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RUSSIAN JETS BOMB CHECHEN CAPITAL Wave after wave of Russian jets bombed the Chechen capital yesterday while Russian artillery lobbed shells into the city center. At least 24 people were killed, including an American photographer. Her identity was not immediately released. It was the heaviest bombardment yet of Grozny and represented a major escalation in Russia's assault on the capital of the breakaway republic. Meanwhile, in Moscow, Defense Minister Pavel Grachev reportedly fired three top generals in Chechnya and took personal command of military operations there. He also allowed two deputies to resign, the ITAR-Tass news agency said. US economy chugs on

The US economy grew at a robust 4 percent annual rate in the third quarter and is on a pace for its best performance in at least six years. Despite rising interest rates intended to slow growth, the Commerce Department reported yesterday that consumer spending remains strong. Personal spending combined with business investment and government outlays to lead the surge in the July-September quarter.

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Mexico's money woes

Bidding to counter a rising economic crisis, the Mexican government yesterday abandoned its policy of defending the new peso against the US dollar, allowing it to float freely on currency markets. It was the latest dramatic announcement by President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon to stave off wild speculation in Mexico's financial markets, shaken this week by resurgent unrest in the southern state of Chiapas. The decision followed Tuesday's abrupt 13-percent devaluation of the Mexican currency against the dollar.

Man shot at White House dies

Marcelino Corniel, the knife-wielding homeless man shot by police in front of the White House Wednesday, has died. Federal officials defended the shooting as a justified use of force because the man did not follow orders to give up his weapon.

N. Korea hands over body

North Korea returned the body of an American pilot yesterday, and a US congressman said the communist nation will shortly free his detained colleague. Rep. Bill Richardson (see photo), who helped negotiate the repatriation of Chief Warrant Officer David Hilemon's body, predicted that Chief Warrant Officer Bobby Hall will be home by Christmas. Mr. Richardson said he had reached an agreement with North Korea that calls for the release of Mr. Hall, who also was aboard the unarmed US Army OH-58C helicopter that strayed into North Korean territory last Saturday.

New York smoking ban

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A bill approved by the New York City Council would cut back the already limited number of places where smokers can light up, including any restaurant that seats 35 or more people. Smoking also would be forbidden in outdoor arenas, such as Yankee Stadium, and in bowling alleys and bingo parlors. In workplaces, it would be confined to separate ventilated smoking rooms or private offices that have one to three people who agree to allow smoking.

Post office record

The post office set a mail-handling record Monday, postmarking 280,489,000 letters and cards. The Monday before Christmas is traditionally the busiest day of the year for the Postal Service. The tally topped last year's peak by nearly 20 million postmarks, said Nick Barranca, manager of operations performance for the post office.

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