- The Washington Times - Friday, January 2, 2004

PAKISTAN

Free-trade zone proposal approved

ISLAMABAD — South Asian nations agreed yesterday on the framework for a free-trade zone that would encompass one-fifth of the world’s population, a step that could deepen the improving relations between nuclear-armed rivals India and Pakistan.

The broad framework of the accord, which would start tearing down tariffs by Jan. 1, 2006, was reached during talks in Islamabad by foreign ministers preparing for a summit of the leaders of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, the Maldives and Bhutan.

National leaders will review the accord when they meet tomorrow through Tuesday in the Pakistani capital, where security is extraordinarily tight in the wake of two assassination attempts last month against President Pervez Musharraf.

The summit of the seven-nation South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation is the first since a meeting in Nepal in January 2002.

PHILIPPINES

Action star files for presidency

MANILA — A Philippine action movie star who is an ally of disgraced former leader Joseph Estrada filed his candidacy for the presidency yesterday, presenting what could be the strongest challenge to incumbent Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

Hundreds of supporters of actor Fernando Poe Jr., 64, also known as “Da King” and “FPJ,” rallied outside the Commission on Elections office, chanting “FPJ! FPJ!”

Mr. Poe, who has starred in several blockbusters and was the national “box office king” for several years, has never held office before and has not yet disclosed his platform.

CHINA

Gas well mishap result of negligence

BEIJING — Negligence was to blame for a gas well accident that spewed toxic fumes and killed 233 persons in southwestern China, a safety official said yesterday, adding that those responsible “will be dealt with.”

Sun Huashan, deputy director of the State Administration for Work Safety, didn’t say who might be punished for the Dec. 23 disaster or what penalty they might face.

A poisonous mix of natural gas and hydrogen sulfide had erupted from the well in the remote mountain town of Gaoqiao, leaving a 10-square-mile “death zone” strewn with bodies of villagers who were killed as they slept or tried to flee.

Thousands of people were treated for gas poisoning. Crews spent days testing for toxins before people were allowed to go home.

IRAQ

U.S. plans embassy in Baghdad by June

The United States will open its embassy in Baghdad before the planned transfer of sovereignty to an Iraqi government at the end of June from the Coalition Provisional Authority, the State Department said yesterday.

“It will obviously be a significant post, given the task at hand and the number of people required to support it,” State Department deputy spokesman Adam Ereli said at a regular news briefing.

Mr. Ereli did not go into specifics of the planned embassy, including where it will be located and how many people will work there.

SWITZERLAND

Pardons for helping Jewish refugees

BERN, Switzerland — Switzerland has pardoned anyone imprisoned or fined for helping Jewish refugees during World War II.

A new law that took effect on Jan. 1 annuls all sentences issued during World War II to those who smuggled refugees into Switzerland or sheltered them without permission.

Switzerland, neutral during the war, began imposing border controls on refugees from Germany and Austria in 1938, and by 1942 had closed its borders entirely to people persecuted “for racial reasons only.”

Although some 300,000 people were sheltered in Switzerland between 1938 and 1945.

FRANCE

Sikhs seek help to keep turbans

PARIS — France’s tiny Sikh community is seeking help from India’s Hindu prime minister to have their traditional turbans exempted from a planned French law to ban Muslim headscarves and other religious symbols from schools.

Chain Singh, spokesman for about 5,000 Sikhs here, said he was contacting Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Chief Minister Amarinder Singh of Punjab state — the home of the Sikh religion — to ask them to urge Paris to exempt turbans.

“We cannot live without our turbans. This is our religion. If we cannot wear them, we may not be able to stay here,” he said.

Sikh men use their turbans to cover their hair, which they do not cut in keeping with their religious beliefs.

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