Putin takes offense at NATO

plan to add U.S. missile defense

MOSCOW - President Vladimir Putin threatened yesterday to suspend Russia's compliance with a key European arms control treaty, accusing the United States and NATO of undermining regional stability with its plan to extend an American missile shield to central Europe.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Russia's concerns "purely ludicrous" in a news conference at a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Oslo, Norway.

But Putin's annual state-of-the-nation address made clear Russia is growing increasingly mistrustful of Western intentions.

"Our partners are behaving incorrectly, to say the least," he said. "In case no progress is made during negotiations, I propose to discuss the possibility to end our obligations."

The acrimonious exchange was just the latest indication of a growing divide between the former Cold War foes. Russia's annoyance with Western criticism of its rights record, and its perception that the U.S. is dominating world affairs have also added to tensions.

Washington says the deployment of interceptor missiles and radar systems in the Czech Republic and Poland will protect Europe and North America from new threats such as nuclear programs and long-range missiles from Iran and North Korea. But Moscow argues there is no immediate threat and claims the U.S. is trying to target Russia's strategic missile arsenal.

After two rockets, Israel

says its patience is limited

JERUSALEM - Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip fired two rockets toward Israel yesterday, the army said, and Israeli officials warned they were losing patience as rising tensions threatened a five-month cease-fire.

One rocket landed in the Mediterranean Sea and the second in an open area in southern Israel, the army said. There were no injuries.

"Israel will not be restrained forever," said Miri Eisin, spokeswoman for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. "We will defend our citizens and choose the time and place to respond."

Murder of soap star calls

attention to Caracas crime rate

CARACAS - Police arrested a man suspected of stabbing to death a Venezuelan soap opera actor and said they were seeking four accomplices yesterday.

Jean Manuel Montilla, 22, was arrested two days after 51-year-old actor Yanis Chimaras was killed in a Caracas suburb.

More than 200 people attended a funeral for the actor on Wednesday, while Venezuelan newspapers carried photographs of grieving relatives on their front pages.

Chimaras was killed Tuesday in Guatire when he arrived in a car to pick up his daughter's friend, police said. Chimaras, who was with his daughter and brother, honked the horn repeatedly for the girl to come out.

At the time, robbers were inside the house holding up the girl's family. The thieves came outside, forced Chimaras out of his vehicle at gunpoint and stabbed him three times, police said.

Caracas is considered one of the most violent cities in Latin America, and polls consistently show crime is a leading concern for Venezuelans. Dozens of people are often killed in a single weekend.

Front-running Turkish candidate

says he'll maintain secularity

ISTANBUL - Turkey's presidential front-runner promised to uphold the country's secular traditions and reach out to citizens worried that his almost certain victory in parliamentary votes starting Friday will strengthen the role of Islam in politics.

The run-up to the election has been marked by tensions between the Islamic-rooted government and defenders of Turkey's secular ideals. Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul is expected to win a series of parliamentary votes because the ruling party holds more than 60 percent of parliamentary seats.

"I am loyal to the republic, to secularism, to the principles of a democratic, social state ruled by law, as stated in the constitution in essence," Gul said in an interview published yesterday in the Milliyet newspaper. *

-Daily News wire services