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Friday, December 30

Editor's Note: CNN News Update is a running log of the latest news from CNN World Headquarters, reported by CNN's correspondents, producers and Wires.CNN editors.

Rare December tropical storm poses no threat to land

MIAMI (CNN) -- Tropical Storm Zeta, which formed in the Atlantic a month after the official end to the 2005 hurricane season, was becoming better organized Saturday, but posed no threat to land, according to the National Hurricane Center.

Zeta, the 27th named storm of 2005, formed Friday. As of 4 a.m. Saturday, it was about 1,040 miles southwest of the Azores Islands, with maximum sustained winds of near 60 mph. The storm was moving northwest at near 5 mph and was expected to turn toward the north-northwest later Saturday.

Zeta is the sixth letter of the Greek alphabet, used by forecasters since mid-October after they reached the end of their standard list of names. Zeta follows Epsilon, which became a Category 1 hurricane earlier this month in the same area, and also never posed a threat to land. (Updated 4:02 a.m.)

7 killed, 11 wounded in Baghdad, Khalis bombings

BAGHDAD (CNN) -- Five Iraqi civilians died and two were wounded Saturday when a bomb exploded outside the Iraqi Islamic Party's Khalis headquarters, an official with Diyala province's Joint Coordination Center told CNN.

The explosion occurred about 9:35 a.m. (1:35 a.m. ET) outside the headquarters in Khalis, about 20 miles northwest of Baquba, the official said. The Iraqi Islamic Party has been the target of regular attacks in volatile Diyala province.

Elsewhere, two Iraqi police officers died Saturday when a bomb targeted their police patrol in central Baghdad, emergency police said. And a bomb detonated near Interior Ministry police commandos in southern Baghdad, wounding four, police said. --From CNN Producer Arwa Damon. (Updated 2:47 a.m.)

Amtrak trains begin moving again after 24-hour delays

SAVANNAH, Ga. (CNN) -- Exasperated after being stuck on an Amtrak train since Thursday afternoon, Eleanor Meyer's patience was running thin Friday afternoon. "This is our 28th hour on this train," Meyer told CNN around 5 p.m. "This is a disgrace."

Meyer was one of about 800 Amtrak passengers on three northbound trains that became stalled for more than 24 hours after a freight train derailed near Savannah on Thursday, disrupting service along that major north-south rail artery for hours until the freight train could be removed.

At the height of the delays, he said, as many as eight Amtrak trains were stalled and 2,000 passengers affected. (Posted 7:47 p.m.)

Federal judge relaxes conditions for presidential assailant John Hinckley

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A federal judge is relaxing the conditions on presidential assailant John Hinckley Jr., who has been in a Washington mental hospital since being found not guilty by reason of insanity for the 1981 assassination attempt on President Reagan.

In a ruling Friday, U.S. District Court Judge Paul Friedman said Hinckley would be allowed three visits of three nights each at his parents' home in Williamsburg, Virginia.

He would not be accompanied by any hospital staff. After an assessment of how Hinckley does on those visits, including examining how he interacts with his parents, Hinckley could be allowed four additional visits of up to four nights in duration if the hospital staff and a hospital review board recommend it.

The government last September opposed allowing Hinckley any visits to his elderly parents' home, arguing he is still a danger and that he is deceptive. (Posted 7:45 p.m.)

2 of MLK's children oppose any sale of his educational center

ATLANTA (CNN) -- Two children of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. strongly criticized Friday a proposed sale to the National Park Service of the center that bears their father's name, saying that would undermine his legacy.

"Today, Bernice and I stand to differ with those who would sell our father's legacy and barter our mother's vision," said Martin Luther King III.

However, Bernice King added: "We are not opposed to some form of cooperative agreement between the King Center and the federal government through the Park Service."

The two denied that their opposition to the proposed sale of the Martin Luther King Center for Nonviolent Change was a case of sibling rivalry.

