Australia: Standoff ends

SYDNEY — A tense standoff in frigid Antarctic waters ended today when two activists who had jumped on board a Japanese whaling ship were returned to their vessel by Australian officials.

Their return paved the way for the Japanese fleet to resume killing whales, and for their staunchest opponents to restart their campaign of harassment to stop them.

The activists from an anti-whaling group, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, had been detained on the Japanese harpoon boat Yushin Maru 2 since Tuesday.

Britain: Russian 'intimidation'

LONDON — Britain's foreign secretary on Thursday accused Russian authorities of "blatant intimidation" of staff at a British cultural body caught up in a diplomatic feud between Moscow and London, saying Russia's behavior evoked memories of the Cold War.

The British Council said it was suspending operations in the cities of St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg, where its offices had been ordered to close by Russian officials.

Foreign Secretary David Miliband said Britain felt "anger and dismay" at Russia's actions.

Gaza Strip: Israel attacks

GAZA CITY — Israel pummeled Gaza Thursday with air and ground fire as Palestinian rockets slammed into southern Israel, endangering recently restarted peace negotiations.

The Israeli attacks killed a militant leader and one of his female relatives along with five others in Gaza.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert vowed to strike Palestinian militants "without compromise, without concessions and without mercy." His forces carried out stepped-up attacks, but Olmert gave no hint that a large-scale offensive was near.

Malawi: Rains batter region

BLANTYRE — Rains battered portions of flood-ravaged southern Africa Thursday, killing at least three people in Malawi and forcing Zambia to declare a national disaster.

Flood-related deaths in the region now total 38, with authorities and aid agencies fearing the toll will rise as more rain is expected.

Torrential rains in Zambia and Zimbabwe have swollen the mighty Zambezi river — Africa's fourth longest — to well above the flood limit, with valleys in Malawi and Mozambique bearing the brunt as the waters hurtle down toward the Indian Ocean.

Pakistan: 9 die in attack

PESHAWAR — A suspected Sunni extremist opened fire in a Shiite mosque Thursday and then blew himself up, killing nine people on the eve of a religious festival that has been scarred by sectarian violence in the past.

The blast in northwestern Pakistan wounded at least 20, including a prominent Shiite cleric, adding to tensions in the country as it prepares for parliamentary elections Feb. 18 that many predict will weaken President Pervez Musharraf's grip on power.

Venezuela: Arms buildup

The United States is deeply worried by what it deems a dangerous arms buildup by President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, the top American military officer said Thursday.

Navy Adm. Mike Mullen told reporters after meeting in Bogata with top Colombian defense officials that Venezuela's buying of high-performance military aircraft, modern submarines and other items is potentially destabilizing for a region that already is struggling with insurgencies, terrorism and drug running.