In a new act of defiance over their nation's nuclear ambitions, Iranian delegates failed to show up Thursday for a promised meeting with the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna. The session was called so that the Iranians could explain plans for the resumption of uranium enrichment. A day earlier, the Iranians failed to meet a request by IAEA chief Mohamad ElBaradei to provide the clarification, and, in a speech, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad insisted his government would "defend the right to nuclear research and technology" and would not be deterred by warnings from Western nations.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas joined other world leaders in expressing concern over the physical condition of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Spokesmen for radical groups, however, called the situation "a gift from God" and in refugee camps Palestinian youths passed out candy and flowers in open delight. A senior Hamas leader said he saw no reason for the matter to cause the postponement of the Jan. 25 Palestinian parliamentary election. But the Palestinian Election Commission resigned en masse because of an internal dispute, although it later said it would reconsider.

A ship carrying the final 2,150 Indonesian police deployed in Aceh Province pulled out of port Thursday, fulfilling the terms of the Indonesian government's peace accord with separatist rebels there. The accord, however, allows thousands of other security forces to remain in the volatile province, and before the rebels can participate in local elections this spring a new law must be passed by parliament in Jakarta. Aceh has been mired in a 29-year civil war, but peace efforts finally succeeded in the wake of the devastating 2004 tsunami, which killed 156,000 people and left a half-million others homeless.

Amid tight security, a court in China sentenced a private businessman to three years in prison for organizing peaceful protests by fellow investors against the seizure of their oil wells. The wells, in which Feng Bingxian and about 6,000 others had invested more than $800 million as the demand for energy in China gathered speed, were seized by a provincial government in 2003. News reports have described the compensation they were paid as "paltry." Critics said the widely watched case appears to undermine the central government's pledge to respect private property.

For the second time in three months, a Latin American government ordered its ambassador to Venezuela home. Peru's Foreign Ministry said the move was necessitated by the interference of President Hugo Chávez in internal Peruvian affairs. Earlier this week, Chávez met with - and warmly praised - visiting presidential candidate Ollanta Humala, a fellow avowed nationalist who has surged ahead in recent opinion polls. Both are outspoken opponents of the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas. Humala faces ex-member of Congress Lourdes Flores in an April election. In November, Mexico expelled Venezuela's ambassador and recalled its own after Chávez referred to President Vicente Fox in disrespectful terms. Chávez refused to apologize, but the two governments have since said they're willing to restore full diplomatic ties.

At least 23 people were reported dead and more than 80 others were hurt in Mecca, Islam's holiest city, when the hostel in which they were staying collapsed. The victims were Muslim pilgrims who were in Saudi Arabia for the annual hajj and had just returned to the building following midday prayers at the Grand Mosque. Most of them were from India, Egypt, Tunisia, and the United Arab Emirates, security sources said. The collapse was the latest in a series of tragedies that have beset the hajj as the number of pilgrims has soared. Almost 2,400 Muslims died and hundreds more have been hurt in recent years in stampedes, an anti-US demonstration, and an inferno started by a cooking fire in an outdoor encampment.

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