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Two French girls were released yesterday after being held hostage for more than a year with their mother and five Belgians, a spokesman for their Palestinian captors said. Marie-Laure Betille, 7, and Virginie Betille, 6, left for Paris on a plane, said Walid Khaled, spokesman for the radical Fatah-Revolutionary Council (FRC).

The FRC said in November 1987 they had seized the girls with their French mother Jacqueline Valente and five Belgians from a yacht off the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip.

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Suitcase may hold clue to Pan Am airline crash

Investigators trying to discover what caused the Pan Am crash that killed nearly 270 people said yesterday that they were sending some wreckage and a suitcase to an Army laboratory for special examination. Michael Charles, heading the probe into last Wednesday's crash, said further analysis would determine whether the wreckage and the suitcase showed traces of an explosion before the aircraft hit the ground.

Arab League backs Libya against US

The council of permanent representatives of the Arab League said yesterday any US attack on an alleged chemical weapons plant in Libya would seriously harm Arab-American relations. The league made the statement at a one-day meeting called by Libya after President Reagan hinted an attack might be under discussion.

Libya has denied having any chemical weapons and says the factory at Rabta will produce medicine when it opens in two or three months.

Brazil pledges to punish environmentalist's killers

Brazilian authorities pledged yesterday to punish the murderers of Francisco Mendes, a leading ecologist. Mr. Mendes, internationally known for his campaigning against the destruction of Brazil's rainforests, was shot and killed last Thursday.

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Mendes sought to protect the forests from the advance of cattle ranches. He had said repeatedly in recent weeks that gunmen hired by local cattle ranchers were out to kill him.

Uruguay says it will hold referendum on amnesty

Uruguay's Electoral Court announced yesterday that the country will hold a referendum on an amnesty for armed forces and police officers accused of human rights violations under military rule. The Electoral Court said the constitutional minimum 555,701 signatures, representing 25 percent of the electorate, had been gathered to win the unprecedented referendum.

It will be the first time that the citizens of a Latin American country decide by direct vote what should be done about rights abuses committed under a military dictatorship.

Japan's Takeshita will reshuffle Cabinet today

Japan's Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita will reshuffle his Cabinet today after the closing of the current extraordinary session of parliament, a spokesman said yesterday. Mr. Takeshita is expected to appoint new justice and education ministers while retaining Foreign Minister Sosuke Uno. He also appointed Tatsuo Murayama finance minister over the weekend.

Afghan resistance leader meets Iranian president

An Afghan resistance leader visiting Iran to consult Afghan Shiite groups met Sunday with Iranian President Ali Khamenei, who expressed hope for an Islamic government in Afghanistan, Iranian news media reported. And in Rome Saturday, Yuli Vorontsov, first deputy Soviet foreign minister, held talks for the first time with Mohammad Zahir Shah, former king of Afghanistan, who has been mentioned as playing a possible role in an Afghanistan peace settlement, officials said.

Hole in fuselage forces plane to make landing

An Eastern Airlines jet carrying 110 people made an emergency landing yesterday after blowing a hole in the fuselage at least 14 inches long at 31,000 feet, authorities said. No one was injured. The Boeing 727, Flight 251 en route to Atlanta from Rochester, N.Y., landed at Yeager Airport. The jet, carrying 104 passengers and six crew members, experienced a rapid loss of cabin pressure but no other sudden trouble when the hole opened up, said a Federal Aviation Administration spokesman.

The spokesman said there was no immediate indication of the cause of the crack in the top of the jet.

Crews conduct rescue in Colorado rail accident

Crews yesterday rescued nearly 300 holiday passengers stranded after their 18-car Amtrak train derailed in a rugged canyon during a snowstorm, authorities said. No injuries were reported among the 294 passengers and approximately 15 crew members. The accident occurred Christmas night when the California Zephyr went off the tracks in Glenwood Canyon, about 150 miles west of Denver.

The cause of the derailment was under investigation, an Amtrak official said.

Tower hints of cuts in military personnel

President-elect Bush's choice to lead the Defense Department says an emphasis on weapons systems that depend on fewer people may help the Pentagon meet its needs in a time of budgetary constraint. ``The big cost is not in the B-2 [bomber], the B-1 and the aircraft carriers,'' former Texas Sen. John Tower said Sunday. ``The big cost is not in the hardware, the big cost is in personnel.''

Mr. Tower, Bush's designated defense secretary, also said that one of his first priorities would be devising a strategy to achieve national objectives for defense.

Chinese students stage riot against Africans

Thousands of Chinese youths surrounded a train station in Nanking yesterday where more than 130 African students were holed up after three days of racial clashes, American witnesses said. The Africans of Hehai University had planned to board a train for Peking to complain at their embassies after Chinese students bombarded their dormitories with bottles and stones over the weekend.

A Xinhua news agency report said two Africans and 11 Chinese employees of Hehai University were hurt in the clashes.

Sudanese rebels say civil war to continue

Sudanese rebels yesterday said the country's five-and-a-half-year-old civil war would go on after the government rejected a peace plan the rebels promoted. The Sudanese parliament last week turned down a tentative peace accord negotiated in November by the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), part of Sudan's ruling coalition.

For the record

Chilean residents of a small town in the southern part of Chile returned to their homes yesterday after authorities said the weekend eruption of a nearby volcano posed no danger. In Haiti, charges against nine soldiers accused of fomenting an October coup attempt were dropped, and four of those who had been jailed were released Sunday, the government said.

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