The center is owned by the King Estate, headed by King's widow, Coretta Scott King, who suffered a major stroke in August.

The center's board of directors, which is chaired by brother Dexter King, voted to transfer the property to the Park Service, which manages the Martin Luther King National Historic Site east of downtown Atlanta. (Posted 7 p.m.)

Ukraine renews natural gas deal with Turkmenistan

MOSCOW (CNN) -- Seeking to divert attention away from the row with Russia over natural gas prices, Ukrainian President Victor Yushchenko Friday announced his country will continue to import natural gas from Turkmenistan and will have enough heating fuel for the cold winter months.

"We will receive forty billion cubic meters (from Turkmenistan) which is more than a half of our gas balance for the next year," Yuschenko said, according to his Web site.

The announcement comes ahead of a Jan. 1 deadline set by Russia's Kremlin-controlled gas company, Gazprom, for Ukraine to pay four times the current price for natural gas imports, which is closer to what most Western European countries pay. (Posted 4:31 p.m.)

Sources: 3 British hostages freed in Gaza

JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Three Britons abducted in Gaza this week were released Friday and taken to a safe location, according to Palestinian security sources.

Kate Burton, a 25-year-old worker for the Palestinian rights group Al Mezan, and her visiting parents were abducted Wednesday in Rafah, along the Gaza-Egypt border.

They are in the custody of the Security Commander for Khan Younis, the sources said. It is not clear who kidnapped the family. Earlier, Palestinian officials said the abductors made no demands. (Posted 4:26 p.m.)

Saints owner: Superdome will be ready by Sept. 15

METAIRE, La. (CNN) -- New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson on Friday said a newly refurbished Louisiana Superdome will be ready for football by Sept. 15 next year.

Benson made the announcement in a news conference to say that the Saints would remain in New Orleans.

The Superdome had suffered major damage during Hurricane Katrina and in its aftermath when thousands of people were housed there for days in extremely poor conditions. Some officials had initially predicted the legendary stadium would need to be torn down.

It was not immediately clear if the Saints' first game would be played there by mid-September. National Football League Commissioner Paul Tagliabue said they are still working on the Saints' schedule. (Posted 4:23 p.m.)

Sudan to close Iraq embassy in hopes of winning release of hostages

BAGHDAD (CNN) -- Sudan will close its embassy in Baghdad on Saturday in hopes of convincing hostage takers to release six Sudanese captives, an official with the embassy said Friday.

Five employees of the embassy and one other Sudanese national were kidnapped from a mosque after prayers last Friday in a Baghdad neighborhood, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity for security reasons.

A video posted on a militant Web site Thursday showed five Sudanese hostages. On the video, al Qaeda in Iraq claimed responsibility for the abductions. The claim could not be independently verified.

In the video, the hostage takers demanded Sudan end its relationship with the Iraqi government within 48 hours. (Posted 3:03 p.m.)

Sudanese refugees killed in scuffles with Egyptian authorities

CAIRO (CNN) -- Egyptian soldiers trying to herd Sudanese refugees aboard buses for evacuation from an upper-class Cairo neighborhood killed between at least 10 people and wounded more than 50 Friday.

The Egyptian Interior Ministry said Egyptian security forces had killed 10 of the refugees, but Egyptian health officials put the toll at 20 dead. Health officials said two of the 20 killed were children.

Three Egyptian police officers and 20 Egyptian soldiers were also wounded in the clashes, an Interior Ministry spokesman said.

The refugees had been protesting their living conditions in Egypt. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan called the deaths a terrible tragedy that cannot be justified. (Posted 2:40 p.m.)

Federal government says it has met border security deadline

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Department of Homeland Security said Friday it has met a Congressional mandate to install a computer-based entry system at the nation's 154 land borders, tightening protections against potential terrorists and others who seek easy entry into the U.S.

Only a small fraction -- estimated at about one percent -- of those entering will have to submit to the process, which involves fingerprinting and a photographing people upon entry.

