on cease-fire

YANGON | A mediator said Myanmar's government has reached a cease-fire agreement with another ethnic rebel group in its latest effort to ensure political stability.

Civilian mediator Hla Maung Shwe said Thursday the agreement was reached by authorities in Mon State and the rebel New Mon State Party. He said they agreed Wednesday to allow the rebel group to open a liaison office and travel freely without weapons.

The two sides are to meet again in the third week of February for a more extensive agreement.

He said similar agreements have been reached recently with other groups representing the Karen, Shan, Chin, Wa and Kokang minorities.

The new military-backed but elected government is seeking peace with minority groups that have been fighting for autonomy for decades.

PHILIPPINES

Airstrike kills most-wanted terror leaders

MANILA | The Philippine military said it killed Southeast Asia's most wanted terrorist and two other senior militants Thursday in a U.S.-backed airstrike, marking one of the region's biggest anti-terrorism successes in recent years.

The dawn strike targeting a militant camp on a southern Philippine island killed Malaysian Zulkifli bin Hir, also known as Marwan, a top leader of the regional, al Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiyah terror network, said military spokesman Col. Marcelo Burgos.

The U.S. had offered a $5 million reward for the capture of Marwan, a U.S.-trained engineer accused of involvement in a number of deadly bombings in the Philippines and in training new militants.

Also killed were the leader of the Philippine-based Abu Sayyaf militants, Umbra Jumdail, and a Singaporean leader in Jemaah Islamiyah, Abdullah Ali, who used the guerrilla name Muawiyah, Col. Burgos said.

PAPUA NEW GUINEA

Ferry sinks with up to 350 aboard

PORT MORESBY | Rescuers plucked more than 230 survivors from the sea off Papua New Guinea's east coast after a ferry sank Thursday with as many as 350 people on board, officials said.

An airplane from Australia, three helicopters and eight ships scoured the area after the MV Rabaul Queen went down while traveling from Kimbe on the island of New Britain to the coastal city of Lae on the main island, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said.

The ferry sank 50 miles east of Lae, the South Pacific country's second-largest city, and 10 miles from shore, it said in a statement.

Australian Broadcasting Corp. quoted police in Kimbe as saying most of the passengers were students and teacher trainees.

INDIA

India to buy 126 fighter jets

NEW DELHI | India is buying 126 French-made combat aircraft in a massive $11 billion deal that will increase the might of the world's fourth-largest air force with the first exported Rafale jets, officials said this week.

India has become the world's biggest arms importer as an economic boom has enabled it to push modernization of its military, and major arms manufacturers are wooing the country as it replaces its obsolete Soviet-era weapons.

Dassault Aviation said it was honored to extend cooperation with India, which has a fleet of its older Mirage jets, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy welcomed India's decision.

India's air force has about 700 fighter aircraft and is exceeded in size by the United States, Russia and China.

Growing worries about China's fast-expanding military and the decades-old mistrust of Pakistan have fueled India's impetus to add heft to its defense forces.

• From wire dispatches and staff reports

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