British teacher home from Sudan, mulling options

LIVERPOOL, England - A British teacher returned to her northern English hometown yesterday after being pardoned in Sudan for insulting Islam by allowing her students to name a teddy bear Muhammad.

After traveling through the night from Sudan, Gibbons told reporters at London's Heathrow Airport that she was stunned by the swift turn of events and her eight days in jail.

"I'm just an ordinary middle-aged primary school teacher. I went out there to have an adventure, and got a bit more than I bargained for," she said. "I don't think anyone could have imagined it would snowball like this."

At her son's home, British Muslims delivered a message of support and brought a bouquet with the message: "Welcome back, Gillian."

Gibbons' supporters have said the case started when a school secretary with a grudge complained to the Ministry of Education that Gibbons had insulted Islam's Prophet Muhammad.

No parents ever complained, school director Robert Boulos said.

However, the case escalated as Muslim clerics in Sudan sought to drum up public outrage, calling the naming of the teddy bear part of a Western plot to insult the prophet.

Gibbons, 54, was freed Monday after two Muslim members of Britain's House of Lords met with Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. The teacher sent the president a statement saying she did not mean any offense.

White House says Bush will visit Mideast, boost talks

WASHINGTON - President Bush will visit the Mideast in early January as he presses the Israelis and Palestinians to resume long-stalled peace talks and forge an elusive agreement for an independent Palestinian homeland.

The White House would not disclose details of Bush's itinerary, but an Israeli television station said he will go to Israel for the first time in his presidency.

"The president believes now is an appropriate time to visit the region," said White House press secretary Dana Perino.

British hostages threatened:

If troops don't leave Iraq...

BAGHDAD - Captors holding five Britons demanded yesterday that Britain pull all its forces from Iraq, posting a videotape showing a bearded, haggard-looking victim more than six months after the group was kidnapped.

The purported hostage, speaking clearly with a British accent, identified himself as "Jason" and gave the date as more than two weeks ago. He sat under a sign in Arabic identifying the captors as "The Islamic Shiite Resistance in Iraq."

"My name is Jason. Today is November 18," he said, alternately glancing at the camera and downward, perhaps at a piece of paper. "I have been here now for 173 days and I feel we have been forgotten." No other hostage was shown.

A written statement featured on the video, aired by Al-Arabiya television, accused Britain of plundering the wealth of Iraq and demanded that British troops leave within 10 days. It did not say what would happen if the deadline was not met or when the countdown begins.

An American soldier, meanwhile, was killed in a vehicle explosion on Monday during a recovery operation in Anbar province, west of Baghdad, the military said yesterday.

U.N. says it needs money

to aid more in Bangladesh

DHAKA, Bangladesh - The recent cyclone in Bangladesh destroyed tens of thousands more homes than previously believed and killed twice as much livestock, a U.N. agency said yesterday, after having time to reach the more inaccessible areas.

Cyclone Sidr affected more than 8.5 million people - 1.5 million more than initially estimated, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, or OCHA.

The category 4 storm hit the country's coast on Nov. 15 with winds of 150 mph. Nearly 3,300 people were killed and almost 900 are missing. Another 40,000 were injured.

Nearly 564,000 houses were destroyed - 200,000 more than reported earlier.

Crops were damaged on more than 2 million acres of land, and more 1.25 million livestock were killed - twice the original estimate, OCHA said.

Food, shelter, water, sanitation and money are urgently needed, the U.N. said. *

-Associated Press