Citizens of the United States and Canada, as well as Mexicans with Border Crossing Cards, are exempt.

DHS officials acknowledge they are years away from installing a system to document people as they leave the country. Critics say such a system is necessary for the government to gauge how many people overstay their visas. (Posted 2 p.m.)

U.S. commander in Baghdad cites strides against insurgency over past year

BAGHDAD (CNN) -- The commander of Task Force Baghdad -- the U.S.-led military force based in Iraq's volatile capital -- said on Friday that the U.S.-led fighting forces have made strides in fending off Iraq's insurgency over this past year in the capital.

Maj. Gen. William Webster, Jr. also asserted that "the insurgency has weakened since the elections," referring to the Dec. 15 parliamentary vote.

At the same time, he said, the violence and the chaos -- which has claimed around the same amount of U.S. casualties as it had last year -- is expected to persist.

He spoke from Baghdad via teleconference to reporters at the Pentagon.

Webster said the 30,000-strong task force has been able to help create an environment that has lessened the number of successful insurgent attacks -- from 25 to 30 percent a year ago to 10 percent now.

Also, he said, they have helped decrease the insurgency's use of car bombs and improvised explosive devices. (Posted, 2 p.m.)

Exhausted Oklahoma firefighters battling new blaze

(CNN) -- A new wildfire began before dawn Friday on the tinder-dry Oklahoma grassland, sending firefighters exhausted from several days of battling blazes scrambling to save a homeowner.

Four deaths have been blamed on a spate of grassland wildfires that erupted this week -- three in Texas and one in Oklahoma. As winds shifted early Friday, sending flames in a southern direction, authorities feared what lay ahead.

Oklahoma banned all fireworks for New Year's celebrations, fearing a single spark could set off a new blaze. Some planned public fireworks shows for New Year's Eve were curtailed. Albert Ashwood, director of the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management, said that while conditions Friday morning were not "too bad" for battling the blazes, the forecast for Sunday was ominous.

"We're very concerned about especially this Sunday, with 50 mph gusts -- and it could be extremely hazardous," he told CNN. (Posted 12:02 p.m.)

EU monitors temporarily vacate Rafah crossing amid police protest; no progress on British hostages

JERUSALEM (CNN) -- The Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt was closed for several hours Friday after a Palestinian police protest forced European Union monitors to leave in fear for their safety, authorities said.

In other signs of the chaos in Gaza, a 14-year-old Palestinian was killed Friday when gunmen attacked a police station where their relatives were being held, Palestinian security officials said.

And, no progress was reported in winning the release of three British hostages, kidnapped by Palestinian gunmen in Rafah earlier in the week. (Posted 11:55 a.m.)

Families of Christian aid workers urge captors to free hostages

(CNN) -- The families of the Christian humanitarian workers taken hostage in Iraq last month have issued a statement urging the captors to free the men.

The appeal was posted Friday on the British Foreign Office Web site. American Tom Fox, Briton Norman Kember, and Canadians James Loney and Harmeet Sooden were kidnapped on Nov. 26.

They are members of the Christian Peacemaker Teams. (Posted 11:56 a.m.)

Justice Dept. Opens Leak Investigation Related to NSA Program

From CNN Senior Producer Kevin Bohn

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Justice Department has opened an investigation regarding the recent leaks concerning the classified National Security Agency surveillance program of Americans.

The New York Times was the first to report the story on Dec. 16th and then officials confirmed the existence of it to CNN and other organizations.

"The Justice Department has opened an investigation of the unauthorized disclosure of classified information related to the NSA," a Justice Department official tells CNN. (Posted 10:41 a.m.)

American teen returning home after slipping into Iraq

BAGHDAD (CNN) -- A Florida teen, who stunned his parents and U.S. authorities when he traveled to Baghdad, is on his way home after narrowly avoiding harm in the volatile Iraq capital.

