Terrorists or not, Britons don't

need visas to get into U.S.

LONDON - Omar Khyam, the ringleader of the thwarted London bomb plot who was sentenced to life imprisonment on Monday, showed the potential for disaffected young men to be lured as terrorists, a threat that British officials said they would have to contend with for a generation.

But the 25-year-old Khyam, a Briton of Pakistani descent, also personifies a larger and more immediate concern: As a British citizen, he could have entered the United States without a visa, like many of the estimated 800,000 other Britons of Pakistani origin.

U.S. officials, citing the number of terror plots in Britain involving British Pakistanis, expressed concern over the visa loophole. In recent months, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has opened talks with London on how to curb the access of British citizens of Pakistani origin to the United States.

At the moment, the British are resistant, fearing that restrictions on the group of Britons would incur a backlash from a population that has always sided with the Labor Party. The Americans say they are hesitant to push too hard and embarrass their staunch ally in the Iraq war, Prime Minister Tony Blair.

NATO wins Afghan battle;

hearts & minds another story

SANGIN VALLEY, Afghanistan - Villagers trickled back to their damaged farms, descending from the hills with their belongings in bundles or on donkeys yesterday after a NATO operation in their valley killed 75 suspected Taliban fighters.

The latest salvo in the alliance's campaign to win control of southern Afghanistan chalked up a clear military victory. But the outcome of the tougher battle for the hearts and minds of ordinary Afghans remained unclear.

The suspected militants were killed Monday when heavily armed British, Danish and Afghan soldiers fought their way up the Sangin Valley in Helmand province - Afghanistan's most volatile, and the source of most of the world's opium and heroin.

Maj. Dominic Biddick, who led a company of British troops in the operation, said some of those killed Monday were local men whose deaths could turn their relatives against the NATO troops. Afghan troops were meeting with residents about how to bury the remains.

What's May Day in Cuba

without Fidel ripping the U.S.?

HAVANA - The throngs were out in the streets with their red shirts and banners just as they always are on May Day, but Cuba's holiday honoring workers came and went yesterday without their longtime leader ever showing his face.

Many of the hundreds of thousands of people who marched through Havana's Revolution Square craned their necks toward the huge podium along the parade route to see if Fidel Castro would make his first public appearance since undergoing emergency surgery nine months ago.

They saw his brother, Raul, the interim leader, standing stiffly in his army uniform. They saw Ricardo Alarcon, the president of the National Assembly, who occasionally raised his fist in the air, and other leaders of the Communist Party.

But nobody could find the 80-year-old bearded leader who has always been at International Workers' Day festivities in the past, delivering multihour discourses on the evils of capitalism and the vagaries of Washington.

Free of 'blood diamond' label,

Liberia is ready for business

MONROVIA - Liberia's president formally opened 10 diamond-screening and -evaluation offices across the country yesterday, marking the first step toward restarting the industry following the end of a six-year ban by the United Nations.

The ban on Liberian diamonds, imposed in 2001 when so-called "blood diamonds" were being used to fuel civil wars in west Africa, was lifted by the United Nations three days ago. The U.N. cited steps taken by the country toward joining an international program to certify the diamonds' origin and ensure they were mined legally.

Racked by more than a decade of fighting and insecurity that ended only in 2003 with the ouster of warlord-turned-President Charles Taylor, Liberia was one of the countries whose unregulated diamond industries prompted the creation of the certification system.

With high court's help, Turk

secularists block Gul's election

ANKARA - Turkey's highest court yesterday blocked a presidential candidate with a background in Islamic politics, pitching the country - an important U.S. ally in an important region - into early elections and a referendum on the role of religion in its future.

In a 9-2 ruling, the court upheld an appeal by Turkey's main secular political party, which sought to block Abdullah Gul, a close ally of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, from becoming president, objecting to what they say are his Islamic credentials.

But Gul, an observant Muslim who is Turkey's foreign minister, has kept Islam out of public policy in his four years in government, and his supporters say the decision is simply an attempt to hold onto power by Turkey's secular elite, which has controlled the state since Ataturk's revolution in 1923. *

-Daily News wire services