News in Brief

Baluyevsky Asked to Remain

President Vladimir Putin has asked General Yury Baluyevsky, the chief of the General Staff who will reach the age of mandatory retirement Wednesday, to stay on another two years, Interfax reported Tuesday.

Putin wants Baluyevsky, who is also first deputy defense minister, to remain until 2010, the report said, citing an unidentified Defense Ministry official.

Baluyevsky turns 65 on Wednesday.

Putin has extended the service of other senior commanders in the past, but usually just for one year. (MT)

Moscow Set to Play the Host

Moscow will host the next Middle East peace conference this year, but only if Palestinian-Israeli relations improve to allow meaningful progress, a Foreign Ministry official said.

President Vladimir Putin proposed late last year holding the next conference in Moscow. But Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin told Rossia television on Sunday that only when "stability is in the offing in that region will we think of hosting an international conference."

Russia, the United States, the European Union and the United Nations are all members of the so-called Quartet of international mediators in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (MT)

Institute Wants Mars Money

If the government decides to fund a manned mission to Mars, the space industry will be able to design and produce the spacecraft and its launch vehicle by 2025, Interfax reported Tuesday.

"It is prestigious and real, and it is Russia's priority to land a cosmonaut on Mars," Lev Zelyony, director of the Space Research Institute at the Russian Academy of Sciences, told Interfax.

If fully funded, the Martian program could land a cosmonaut on the red planet sometime from 2023 to 2025, he said. He did not say how much the program might cost. (MT)

London Exhibit Back On

A cultural official has confirmed that paintings from Russian museums will be permitted to go to London for a major exhibition.

Galina Uvarova, adviser to the head of the Federal Culture and Cinematography Agency, said the exhibition, "From Russia: French and Russian Master Paintings 1870-1925," would open on Jan. 26 as planned, Interfax reported Sunday.

The agency threatened to bar the exhibit late last month but allowed it to go ahead after British officials agreed to move up legislation to protect the art from being seized in a lawsuit. (MT)

Polish Leader in No Hurry

WARSAW, Poland -- Poland's prime minister sees no reason to rush a decision on accepting a U.S. missile defense base, underlining the new government's greater skepticism toward the U.S. project.

"We definitely shouldn't hurry on the missile defense issue," Donald Tusk was quoted as saying in an interview published this week in the Polish edition of Newsweek.

"Remember, the shield is supposed to defend America, not Poland," he added, saying more talks were needed.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Kisliak is to visit Warsaw on Thursday for talks on the missile shield with Poland's top diplomat, Radek Sikorski. (AP)

Lebedko Told to Stay Home

MINSK -- Belarus has banned United Civil Party leader Anatoly Lebedko from traveling abroad, the veteran opposition figure said, calling it a political move after he met U.S. President George Bush last year.

Lebedko, leader of one of several liberal and nationalist opposition parties that have tried to unite, said he received papers from the Interior Ministry banning him from travel abroad, which it said was in connection with a libel case against him.

"The travel ban is a political decision," he said late last week. (Reuters)