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News Briefs

Swiss Tunnel Fire Casualties Rise


Fires continued to rage Thursday deep inside Switzerland’s 10-mile-long St. Gotthard Tunnel, where two trucks collided Wednesday, setting off an inferno that engulfed several vehicles. Rescue workers have recovered 11 bodies; about 100 people are listed as missing.

Firefighters said temperatures exceeded 1,800 degrees, making it hard to reach the site and douse the flames. “It is a scene of horror, a scene of total destruction, a scene of dreadful tragedy,” the Swiss president, Moritz Leuenberger, said.

The tunnel, which burrows through the Alps in the Ticino region of Switzerland just north of Italy, has been called one of Europe’s safest. It has a parallel escape tunnel with connecting passageways every 250 yards.

Long alpine tunnels are crucial economic corridors from north to south in Europe, but accidents are leading officials to question their safety. In 1998, a fire broke out in the Mont Blanc tunnel that links Italy to France, killing 39 people. Heavily damaged, the tunnel was supposed to reopen by Christmas, but authorities said the new accident may thwart those plans.

The St. Gotthard catastrophe began at 9:30 a.m. local time Wednesday, when the two trucks collided head-on about a mile in from the south entrance. One of the trucks was carrying car tires. The driver, Italian Bruno Saba, told Italian television: “I saw a truck coming towards me in my lane. I couldn’t avoid the collision. I climbed out of the window.”

The victims found so far were trying to escape to the north, a longer route. Parts of the tunnel’s roof collapsed, burying between 10 and 40 vehicles, police said.

Northern Alliance Eyes Capitol Kabul


Afghan opposition forces intend to advance toward the capital, Kabul, but have not yet determined when to make their move and want U.S.-led air strikes to first put greater pressure on the ruling Taliban, a top official of the opposition Northern Alliance said Thursday.

The official, Abdullah, who is in charge of foreign affairs for the Northern Alliance, told reporters here that the opposition group has reached a “political consensus” for an advance on Kabul, but aims to be flexible and to avoid being tied down by a timetable.

“Our military forces are ready, but that does not mean we’re about to move,” he said.

Abdullah spoke as U.S. warplanes were bombing Taliban positions on the front line about 40 miles north of the capital for a fifth straight day.

In Washington, Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the war on terrorism is “proceeding according to our plan” and denied that the Pentagon is taking a “piecemeal” approach to bombing front-line Taliban troops north of Kabul.

Clinton Receives Vials of Salmonella


Fifteen vials of an unknown substance -- including two that fermented into salmonella -- were sent to the Harlem office of former President Clinton early this month, officials disclosed Thursday.

A Secret Service spokesman said the shipment has no connection to the anthrax scares, that Clinton did not handle the package containing the vials and that no one has gotten sick from the materials.

“This has nothing to do with the other mailings” that have spread anthrax in New York, New Jersey, Washington and Florida, said Jim Mackin, a Secret Service spokesman.

Salmonella is a common food poisoning bacteria that rarely is deadly.

Tests on the vials showed that two contained salmonella bacteria that had not been cultured in a laboratory but instead had turned into salmonella through fermentation, Mackin said.

“All of our protectees’ from time to time get letters that can be classified as unusual,” Mackin said. “The timing is bad,” he added, referring to the investigations into anthrax-laced letters sent to a number of media outlets and the office of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.).

Uzbekistan Opens Border to UN Aid


The government of Uzbekistan has agreed to open its border with Afghanistan so that emergency food can be shipped to starving Afghans in Taliban-held territory, a top U.N. official said Thursday.

In an effort to head off a looming famine, Uzbek President Islam Karimov will allow the United Nations to use its Soviet-era port and barges in the border town of Termez to transport aid across the Amu Darya River to Afghanistan, said Kenzo Oshima, U.N. undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs.

“The humanitarian effort is continuing to gather steam,” Oshima told reporters during a swing through Central Asia. “We are all looking forward to the continuing support of the government of Uzbekistan in getting aid to Afghanistan.”

Karimov declined a U.N. request -- at least for now -- to open the Friendship Bridge that links the two countries, out of concern that ruling Taliban forces or Afghan refugees would try to cross into Uzbekistan.

The bridge, built by the Soviet Union in 1982 so its tanks and troops could move quickly into Afghanistan, would offer aid agencies the most efficient means of delivering assistance to northern Afghanistan. It has been closed since the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif fell to the Taliban in 1998.

Instead, aid workers will load food, medicine, clothing, blankets, boots and other supplies onto barges, take them across the river and load them onto trucks supplied by relief agencies on the Afghan side. Officials hope that the deliveries will begin within a week or two.

Aid officials predict a severe humanitarian crisis if the supplies don’t begin reaching people in remote regions in the next month, before the onset of winter.