Farris Hassan, a 16-year-old journalism student, had planned to visit Iraq this summer with his parents -- who are Iraqi -- but he decided he could not wait.

He ended up in the Baghdad offices of the Associated Press earlier this week, to the shock of reporter Patrick Quinn.

"I would have been less surprised if little green men walked into the office," Quinn told CNN's "Live From." "He actually announced to us that he wanted to join us and become a journalist, and I was quite stunned by this whole thing."

AP staffers contacted the U.S. Embassy, which sent American soldiers to pick him up.

Quinn said the teen was "blissfully ignorant of his surroundings and where he was." "Farris walked into the most dangerous city on this planet, especially if you are an unaccompanied American, let alone a teenager who doesn't speak any Arabic," Quinn said. (Updated, 2 p.m.)

U.S. soldier killed in Falluja combat

BAGHDAD (CNN) -- A U.S. soldier was killed in Iraq on Thursday during combat in Falluja, the U.S. military said Friday. The soldier -- assigned to the 2nd Marine Division, II Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward) -- "died of wounds received from small arms fire."

The number of U.S. troops to die in the Iraq war now stands at 2,176. (Updated, 11 a.m.)

Blasts in central Baghdad; 5 dead, 23 wounded

BAGHDAD (CNN) -- Two blasts erupted Friday in central Baghdad, killing 5 people and wounding 23 others, police told CNN.

Police said a parked car bomb and a mortar round exploded in a busy commercial stretch of al-Kifah Street. Police said people were rushed to al-Kindi hospital. (Posted 9:10 a.m.)

South Korea to decrease troop deployment in Iraq, extend stay for at least another year

SEOUL (CNN) -- South Korea's parliament Friday voted to reduce its troop deployment in Iraq and extend its presence in the northern Iraqi province of Irbil for another year.

Irbil is one of the three provinces that comprise Iraq's Kurdish autonomous region. The National Assembly took the action by a vote of 110 to 31. The contingent -- which stands at 3,200 -- will be cut to 2,300. It has been the third-highest foreign deployment after the U.S. and British.

The government had intended to cut troops as stability increased in the country. The move follows the Dec. 15 Iraqi parliamentary elections. Troops have been involved in non-combatant tasks, and the forces include engineers, who carry out reconstruction work, and medics. (Posted 9:10 a.m.)

Rafah crossing closed for a time after protest causes monitors' departure

JERUSALEM (CNN) -- The Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt was closed for several hours Friday after a Palestinian police protest prompted European Union monitors to leave for safety reasons, authorities said.

About 100 policemen entered the crossing area to protest a Thursday incident in which a policeman was fatally shot by the family of a drug dealer caught at the crossing terminal, according to Palestinian police sources. The policemen staged a sit-in inside the terminal.

At about 9:15 a.m. (2:15 a.m. ET), a number of people approached the outer gates of the terminal and started quarreling with security personnel, according to Julio de la Guardia, a spokesman for the EU monitors.

The 10 EU monitors at the terminal left for safety reasons, he said, and were waiting at the Kerem Shalom border crossing for calm to be restored.

Around 3 p.m., the EU announced the protest had been resolved, the monitors would return and the crossing would reopen. (Posted 8:40 a.m.)

Police: Child killed, 4 Iraqi security forces injured in insurgent attacks

From Producer Mohammed Tawfeeq

BAGHDAD (CNN) -- A mortar round killed a child in southern Baghdad on Friday and four local security forces were wounded in two other incidents in the capital, police told CNN.

This is the latest insurgent violence in the capital, which has endured a spike in violence since stiff security measures were eased up after the Dec. 15 elections.

The child was killed when an insurgent mortar round landed on a house in the Albuaitha district about 10 a.m. In the other incidents:

-- Two police officers were wounded in a roadside bombing in Karrada in central Baghdad around 8 a.m.

