- - Wednesday, February 22, 2012

NORTH KOREA

U.S., N. Korea to hold first post-Kim Jong-il talks

BEIJING — The U.S. and North Korea will reopen nuclear talks Thursday that will provide a glimpse into where Pyongyang’s opaque government is heading after Kim Jong-il’s death and test its readiness to dismantle nuclear programs for much-needed aid.

The countries were on the verge of a deal to have Washington provide food in return for Pyongyang suspending uranium enrichment when it was upended by the longtime leader’s death Dec. 17.

That North Korea has agreed to re-enter talks so soon afterward could signal a measure of cohesion and a continuation of Kim Jong-il’s policies as the country transfers power to his young son and a coterie of advisers.

Stonewalling, however, could point to disagreement within the new leadership or unpredictable directions in policy for a government that has long sought to develop viable nuclear weapons and already has detonated two nuclear test blasts.

ISRAEL

Ruling could spark coalition crisis

JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faced the unwelcome possibility of a coalition crisis on Wednesday after Israel’s Supreme Court, in a landmark decision, overturned a law that has helped ultra-Orthodox Jewish men avoid military service.

The ruling addresses an issue at the center of a simmering cultural war between religious and secular Jews, and adds to Mr. Netanyahu’s headaches as he prepares to travel to the White House for critical talks about Iran’s nuclear program.

Antagonism toward the ultra-Orthodox has grown in recent months over a series of incidents in which religious extremists were seen as attempting to impose their norms on wider society - such as the segregation of women on buses and even sidewalks.

The draft exemptions have increasingly become a touchstone issue among Israel’s secular majority, which is required to do up to three years of compulsory military service.

More than 60,000 religious men were granted exemptions last year, permitted instead to study in seminaries while receiving welfare grants. In its ruling, the court said it sought to divide Israel’s burdens equally among its citizens.

EGYPT

Court to rule June 2 in Mubarak trial

CAIRO — An Egyptian judge Wednesday set June 2 as the date for the verdict and sentencing in the trial of former President Hosni Mubarak.

Mr. Mubarak, who ran Egypt for nearly 30 years, is accused of complicity in the killing of protesters during the 18-day popular uprising that pushed him from power last February.

The prosecution is asking for the death penalty, usually carried out by hanging in Egypt.

More than 800 people were killed during the uprisings, many of them demonstrators shot dead by security forces.

Judge Ahmed Rifat said Wednesday that the final hearing, in which Mr. Mubarak will receive his verdict and sentence, will be live on TV. Most media have been barred from the majority of the hearings in the seven-month trial.

THAILAND

Court extends detention of Iranian bomb suspect

BANGKOK — A Thai court Wednesday allowed police to continue to detain one of five Iranian suspects in an alleged terror plot that was exposed by an accidental blast in a residential Bangkok neighborhood.

Police Maj. Gen. Piya Uthayo said Mohammad Kharzei, 42, will be held at a Bangkok prison for at least 12 more days. He was arrested on charges of being an accomplice to possession of unlawful explosives and causing explosions that damaged property and harmed other people.

Three men identified as Iranians fled the house where the blast occurred Feb. 14. Police found bombs in the house, and Thai officials have said Israeli diplomats may have been targeted.

There is speculation the suspects planned attacks as part of a covert battle being waged over Iran’s alleged quest to develop nuclear weapons.

ESTONIA

Couple held on charges of spying for Russia

TALLINN — Estonian prosecutors said Wednesday that a longtime security official and his wife have been detained on suspicion of passing classified information and state secrets to Russia, a case likely to add to long-standing tensions between the two countries.

Prosecutors said Aleksei Dressen - a staffer at the Estonian Security Police - and his wife, Viktoria Dressen, were arrested at Tallinn Airport as she was boarding a flight to Moscow.

Aleksei Dressen had gone to the airport to give his wife a folder that contained classified information, said Kadri Tammai, a spokeswoman for the prosecution.

Viktoria Dressen was allegedly acting as a courier, forwarding information to Russia’s main security agency that her husband had collected “over a period over several years,” Ms. Tammai said.

Aleksei Dressen had access to documents considered state secrets, she said, though she declined to elaborate. “Based on what we know at this point, we can say that this is quite a serious case for Estonia,” Ms. Tammai said.

From wire dispatches and staff reports

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