Colombia backs off, lets Chavez deal with rebels

CARACAS, Venezuela - Colombia agreed yesterday to let Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez send planes and helicopters into its territory to pick up three hostages who have been held for years by leftist rebels.

Chavez said he hoped the hostages - including a mother and her young son - could be on Venezuelan soil by sundown today.

Colombia's largest rebel group announced last week that it would unilaterally hand over the three hostages to Chavez, demonstrating the guerrillas' affinity for the socialist leader. It also sidelined U.S.-allied Colombian President Alvaro Uribe by preventing him from assuming a leading role in the release.

Yesterday, Colombia said it had authorized the Venezuelan mission, and Foreign Minister Fernando Araujo, after conferring with Uribe, thanked Chavez in particular for his efforts.

Chad court sentences 6

aid workers to hard labor

N'DJAMENA, Chad - A Chadian court convicted six French aid workers of trying to kidnap 103 African children and sentenced them yesterday to eight years of forced labor.

The sentence came on the fourth day of the trial of the workers for the charity Zoe's Ark, who were charged with fraud and kidnapping after authorities stopped a convoy with 103 children that the group was planning to fly to France.

The defendants maintain they were driven by compassion to help orphans in Darfur, which borders Chad. An uprising that flared in Darfur in 2003 has led to the deaths of more than 200,000 people and forced 2.5 million to flee.

But subsequent investigations revealed that most of the 103 children that Zoe's Ark was planning to fly out were Chadians who lived with at least one parent or close adult relative.

Japan will revisit WWII

allegations, under pressure

TOKYO - The Education Ministry will restore textbook references suggesting that Japan's wartime military could have played a role in forcing Okinawans to commit mass suicides during the closing days of World War II, officials said yesterday.

The ministry's move is an apparent attempt to ease the huge public outcry on Okinawa that followed an order last year to amend the texts to soften brutal accounts of Japanese wartime conduct.

"We take heed of the feelings of the people of Okinawa who don't want to see the lesson of the history forgotten," Education Minister Kisaburo Tokai said in a statement.

Crocodile Hunter's widow

plans humane whale research

SYDNEY, Australia - The widow of TV "Crocodile Hunter" Steve Irwin said today she will launch non-lethal research of whales in Antarctic waters next year in hopes of showing that Japan's scientific whale kill is a sham.

Tokyo has staunchly defended its annual cull of more than 1,000 whales as crucial for research, saying it is necessary to kill the whales to properly gather information about their eating, breeding and migratory habits.

Environmentalists and anti-whaling nations say the slaughter is commercial whaling in disguise, because much of the meat from the whales ends up being sold commercially.

Terri Irwin said that a whale-watching program she started to honor her late husband would expand into scientific research in 2008. Steve Irwin, the high-profile wildlife show host and environmental campaigner, was killed by a stingray last year off Australia's Great Barrier Reef.

Terror 'sleeper cell' blamed for killing three tourists

NOUAKCHOTT, Mauritania - Mauritania's interior minister blamed a terrorist sleeper cell yesterday for the Christmas Eve killing of four French family members visiting the African country.

Mauritania, on the edges of the Sahara desert, has been relatively free of terrorism, compared with neighbors such as Algeria, where earlier this month a suicide bomber killed 37 people.

"The cowardly act of violence toward the French tourists was an act of terrorism," said Mauritania's Minister of the Interior Yall Zakaria Alassane. "There are sleeper cells in Mauritania and one of them committed this act," he said.

Iranian minister: Russia's sending us defense missiles

TEHRAN, Iran - Russia is preparing to equip Iran with a powerful new air defense system that would dramatically increase its ability to repel an attack, Mostafa Mohammad Najjar, Iran's defense minister, said yesterday.

The S-300 anti-aircraft missile defense system is capable of shooting down aircraft, cruise missiles and ballistic missile warheads at ranges of over 90 miles and at altitudes of about 90,000 feet. Russian military officials boast that its capabilities outstrip the U.S. Patriot missile system. *

-Associated Press