Britain, bin Laden ally discuss captive

LONDON - The British government is in talks with an associate of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden to try to secure the release of kidnapped BBC correspondent Alan Johnston, the Foreign Office said yesterday.

The talks are with Abu Qatada - a radical cleric of Palestinian-Jordanian descent and a Jordanian citizen - who was once described by a Spanish judge as bin Laden's "spiritual ambassador in Europe."

Johnston, who turned 45 yesterday, was kidnapped March 12 in Gaza City by gunmen. His alleged kidnappers have demanded Qatada's release from Longlartin Prison in Britain.

Qatada is awaiting deportation to Jordan after the British accused him of raising funds for extremist groups and offering "religious legitimacy" to militants planning attacks. - AP

18 Mexican entities on U.S. ban list

MEXICO CITY - The U.S. Treasury Department yesterday banned Americans from doing business with six Mexican companies and 12 people who it said were fronts for a cartel run by a powerful drug kingpin.

It said the six companies - including a dairy and day-care center - and individuals wereinvolved in the operations of Ismael Zambada Garcia, identified as "one of Mexico's mostpowerful drug kingpins," who is based in the northwestern state of Sinaloa, home to many of Mexico's top drug smugglers.

The department's designation under the so-called Kingpin Act freezes assets the companies and individuals have in the United States and prohibits anyone in the United States from doing business with them.- AP

Estonian: Russia likely in on Web ills

TALLINN, Estonia - Estonia's defense minister said yesterday that the Russian government may be involved in massive cyber attacks that have crippled the Baltic nation's Web sites this month.

The evidence is not enough to prove Russia played a role, "but it indicates a possibility," Defense Minister Jaak Aaviksoo said.

He said more than a million computers worldwide have been used in recent weeks to attack Estonian government and business Web sites since a dispute arose with Moscow over Estonia's moving of a Soviet-era war memorial from downtown Tallinn.

"We identified in the initial attacks IP numbers from the Russian governmental offices," Aaviksoo said, referring to traceable Internet addresses. - AP

Elsewhere:

The Russian Orthodox Church yesterday formally ended an 80-year-old global schism triggered when overseas exiles refused to accept the domestic church's subservience to the Soviet state.

More Japanese workers than ever claimed and received compensation for mental-health problems caused by workplace stress last year, and a similar trend was seen for families of employees who died from work-related suicides, officials said yesterday.

Cuba says it will spend about $185 million to upgrade more than 200 resorts, golf courses, marinas and other facilities bid to reverse a dip in tourism, its leading source of income.