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World Briefing - 2003-03-04

In Syria, election officials are counting votes following the country's first legislative elections since President Bashar al-Assad took office in 2000. Polls closed Monday after two days of voting. Nearly five thousand candidates are vying for one of the 250 seats in Syria's legislative body, called the People's Assembly. The ruling coalition is expected to remain in power.

Estonia's general election Sunday ended in a virtual tie, with the top two parties taking an equal number of seats in parliament. Election officials say the Center Party of former Prime Minister Edgar Savisaar finished with a slightly higher vote tally, a little more than 25%. Each party ended up with 28 seats in the 101-member parliament. All six parties in the election pledged to continue economic reforms in Estonia and to make progress toward NATO and European Union membership.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Irish counterpart Bertie Ahern have begun meeting with political parties in Northern Ireland for talks aimed at rescuing the province's peace process. Northern Ireland's main Protestant party, the Ulster Unionists, and the Catholic nationalist party Sinn Fein are taking part in the discussions in Belfast.

Cuban leader Fidel Castro says he will do what he can to help resolve the North Korean nuclear standoff. Speaking in Tokyo Sunday, Mr. Castro said that although he stands ready to help, his influence is limited because of limited direct contact with Pyongyang. Japan is the last stop on an 11-day Asian tour that also took Mr. Castro to Vietnam, Malaysia and China.

Philippine officials say plans for a large-scale U.S. military deployment in their country may have to be altered because of opposition from Muslims in the violence-plagued South. The ten-month-long exercise likely would draw Americans into actual combat against the Abu Sayyaf band of Islamic rebels. The southern Philippines is a stronghold for Abu Sayyaf militants, who are alleged to be linked to the al-Qaida terrorist network.