Pakistan military counters attack

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - Militants used mortars, rockets, and an antiaircraft gun to attack military positions in northwestern Pakistan yesterday and were pummeled in response by air strikes that killed at least 25 people, officials said.

It was the latest violence to break out in the tribal region on the Afghan border ahead of a planned military offensive against Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, who is accused of ordering a campaign of suicide attacks to try to destabilize the government.

A spokesman, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, yesterday offered the most detailed information yet about the military's goals for the operation against Mehsud in South Waziristan, which is also a potential hiding place of al-Qaeda and Afghan Taliban leaders.

"Our effort is to break his network, the classes and training schools for suicide bombers running there," Abbas said. "To dismantle that . . . and particularly the foreigners, who are in big numbers with him." - AP

Bomber targets official in Russia

NAZRAN, Russia - A suicide bomber badly wounded a provincial president in Russia's North Caucasus yesterday, an assassination attempt that undermined the Kremlin's claim that it has brought stability to the predominantly Muslim region.

Yunus Bek Yevkurov was the third top official to be wounded or killed in the last three weeks in the area of southern Russia around Chechnya, which was devastated by two separatist wars in the last 15 years.

No one immediately claimed responsibility for the bombing in Ingushetia province, where Yevkurov has tried to halt violence by Islamic extremists.

A car rigged with TNT exploded as the presidential convoy traveled outside the provincial center, Nazran. The blast tore Yevkurov's armored sedan to pieces and killed two of his bodyguards.

- AP

U.K. lawmakers pick new speaker

LONDON - British lawmakers elected a new speaker of the House of Commons yesterday, part of a bid to put the political storm over their lavish taxpayer-funded expenses behind them.

Opposition lawmaker John Bercow was elected to replace Michael Martin, who was the first presiding officer forced out in more than 300 years.

Martin was blamed for failing to rein in an expense system that allowed parliamentarians to bill the public for a raft of expenses including pornographic movies, horse manure, and repairs to tennis courts. Details of the spending, published in the Daily Telegraph newspaper, outraged the public.

Bercow becomes the first Jewish speaker of the House of Commons. Martin, elected to the post in 2000, was the first Catholic speaker since the Reformation. - AP

Elsewhere:

Institutions for an independent Palestinian state, such as a well-trained security force, should be up and running within two years, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said, for the first time setting such a target date.