A Jordanian company working for the US military decided Tuesday to withdraw from Iraq, complying with demands of kidnappers threatening to kill two employees, even as a senior Egyptian diplomat returned to work a day after being released by militants. In new violence, a Baghdad mortar barrage killed an Iraqi garbage collector and injured 14 coalition soldiers. Meanwhile, officials announced that a three-day national conference to choose an interim assembly will begin on July 31 - a step seen as key to any democratic transformation. The conference had been due to be finished by the end of the month, but the UN requested a delay because preparations were far behind schedule, conference chair Fuad Masoum said.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia retracted his resignation Tuesday, ending a two- week standoff with Yasser Arafat that raised questions about the Palestinian leader's ability to rein in dissident elements of his Fatah movement. Qureia had resigned in frustration over Arafat's refusal to let him restructure security forces and deal with growing unrest. Also Tuesday, two Palestinians were killed in a gunbattle with Israeli troops in Gaza City.

The US circulated a UN draft resolution last week, which, according to an announcement made Tuesday, included a direct threat of sanctions against the Sudanese government if it does not rein in Arab militias accused of killing thousands in the western Darfur province. Egypt has argued against the sanctions, saying they would be damaging and should be avoided.

After being handed over by the US, four French nationals held at the naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, arrived in Paris. The men, captured during the US campaign to topple the Taliban in Afghanistan, had been held for more than two years without being charged. Three other French detainees remain at Guantánamo.

About 200 North Korean defectors, the largest group ever to reach South Korea, arrived in the capital on Tuesday, to be followed soon by an even larger group, according to the Associated Press. A trickle of defectors to the South has grown into a steady stream in recent years as more North Koreans flee hunger and repression in the communist country.

A French court nullified the country's first homosexual marriage on Tuesday, a move that led the government to try to suspend Noel Mamere, the high-profile Green Party mayor who conducted the ceremony. Mamere was stripped of his official duties for one month following the marriage ceremony. The couple has expressed optimism that the move would be overturned, promising to take the case to the European Court of Human Rights if necessary.

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