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US TRADE DEFICIT CLIMBS SHARPLY The United States merchandise trade deficit soared to $10.2 billion in March, the worst showing in almost four years, as imports hit an all-time high, the government said yesterday. The Commerce Department said that American demand for foreign oil and automobiles contributed to a dramatic 29.1 percent widening of the trade gap, compared with a February deficit of $7.9 billion. The March deficit was far worse than economists had been expecting and likely will cause the government to revise down its assessmen t for how the overall economy performed during the January-March period from an already sluggish rate of 1.8 percent growth in the gross domestic product. So far this year, the US deficit is running at an annual rate of $103 billion compared with last year's $84.5 billion deficit. Serb fighters sentenced

Thirteen Serb militiamen have been convicted by a military court and sentenced to the maximum 20 years in prison for terrorism and plotting against Croatia, the Zagreb daily Vjesnik reported yesterday. Croatian Serbs, backed by the Serb-dominated Yugoslav Army, captured a third of Croatia after rebelling against its declaration of independence in 1991. Rebel Serbs have refused Croat demands to return the territory. Iranian arms buildup

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Aggressive arms-buying by Iran has rekindled concern about the Islamic nation's military ambitions, the International Institute for Strategic Studies said in its annual report yesterday. Western leaders are worried both because Iran is replacing the arsenal lost in its 1980-88 war with Iraq and because of Islamic fundamentalists' challenges to the more moderate President Hashemi Rafsanjani, the report said. Genoa's mayor arrested

Another prominent Italian politician was snared yesterday, with the arrest of Genoa's mayor in connection with the celebrations of the city's native son, Christopher Columbus, news reports said. Claudio Burlando was the first mayor of a major city to be arrested in a series of sweeps that have resulted in the arrests or investigations of hundreds of politicians since February 1992. Mr. Burlando was arrested on charges of swindling and abuse of office, the reports said. Strikes wind down

Strikes in the east German steel industry continued yesterday, but metalworkers began returning to their jobs with union-supplied bands serenading the end of the first strikes in six decades in the region. Up to 40,000 workers had been on strike daily since May 3 demanding that employers reinstate a broken promise to phase in western German pay scales. Canada backs S. Africa

Canada has pledged an additional $7.8 million to support reform in South Africa, External Affairs Minister Barbara McDougall said yesterday in Johannesburg. "Canada is very encouraged by the recent and significant progress in the multiparty negotiations in South Africa," she said. War bonuses vetoed

Breaking with a tradition that began with World War I, Pennsylvania voters overwhelmingly rejected a proposal to pay cash bonuses of up to $525 to the state's 33,000 veterans of the Gulf war. States traditionally have given cash bonuses to war veterans, and Pennsylvania voters did so for soldiers who fought in World War I, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. Call for logging curbs

The US Forest Service is being asked by some of its own employees to adopt strict prohibitions against logging near rivers and streams on national forests. Leaders of a group of 2,000 past and present agency workers said they would file a petition with the service in Washington yesterday for a regulation requiring a 300-foot buffer be placed between streams and logging activities in five Western states. The buffer zones are needed to slow erosion and landslides that are choking off sensitive fish populat ions, said a spokesman for the Association of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics in Eugene, Ore.

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