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World Briefs II

Israeli Soldiers Die in Brush Fire

Los Angeles Times
JERUSALEM

Four Israeli soldiers burned to death and six others were badly injured in a blaze ignited by friendly fire Thursday during clashes in South Lebanon that also left four Muslim guerrillas dead, according to Israeli officials.

The troops were caught in a brush fire on the edge of the Israeli-occupied zone; Israel said the blaze was started by its own helicopter and artillery fire.

"The brush fire chased the soldiers. They tried to escape but were trapped. The fire was moving faster than they were and, of course, they were carrying explosives," said government spokesman David Bar-Illan. "Everything that could happen went wrong."

Israeli officials said the dead guerrillas belonged to a pro-Syrian Lebanese Islamic group called Amal. In Beirut, both Amal and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia claimed their forces were responsible for the Israeli casualties.

Israeli and U.N. officials said Israeli troops clashed with guerrillas early Thursday south of the Litani River, in a dry area that has long been a favored infiltration route for the guerrillas into the Israeli-occupied zone.

Thursday's air strikes against Hezbollah positions were the third in just more than a week and brought the month's death toll for fighting in South Lebanon to at least 26.

Girl Becomes First to Undergo Gene Treatment to Curb HIV

Los Angeles Times
Los Angeles

Around two o'clock Thursday afternoon at Children's Hospital Los Angeles, a 13-year-old girl infected with the virus that causes AIDS became the first child to undergo experimental gene therapy to combat the disease.

That is when registered nurse Beth Haden inserted an IV line into the girl's arm, turned the stopcock and let flow into her bloodstream half a liter of warm fluid containing genetically engineered cells from her own bone marrow.

Medical scientists extracted those cells Monday from her pelvic bone, and then endowed them with genetic material intended to hinder the growth of the AIDS virus, HIV. The girl became infected as an infant from an HIV-contaminated blood transfusion, said Dr. Donal Kohn, a pediatric immunologist, who conducted the study with Dr. Josephe Church, an AIDS specialist.

Kohn said the experiment posed little risk to the girl, who is currently healthy and attends school, and that the worst was over - the general anesthesia she received during the bone marrow extraction. There was only a slight chance that she would have an allergic reaction to the genetically engineered cells, he said.

Essentially, the strategy of the gene therapy is to confuse the virus at a crucial stage in its reproduction. The engineered marrow cells harbor a bogus shred of virus genetic material that it uses to put itself together.

If HIV gets into those engineered cells and tries to replicate, it may end up using the genetic decoy instead of the real thing. That will jam up the virus assembly line, and, the researchers speculate, curb the infection.

Federal Sites on the Internet Gather Personal Data

The Washington Post
WASHINGTON

Internet sites operated by federal agencies routinely collect data about visitors without saying how the information will be used, a practice that clashes with the Clinton administration's call for safeguarding privacy on the global computer network, according to a study released Wednesday.

Thirty-one of 70 government sites in the survey retrieved details, including names, ages and work histories, from the public. But only 11 of the sites provided statements about how the information was collected and used, according to the report by OMB Watch, a private research group based in the District.

Although the study did not uncover any abuses of the information, it concluded that at least four agencies probably violated provisions of the Privacy Act of 1974, which restricts how federal agencies gather and use personal records, said Ari Schwartz, an information issues specialist at OMB Watch.

Three Studies Show Diversity Can't Guarantee Ecosystem Strength

The Washington Post

Ecologists have long maintained that diversity is one of nature's greatest strengths, but new research suggests that diversity alone does not guarantee strong ecosystems.

In findings that could intensify the national debate over endangered species and habitat conservation, three new studies suggest a greater abundance of plant and animal varieties doesn't always translate to better ecological health. At least equally important, the research found, are the types of species and how they interact.

Separate experiments in California, Minnesota and Sweden, found that diversity often had little bearing on the performance of ecosystems - at least as measured by the growth and health of native plants. In fact, the communities with the greatest biological richness were often the poorest in terms of productivity and nutrient cycling.

One study compared plant life on 50 remote islands in northern Sweden that are prone to frequent wildfires from lightning strikes. Scientist David Wardle of Landcare Research in Lincoln, New Zealand, and colleagues at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences found that islands dominated by few species of plants recovered more quickly than nearby islands with more biological diversity.

Similar findings were reported by University of Minnesota researchers who studied savannah grasses, and by Stanford's Vitousek and colleague David Hooper, who concluded that functional characteristics of plant species were more important than the number of varieties in determining how ecosystems performed.