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News briefs, part 2

Holiday Shopping Gets Off To Fast Start

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON

They aren't breaking out the eggnog to celebrate quite yet, but last weekend's kickoff to the important holiday shopping season certainly was pretty good news for the nation's retailers.

According to some early industry tracking data and an informal poll of key national and local merchants, sales were up between 3 percent to slightly more than 5 percent from last year in the first three days of the key selling period when retailers garner the bulk of their sales and profits.

That represents a clear improvement from the preceding three years, when sales rose by only 1 percent to 2 percent in the same period.

This year's improved results are in line with many preholiday predictions that showed sales would pick up this year, because of increased consumer confidence and stronger sales momentum in the months leading into the season.

Economy watchers are keeping a particularly close eye on holiday sales as a possible indicator of whether consumers are finally shaking off their recession mentality. Weak sales at this season over the past three years have been one of the main causes of a rash of bankruptcies and restructurings among merchants.

While retailers said they were still a bit wary of fickle consumer patterns, they also said they were heartened by sales so far.

"We exceeded our plan and certainly exceeded last year's sales," said Thomas Fingleton, chairman of the Hecht Co., the local department store chain. Competitor Woodward & Lothrop Inc. reported an 8 percent increase.

"We did very well, pretty much across the board," said Ben Kovalsky, chief executive officer of the Cosmetic Center, the Savage, Md.-based chain that sells fragrance and beauty goods. Kovalsky said sales were up 5 percent so far over last year at the chain's stores over the weekend.

Most retailers and polls now expect sales to peak this year on Dec. 19, the last Saturday before Christmas.

NASA Prepares Launch of Last Military Payload on Shuttle

Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON

Barring interference from a late autumn cold snap, the manned space shuttle Discovery is set to lift off early Wednesday, carrying the last major military payload that will be placed into orbit by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's shuttle fleet.

As is customary, NASA and Air Force officials refused to say what the Department of Defense has stowed in the spacecraft's cargo bay. But the payload's announced weight of 23,215 pounds and its launch in a sharp northeasterly direction from Florida's Kennedy Space Center suggest that Discovery will be hauling a Lacrosse all-weather spy satellite, analysts said.

As the final phase of launch preparations began Monday, NASA officials were keeping a wary eye on the weather. Forecasters said there was a 60 percent chance of an overnight chill that could postpone the liftoff until Thursday.

Cold weather launches have been tightly restricted since the 1986 explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, a disaster attributed to the effect of freezing temperatures on a seal in the vehicle's solid-fuel rocket motor. Launches are now prohibited if temperatures dip below 47F (8C) in winds of 5 m.p.h. or less for 30 minutes after fueling. The combination of lower temperatures and wind speeds encourages the formation of frost or ice.

Although forecasters said that the restrictions could be violated before dawn Wednesday, NASA officials planned to begin fueling Discovery's 153-foot-tall external tank with liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen at 10:39 p.m. tonight. Liftoff is now scheduled for 6:59<\!s>p.m. Wednesday, with the spacecraft set to return Dec. 9.

The shuttle, once the sole launcher for large spy satellites such as the Lacrosse and Keyhole series, has played a crucial role in modernizing the U.S. space intelligence network. But future launches will be carried out by unmanned boosters, while the shuttle is restricted to more complex scientific, maintenance and construction missions requiring the skills of astronauts.

The flight will be commanded by U.S. Navy Capt. David M. Walker, a veteran of two previous missions. His crew is composed of Marine Corps Col. Robert D. Cabana, the pilot, and three mission specialists: Air Force Col. Guion S. Bluford Jr., Army Lt. Col. James S. Voss, and Army Lt. Col. Michael Richard Clifford.

Russian Court Largely Upholds Ban of Communist Party

The Washington Post

MOSCOW

Russia's highest court Monday largely upheld President Boris Yeltsin's ban of the Communist Party, while recognizing the right of rank-and-file communists to try to relaunch the party from the bottom up.

The decision of the 13-member Constitutional Court effectively rules out any revival of the once all-powerful party in the form in which it existed before the abortive hard-line coup of August 1991. But it will allow a reformed Communist Party to compete with other political parties "on an equal basis" and reclaim some of the property that was confiscated by the state.

The 11-2 judgment allowed both sides to claim a partial victory in the five-month court case, which shed new light on the Soviet Union's totalitarian past. Dozens of experts and witnesses were called to testify at the hearings and thousands of hitherto secret documents revealing the party's involvement in mass political repression were handed over to the judges for examination.

"This was the only decision possible. Any other decision would not have made sense," said Mikhail Fedotov, a member of the team of lawyers representing Yeltsin at the hearings. "The court decided in our favor in 80 percent of its answers to the questions that were posed to it."