-- A roadside bombing targeted a patrol in southern Baghdad at 10 a.m., wounding two police commandos. (Posted 7:14 a.m.)

Baby Noor leaves Iraq, headed to U.S. for treatment

BAGHDAD (CNN) -- Baby Noor, a 3-month-old Iraqi girl in urgent need of medical attention to treat a potentially fatal birth defect, left Iraq Friday on a U.S. military plane, headed to the United States where she will receive treatment.

Noor will be flown to Kuwait and then will travel to Atlanta on a commercial flight, said CNN cameraman Joe Duran, embedded with the U.S. military.

The baby is accompanied by her father and grandmother. "She is doing well considering her illness," Duran said earlier Friday.

Noor is suffering from spina bifida, a birth defect in which the spinal column fails to completely close. Iraqi doctors had told her parents she would live only 45 days. The child captured the hearts of members of the the Georgia National Guard who raided her Baghdad home during a routine "knock-and-search" three weeks ago. The soldiers began working to get Noor the help she needs.

Once Noor does arrive in the United States, Dr. Roger Hudgins, the chief of neurosurgery at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, has promised to perform the delicate operation for free. The doctor told CNN the surgery needs to take place soon. (Posted 7:10 a.m.)

Military reports reports killing of two insurgents; 109 arrests made

BAGHDAD (CNN) -- U.S. forces based in the Iraqi city of Tikrit said Friday American troops thwarted a drive-by attack, killing two "terrorists" and seizing weapons near Dawr in Salaheddin province.

The incident took place Wednesday, and the troops are from the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division. Soldiers searched the assailants' vehicle and found "two IEDs prepared for emplacement," mortar rounds, assault rifles and other munitions, the military said.

Also, U.S. forces from Task Force Freedom, which is based in Mosul, said on Friday that Iraqi and U.S. forces detained 109 "suspected terrorists and seized four weapons caches in northern Iraq" in a series of actions dating from Dec. 17 to Thursday. And the military reported air operations Thursday, in the Salaheddin town of Balad and the Anbar city of Ramadi -- west of Baghdad. (Posted 6:52 a.m.)

10 Sudanese refugees killed in scuffles with Egyptian soldiers, police

CAIRO (CNN) -- Ten Sudanese refugees were killed and 30 others were injured in clashes with Egyptian security forces Friday, an Egyptian Interior Ministry spokesman said.

Three Egyptian police officers and 20 Egyptian soldiers were also injured in the clashes, which took place in an upscale Cairo neighborhood, the spokesman said.

The incident prompted the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees to express "deep shock and sadness." Up to 2,500 Sudanese refugees had been demonstrating in Cairo's Mostafa Mahmoud Park since Sept. 29 to protest living conditions and demand to be resettled in other countries, the UNHCR statement said.

The Egyptian Interior Ministry spokesman said the Sudanese who died in the scuffles were "old and sick," adding the security forces were pelted with "bottles of alcohol" by the refugees. (Updated 6:41 a.m.)

U.S. soldier arrested in random fatal shooting in N.Y.

NEW YORK (CNN) -- A U.S. soldier on leave from the Army was arrested Thursday for allegedly firing into the air and killing a young mother as she looked out her fifth floor apartment window, authorities said.

U.S. Army Pvt. Danny Carpio, 23, is accused of randomly firing a gun in Queens late Wednesday, with one bullet striking 28-year-old Selina Akthel in the head, killing her instantly, said Kevin Ryan, the spokesman for Queens District Attorney Richard Brown.

Akthel's husband and two young children were in the apartment when she was killed.

Security threat closes U.S. Embassy in Malaysia

(CNN) -- The U.S. Embassy in Malaysia Friday said it has closed indefinitely because of security concerns.

"On December 30th, the American Embassy in Kuala Lumpur was closed until further notice in response to a security threat against the Embassy," a statement on the embassy's Web site said.

"At this time the Embassy has no information of specific, credible threats against private American interests in Malaysia."

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