THE AMERICAS

Eight Venezuelan Hostages Released

CARACAS, Venezuela -- Eight people taken hostage when their domestic Venezuelan flight was hijacked to Colombia last month were freed yesterday and returned to Venezuela.

They had been held by Colombian guerrillas in a camp just inside Colombia, Venezuelan officials said. The pilot and co-pilot were released Sunday and flew the Avior Airlines twin-engine plane to the border town of Guasdualito.

In a statement Sunday, guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia said the plane was hijacked July 30 by Venezuelan dissidents opposed to President Hugo Chavez. The rebels said they came across the aircraft after hijackers abandoned it in the jungle. But Venezuelan and Colombian officials rejected those assertions.

THE MIDDLE EAST

Iran Releases Captured Turkish Soldiers

ANKARA, Turkey -- Iran released two Turkish soldiers it had held for 19 days, an apparent goodwill gesture on the eve of security talks with Ankara. The soldiers were handed over at the Kapikoy border crossing, Turkish officials said. The Turkish Anatolian news agency said they were in good health.

Iran detained the soldiers after they crossed the border in the wake of a Turkish bombing on July 18. Iran said the Turkish attack hit one of its military posts and a nearby tribal encampment, killing five and wounding 10.

ASIA

U.S. Congressmen Meet Taiwanese Officials

TAIPEI, Taiwan -- Taiwan's defense minister, Tang Fei, told visiting U.S. congressmen that China likely will keep up military pressure on Taiwan at least until the island's presidential elections in March. Tang met Rep. Benjamin A. Gilman (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House International Relations Committee, and repeated earlier assurances that Taiwan will take pains to avoid any confrontation.

"Prior to the presidential elections next year, the Chinese communist military moves will not ease," Tang said.

Rising Sun Is Now Official Symbol of Japan

TOKYO -- The Rising Sun flag and an ode to the emperor were officially voted Japan's symbols after years of debate over whether the move would be a sign of resurgent nationalism. The upper house of parliament voted in favor of the bill after overwhelming approval by the lower house last month.

The Rising Sun -- a red disk on a white field -- and the "Kimigayo" imperial hymn have long served as de facto national symbols. The flag flies outside schools and government buildings, and the anthem is played at sports events and public ceremonies. However, they have not been legally sanctioned as national symbols since World War II because, to many Japanese and other Asians, the symbols represent Japanese aggression in the 1930s and '40s.

Pakistani Artillery Shells Hit Kashmir

SRINAGAR, India -- More than 200 Pakistani artillery shells slammed into villages in Indian-controlled Kashmir over the weekend, killing one person and damaging more than a dozen homes, a government spokesman said.

Pakistan agreed last month to secure a withdrawal of Islamic guerrillas that had slipped into Indian territory, but the two countries continue to exchange artillery fire almost daily across the cease-fire line that divides Kashmir. Both countries -- the world's newest declared nuclear powers -- claim all of the region, and have gone to war over it twice since independence in 1947.

EUROPE

Planes Bomb Georgian Village

TBILISI, Georgia -- Two unidentified warplanes bombed a Georgian village just south of a Russian region where Russian forces and Islamic rebels are in a tense standoff, officials said. Three people were hospitalized.

A Sukhoi-25 and a MiG fighter entered Georgian airspace and dropped bombs on the village of Zemo Omalo, in a mountainous region that borders the Russian republics of Dagestan and Chechnya, Georgian Minister of State Vazha Lordkipanidze said.

Russia's air force denied any connection to the planes, as did Chechnya. Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze expressed indignation over the bombing and Russia's acting Prime Minister Vladimir Putin promised to check into the attack.

French Soldier Wounded in Kosovo Clash

KOSOVSKA MITROVICA, Yugoslavia -- A French soldier was seriously hurt in clashes between peacekeepers and ethnic Albanians trying to storm the Serb-dominated part of this major Kosovo town, a French military spokesman said. Leaders of the Kosovo Liberation Army subsequently dispersed the crowd confronting the French peacekeeping force at a bridge linking the Albanian and Serb sides of the province's third largest town.

It was the third straight day of disturbances between ethnic Albanian crowds apparently organized by the KLA and French soldiers trying to preserve peace in Kosovska Mitrovica.

Bosnian Croat Extradited to Tribunal

ZAGREB, Croatia -- Succumbing to international pressure, Croatia extradited a Bosnian Croat suspected of war crimes for trial before a U.N. tribunal.

Vinko Martinovic boarded an airplane to Amsterdam, where he will be handed over into the custody of the international war crimes tribunal based in The Hague. Martinovic, 36, also known as Stela, is charged with crimes against humanity, grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions and violations of laws and customs of war. He was indicted by the tribunal in December.

AFRICA

Official Gains Release of 4 Hostages

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone -- A former junta official headed into the forests of Sierra Leone, hoping to gain the release of about 20 hostages being held by his onetime rebel colleagues. Several hours later, the rebels freed four people -- including three British soldiers working for the United Nations -- and promised to free the remainder today, according to a top government official.

The intermediary, Idrissa Kamara, was captured by his former junta colleagues Friday after he tried to negotiate a hostage release but was freed Sunday. He returned to the soldiers' camp to seek the freedom of the rest of the prisoners, according to an assistant to Sierra Leonean President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah.

The hostage crisis began last Wednesday when a group of rebels seized about 35 people outside Freetown.

QUOTE OF THE DAY

"He thanked me for good work, and fired me."

Russian Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin -- Page A1