80 dead in Indonesia;

mudslides' toll may rise

JAKARTA, Indonesia - Mudslides have killed at least 80 people in remote villages in Central Java since yesterday morning, and rescue workers struggled yesterday to move emergency equipment into the area.

The villages, in a mountainous area, have been difficult to reach with large trucks, backhoes and other equipment needed to dig out bodies or possible survivors.

Police officers, military personnel and local residents have been clawing through the dense mud with their hands and crude farming tools.

The head of the National Coordinating Agency for Disaster Management said dozens of people were still unaccounted for and that the death toll could rise when excavating machines finally reached the area.

Days of relentless rain this week set off flooding and landslides across much of Indonesia. Landslides in Yogyakarta, also in Central Java, destroyed houses and farms.

At least one landslide in East Java and another on the resort island of Bali were responsible for several deaths. Also in East Java, at least 50 people were missing after floods caused a bridge to collapse.

Chavez' hostage-swap mission puts heat on Colombia pols

BOGOTA - If Colombia's leftist rebels safely deliver three hostages to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, the goodwill gesture will likely increase pressure for major government concessions to secure the release of 44 other high-profile captives, including three American defense contractors.

As relatives and international observers gathered in Caracas yesterday, Chavez was preparing to send Venezuelan helicopters into Colombia's lawless jungles to retrieve the initial three hostages from a rebel hideaway - possibly as early as today.

It's the latest move in a violent chess game between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels and Colombia's U.S.-aligned government, which have been at war for five decades. A larger swap of hostages for rebel prisoners would be a much bigger move toward peace.

France asks for custody

of aid workers jailed in Chad

PARIS - France asked Chad yesterday to hand over six French charity workers convicted and sentenced to eight years forced labor for trying to kidnap 103 children from the central African country.

The six workers from the charity group Zoe's Ark, charged with fraud and kidnapping, were convicted and sentenced Wednesday by a court in the Chadian capital, N'Djamena.

French Justice Minister Rachida Dati said in a statement that the repatriation request had been filed with her Chadian counterpart. Such requests are allowed under a 1976 judicial accord between the two countries.

Held five years in Gitmo,

Aussie due for release

ADELAIDE, Australia - Convicted terror supporter David Hicks will walk free tomorrow after being held captive in Guantanamo Bay and Australia for nearly seven years, though the Australian government has imposed strict controls on his movements.

Hicks became the first person convicted at a U.S. war-crimes trial since World War II when he pleaded guilty in March to providing material support to al Qaeda.

The former Outback cowboy was captured in December 2001 by the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, where he had been fighting with the Taliban. A month later, he was sent to the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where he spent more than five years without trial.

A U.S. military tribunal sentenced Hicks - a Muslim convert who has since renounced the faith - to seven years in prison, with all but nine months being suspended, after he confessed to aiding al Qaeda during the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan following Sept. 11, 2001.

Under a plea bargain, Hicks was allowed to serve the remainder of his sentence at Yatala prison in his hometown of Adelaide in South Australia state, but was ordered to remain silent about any alleged abuse he suffered while in custody.

Hicks' sentence ends today, when he will be allowed to walk out of Yatala, where a throng of media were already gathered to catch a glimpse of the confessed Taliban-allied gunman.

Cleared of graft, he can

run for Taiwan president

TAIPEI - Taiwan's High Court today cleared opposition presidential candidate Ma Ying-jeou of graft charges, rejecting an appeal by prosecutors.

The decision clears the way for Ma to represent the Nationalist Party against Frank Hsieh of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party in Taiwan's March 22 presidential elections. *

-Daily News wire services