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Dec. 3, 2007 at 7:53 AM
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Sudan releases 'teddy bear' teacher

KHARTOUM, Sudan, Dec. 3 (UPI) -- The schoolteacher jailed by Sudan for allowing students to name a teddy bear Mohammed was pardoned and released in Khartoum on Monday.

Gillian Gibbons, 54, was sentenced to 15 days in jail last Thursday for what conservative Muslims consider a sacrilege, but on Monday, President Omar al-Bashir pardoned her six days before the sentence ended, CNN reported.

Two Muslim members of Britain's House of Lords reportedly lobbied Bashir for the woman's release, CNN said.

The men met privately with Gibbons Saturday, who told them she was being treated well, they told reporters.

On Friday, hundreds of Muslim protesters rallied in front of the presidential palace and called for Gibbons to be executed under Islamic sharia law.

After a debriefing at the British embassy, Gibbons and the two parliamentarians were scheduled to fly back to London, the report said.

Israel frees 429 Palestinian prisoners

JERUSALEM, Dec. 3 (UPI) -- Israel released 429 Palestinian security prisoners in three waves Monday in a goodwill gesture to bolster ongoing peace negotiations.

The inmates had been scheduled for release a week ago Sunday, but there were unexplained delays, Ynetnews reported.

The prisoners met with representatives of the International Red Cross, underwent fingerprint identity verification and had to sign a statement pledging they would never again undertake violence against Israel, the report said.

Prison officials said the release was done in three waves to prevent bottlenecks at border crossings.

Sunday, jailed militant Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti criticized the release, calling it "a joke," Ynetnews said.

"Most of those slated for release would have been freed a few months from now anyway," Barghouti said.

A week ago, the United States hosted a summit for Israeli and Palestinian leaders and scores of Arab and European interests to craft an agenda for peace negotiations.

Venezuelan voters reject Chavez plan

CARACAS, Venezuela, Dec. 3 (UPI) -- Venezuelan voters have narrowly defeated President Hugo Chavez's proposal to overhaul the constitution, officials announced Monday.

Voters rejected a package of 69 proposed amendments by a vote of 51 percent to 49 percent, the Election Commission said. The outcome was the first major electoral defeat in the nine years of Chavez's presidency, The New York Times said.

Opponents of the Chavez proposal celebrated the news, shooting fireworks into the air and honking car horns, the newspaper said.

Conceding defeat, Chavez called the outcome a "photo finish."

"I congratulate my adversaries for this victory," he said. "For now, we could not do it."

There were reports of limited violence at a polling site involving a former defense minister as he went to cast his ballot. Four people were said to have been hurt, Globovision TV reported Sunday.

Analysts predicted a close vote for the changes proposed by Chavez, who said he wants to remain president until 2050 when he would be 95 years old.

Critics of Chavez contend he is trying to turn his oil-rich country into a Cuba-style communist state.

Chavez told reporters during the weekend he would cut off oil supplies to the United States if Washington attempted to interfere with the referendum.

Russian election results challenged

MOSCOW, Dec. 3 (UPI) -- Opposition parties accused President Vladimir Putin's United Russia party of election irregularities Monday after it swept to apparent victory a day earlier.

International monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe also questioned the fairness of Sunday's parliamentary elections, CNN reported.

The Novosti news agency reported with 98 percent of votes counted, United Russia received 64.1 percent of the vote, the Communist Party 11.6 percent, the ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party 8.2 percent and the loyalist A Just Russia 7.8 percent.

Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov called a news conference to criticize the results and Putin's party.

"This group has come up with 20 ways of humiliating the people," Zyuganov said.

Among the changes the party instituted before the vote was abolishing the "none of the above" option on ballots, increasing parties' minimum election threshold from 5 percent to 7 percent and canceling the minimum voter turnout requirement, Novosti said.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov told CNN the complaints were groundless.

"What we faced here was a free and democratic election campaign," Peskov said. "And the fact that we now, according to preliminary results, are expecting a three- or four-party parliament shows that this was really a race."

Hekmatyar wants interim Afghan govt.

KABUL, Afghanistan, Dec. 3 (UPI) -- Hard-line Islamist and warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar reportedly wants a phased withdrawal of foreign forces and a neutral interim government in Afghanistan.

Pakistan's Dawn newspaper reported the leader of the anti-government Hizb-i-Islami group -- which has claimed responsibility for some recent suicide bomb attacks -- says a neutral caretaker government is needed to hold elections in Afghanistan.

In a statement issued during the weekend by a close associate in neighboring Pakistan's Peshawar, Hekmatyar welcomed the Japanese government's decision to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan and urged NATO members to do the same, the report said.

He called for moving foreign forces to garrisons initially, and then for withdrawing them from the country.

The Dawn report said Hekmatyar, who had once been Afghanistan's prime minister, is wanted by the U.S. government.

In his statement, he said his faction is ready for cooperation with other parties to restore peace to the country.

Hekmatyar helped end the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, but since Sept. 11, 2001, has turned against both Pakistan and the United States.

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