THE MIDDLE EAST

Jordan Releases Hamas Detainees

AMMAN, Jordan--Jordan released about two dozen detainees from the militant Palestinian group Hamas yesterday, and four freed leaders were flown to Qatar immediately.

Jordan decided to suspend its case against the men following consultations between King Abdullah and Qatar's Emir Hamad Bin Khalifa Thani, a government statement said.

Jordan cracked down on Hamas in August, closing the group's offices in Amman and later arresting its leaders, saying they had violated Jordanian law and engaged in activities harming national security.

Sources said four leaders flown to Qatar were politburo chief Khaled Meshal, spokesman Ibrahim Ghosheh and politburo members Abdul Aziz Umary and Sami Khatter. Jordan said the men went to Qatar at their own request, apparently to live in exile, but Hamas officials condemned the move and said the group never engaged in any acts that would harm Jordan.

AFRICA

Kenyan Notes Rise in Elephant Poaching

NAIROBI--A Kenyan wildlife expert said the limited lifting of a worldwide ban on trade in ivory is encouraging illegal poaching of Africa's elephants.

Paula Kahumbu, scientific adviser to the Kenya Wildlife Service, said 29 elephants had been killed this year for their ivory in Kenya's Tsavo National Park--five times the average over the last six years, when a total ivory ban was in effect.

The figures appeared to confirm environmentalists' fears that a partial lifting of the ban for Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia, a decision opposed by Kenya, could spark a resurgence in poaching.

EUROPE

NATO Closes Kosovo Airport as Precaution

PRISTINA, Yugoslavia--NATO closed Kosovo's airport to civilian traffic after a team investigating an aid agency plane crash questioned whether miscommunication between the airliner and controllers may have played a role in the accident, a NATO spokesman said.

Investigators are trying to find out why the charter flight by the World Food Program to ferry humanitarian workers to the province slammed into a hillside in foggy weather on Nov. 12, killing 24 people.

The French team in charge of the probe requested the shutdown Saturday. NATO spokesman Roland Lavoie stressed that the shutdown was a precaution, intended to give investigators time to examine the rules followed by civilian and military aircraft to see what differences exist and whether they may have been a factor in the crash.

ASIA

Sharif Backers Claim Bomb Responsibility

LAHORE, Pakistan--Militant supporters of deposed prime minister Nawaz Sharif claimed responsibility for a bomb that killed six people in Lahore, the capital of Pakistan's eastern Punjab province.

In a statement faxed to Pakistani newspapers, an organization calling itself Al-Nawaz said it triggered the bomb Saturday to protest the coup that ousted Sharif on Oct. 12. "We will continue such activities till the reinstatement of our leader's government," the statement said.

Sharif has been in custody since the coup. Sharif's party, the Pakistan Muslim League, quickly disowned the Al-Nawaz group, saying the party condemns terrorism.

Sri Lankan Rebels Shell Church; 32 Dead

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka--At least 32 civilians were killed and about 60 wounded when Sri Lanka's Tamil Tiger rebels fired shells at a 450-year-old Catholic shrine in the northern Wanni region, military officials said.

Military spokesman Brigadier Sunil Tennakoon said 28 people were killed at the church in Madhu and four others died later in a hospital in the government-held town of Vavuniya, 135 miles northeast of the capital, Colombo.

Madhu is west of Vavuniya, scene of some of the latest fighting between the rebels and government troops.

Indian Mortar Barrage Kills 5 in Kashmir

MUZAFFARABAD,Pakistan--Indian soldiers fired several mortar shells across the disputed Kashmir border into Pakistan, killing five people, Pakistani police said.

One shell struck a vehicle near the Kiran bypass in the remote Neelum Valley, police said. The vehicle plunged into a deep ravine. Everyone aboard was killed.

No other details were available, and there was no immediate comment from India.

Indian and Pakistani troops frequently trade fire across the disputed border. Kashmir was divided between India and Pakistan in 1947 when British rule of the subcontinent ended. Both countries lay claim to a united Kashmir.

QUOTE OF THE DAY

"For the first time, at the head of the government, people see a man who says clear things and who does what he says and what he does is in line with mass expectations."

-- Political analyst Valery Solovei, on Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who is running for president --Page A17

CAPTION: A postman walks through Venice's flooded St. Mark's Square. Torrential rains swamped the city, causing water levels to reach four feet above the normal tide mark, their highest point in 14 months. More than a third of the historic center of Venice was under water.