In other items: Assassination plot foiled, says South Korea; Israel approves release of jailed Palestinians; and Cubans practice for possible attack.

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Polling stations were nearly empty yesterday in elections for Turkmenistan’s rubber-stamp Parliament, forcing officials to carry ballot boxes door to door in this nation ruled by a former Soviet Communist boss who has been declared president-for-life.

The 131 candidates contesting Parliament’s 50 seats all represent the Central Asian country’s only party, the Democratic Party led by President Saparmurat Niyazov.

At least half of voters had to take part to make the election valid. Election officials said 61.38 percent of eligible voters cast ballots during the first four hours.

However, polling stations in the capital, Ashgabat, were almost empty. Election officials, saying they were following orders, went door to door, carrying ballot boxes and voting slips, asking people to cast their vote.

“I don’t know who to vote for. Does it matter?” a 70-year-old voter in Ashgabat said. “What do they [deputies] do for people?

“I came not to choose anybody, but just to drop ballot papers for my whole family, so they can take a note that my family voted,” he said.

Seoul, South Korea

Assassination plot foiled, says South Korea

South Korea’s Yonhap News reported yesterday that Austrian security forces foiled an attempt to assassinate a son of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il during a European trip last month, but Austrian authorities denied knowledge of any incident.

The report of the plot against Kim Jong-nam came amid persistent rumors of internal political strife in the reclusive communist state and within the nation’s first family itself. Citing a source familiar with North Korean affairs, Yonhap said the failed plot had been planned by North Koreans who favor other of Kim Jong-il’s sons as his eventual successor.

Austria’s Interior Ministry confirmed Kim Jong-nam was in Vienna for two days about two weeks ago and said he was guarded during his stay by state anti-terrorism agents but said that was routine for foreign dignitaries.

“There were no incidents. We are not aware of anything like this reported plot,” spokesman Rudolf Gollia said.


Israel approves release of jailed Palestinians

Israel yesterday approved the release of 170 Palestinian prisoners in a goodwill gesture to Egypt and in hopes of encouraging negotiations with interim Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.

The Palestinian prisoner decision followed Egypt’s Dec. 5 release of Azzam Azzam, an Israeli Arab who served eight years in prison on an espionage charge, in exchange for six Egyptians suspected of planning attacks on Israeli soldiers. Israeli Prime Minister Sharon called the decision a “goodwill gesture.”

Israel holds an estimated 7,000 Palestinian prisoners, many accused of security-related crimes. Officials said the prisoners to be freed next week were not actively involved in attacks on Israelis. The Israeli daily Haaretz said 120 of the prisoners are members of Abbas’ Fatah Party. The others were jailed on minor offenses.


Cubans practice for possible attack

Cubans awoke to air-raid sirens yesterday and practiced shooting, putting on gas masks and doing duck-and-cover drills as the communist nation wrapped up a week of defense exercises to prepare for a possible attack by the United States the communist nation says it expects during President Bush’s second term.

State-run newspapers reported that the exercises were a success and that Cuba’s “capacity to resist and overcome an imperialist aggression” was demonstrated.

American authorities have said there are no plans to attack Cuba, and that the large-scale exercises in Cuba were really to distract people from the hardships of their lives.