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World Briefs II

Russian Budget Crisis Requires Drastic Cuts, Official Says

Los Angeles Times

Russia faces such a huge financial crisis that it must throw out its federal budget in mid-year and adopt a plan that drastically cuts government spending, President Boris N. Yeltsin's top financial official said Thursday.

The nation is in "a monstrous budget crisis, the scale of which calls into question the ability of the government to perform its functions," said First Deputy Prime Minister Anatoly Chubais in a speech to parliament.

Chubais, who also holds the post of finance minister, said the government was able to collect only 57 percent of the tax revenues expected during the first three months of the year and spent 63 percent of the amount budgeted for that period.

Millions of workers, soldiers and retirees have not received their pay or pensions for months, and Yeltsin has acknowledged this, describing it as the biggest problem facing the country.

Last month, about 2 million people staged a one-day national strike to protest the delay in payments, and smaller demonstrations take place daily across Russia. On Thursday, more than 100 angry school teachers blocked traffic on a major highway near Volgograd in southern Russia, linking arms across the road to protest wages that have not been paid for five months.

Probe of Matzo Prices Asked

The Washington Post

Something isn't kosher with the price of matzo this Passover.

The cost of the unleavened bread, a staple at Jewish tables during the eight-day holiday that begins Monday night, mysteriously begins to rise this time of year. Prices vary so much throughout the country that a Florida congressman, Rep. Robert Wexler, D, has asked for an investigation.

Publix, one of Florida's two largest supermarket chains, sells a five-pound box of matzo for $12, while the same brand at Ralph's supermarkets in Los Angeles goes for just $3. At a Giant market in Bethesda, Md., the price is $10.

Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth has subpoened records from two manufactuers and seven distributors of matzo, but they are not required to respond until next month, after the holiday is past.

"It's the biggest thing since the Pharaoh let us out of Egypt," quipped Wexler, who said his office has received more than 200 complaints from residents of his South Florida district. While there is "some lightness to the situation," Wexler said, it is also "very upsetting, because there seems to be no rationale" to the prices.

One of Wexler's constituents, Sylvia Confino of Boca Raton, sued two major manufacturers Tuesday, accusing them of price fixing.

Confino, who retired to Florida from New Jersey with her husband, was one of several consumers who contacted a law firm in West Palm Beach that specializes in class-action suits.

"We think the manufacturers are taking advantage of people who have no choice. They have to eat matzo as part of their religion and tradition. It's a captive audience," said Paul J. Geller, Confino's lawyer.

Feds Arrest 28 Linked To Jamaican-Run Drug Ring

Los Angeles Times

In pre-dawn raids in Los Angeles and Virginia, federal agents Thursday arrested 28 people in connection with an $11 million Jamaican-run drug ring that allegedly distributed more than 25,000 pounds of marijuana throughout the United States.

Federal authorities said tons of marijuana were shipped from Los Angeles by express mail couriers to a number of East Coast cities including New York, Baltimore and Philadelphia.

Some of the suspects charged in the 180-page, 323-count indictment face lifetime prison sentences if convicted.

The indictment describes a sophisticated drug organization that repeatedly shuttled drugs and money between the West and East coasts. To avoid detection, the drugs at times were "wrapped in layers of plastic wrap, surrounded by white deodorizer power, wrapped in newspapers soaked in ammonia and further wrapped in package tape," court documents said.

Although the leaders of the drug ring were from Jamaica, authorities said Thursday they did not believe the arrests represented any attempt by Jamaicans to take over a marijuana trade that is largely controlled by Mexican and Colombian nationals. In fact, the drugs apparently originated in Mexico, one law enforcement source said.

Mandela Invites Zairian for Talks

The Washington Post

South African President Nelson Mandela Thursday invited Zairian President Mobutu Sese Seko for talks with rebel leader Laurent Kabila, a development widely seen here as a potential path to resolving Zaire's 6-month-old war.

Mandela, whose government has emerged as the leading regional peace broker in the Zaire crisis and is working closely with the United Nations, issued the invitation based on agreement in principle by both sides to hold the top-level talks. South African officials said the talks would focus on "transitional arrangements affecting all elements of government in the context of a peaceful and negotiated solution."

Kabila, whose forces have seized about half of Zairian territory in their campaign to force Mobutu's ouster, recently demanded that Mobutu resign before the war can end. But after a private one-on-one meeting with Kabila on Wednesday in Cape Town, Mandela told journalists Thursday that the rebel leader "wants a solution that will receive the support of President Mobutu, and he has also made it clear that he has no intention of doing anything which will humiliate President Mobutu."

Kabila has agreed to the meeting, according to a source close to the negotiations. There was no word here Thursday on whether Mobutu would accept Mandela's invitation, for which no date was announced.