Taliban mili-tants in Afghanistan handed over 12 South Korean church workers Wednesday who are among 19 hostages held since mid-July. Under the terms of a deal struck between the insurgents and the South Korean government, the remaining hostages, who've been held in different locations, are expected to be freed during the next few days. Two other male hostages were executed and two women were released earlier this month. The Taliban backed down from demands for a prisoner exchange, but South Korea agreed to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan and bar missionaries from working there.

Sections of the Great Wall of China along the ancient Silk Road trade route could be reduced to "mounds of dirt" in 20 years by sandstorms, the official Xinhua News Agency reported Wednesday. Desertification from farming practices used in northern China in the 1950s is blamed for the erosion. Twenty-five miles of the wall have already been destroyed.

South African leader Nelson Mandela, whose monumental efforts helped end apartheid, was honored Wednesday in London with the unveiling of a statue of him in Parliament Square. Mandela spent 27 years in prison for his political activism, but became South Africa's president after his release. He left office in 1999, but remains active in fighting poverty, literacy, and HIV/AIDS in Africa.

Greek firefighters said Wednesday that they have put out the deadly forest fires that had trapped villagers in parts of the Peloponnesian peninsula. Officials warned, however, that winds could rekindle the flames.

Turkey's newly elected president, Abdullah Gul, the first head of state with a background in political Islam, pledged to uphold the country's secularism system during his inaugural speech. On Wednesday, he approved a cabinet poised to push ahead stalled reforms.

Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who is planning a return from her self-exile abroad, moved closer to a power-sharing deal by ironing out Musharraf's military role, a cabinet minister said Wednesday. With his popularity sinking, Musharraf aims to make a smooth transition from an Army chief to a civilian president to bolster his reelection hopes.

To prevent the extinction of Sumatran tigers and elephants, about 120 local and international delegates began three days of meetings in Jakarta, Indonesia, Wednesday. A focus of discussions is vanishing habitat. More than 20 million acres of lowland tropical forests, where the animals tend to live, have been lost to farming and logging since 1990.

For the first time in nearly 10 years, the defense ministers of China and Japan met Wednesday in an effort to ease tensions. The meeting in Tokyo was seen as a step toward reducing mistrust, and will be followed later this year by the first-ever call by a Chinese warship at a Japanese port.

The US has vowed to double its efforts to wipe out Afghanistan's drug trade, a US diplomat said Wednesday in response to recent reports that opium cultivation, which helps support insurgent activities, is soaring.

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