Pope likely to be released by Easter
VATICAN CITY — Pope John Paul II could be back at the Vatican by Easter, his spokesman said in a cautious declaration yesterday, stressing that the frail pontiff’s health continues to improve as he leads the Roman Catholic Church from his hospital room.
The Vatican said the pope is eager to leave the hospital but accepts his doctors’ advice not to rush his discharge.
Men in east, south vote in local elections
QATIF — Men in eastern and southern Saudi Arabia turned out in the thousands yesterday, some waiting in line from dawn, to vote in municipal elections they expect to provide their first say in decision-making in this absolute monarchy.
For minority Shi’ite Muslims, who have long complained of discrimination, the municipal elections have a deeper significance: the chance to show their numbers and assert their rights in a country where the official school of Sunni Islam considers them heretics.
Nuclear materials placed underground
VIENNA, Austria — Fearing air strikes, Iran is using reinforced materials and tunneling deep underground to store nuclear components — measures meant to make the facility resistant to “bunker busters” and other special weaponry, diplomats said yesterday.
Tehran also has started building a research reactor at Arak that eventually could produce enough plutonium for one bomb per year, ignoring calls to scrap the project, diplomats said.
Sharon foes seek Gaza referendum
JERUSALEM — Rebellious senior officials of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Likud Party voted yesterday to urge its parliamentary deputies to seek a referendum on his plan to withdraw from occupied Gaza Strip. The Central Committee ballot pushed through by rightist hard-liners opposed to the Gaza plan was nonbinding, and Sharon aides said it would have little impact because there is no majority in the Knesset for referendum legislation.
3 Havana dissidents call to praise Bush
Three Cuban dissidents addressed a U.S. congressional committee by telephone from Havana yesterday, praising President Bush’s policies and denouncing Fidel Castro.
It was testimony that could land dissidents back in a prison where they all had served time, lawmakers said. One asked whether the dissidents feared that would happen.
“I am simply a soldier for freedom and democracy,” said Felix Bonne, speaking over a crackling phone line from the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana. “I don’t want to go back to prison. None of us do. But I wouldn’t hesitate in returning if it were necessary to defend the rights of the Cuban people.”
From wire dispatches and staff reports