In other items: Putin critics meet to protest changes; flood waters leave 36 miners trapped in China; and Mubaraks are focus of diverse protest in Cairo.

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Iran acknowledged for the first time yesterday that it has convicted some Iranian nationals of supporting al-Qaida, saying the number was fewer than five.

The United States has accused Iran of harboring al-Qaida operatives. Iran has rejected the accusations.

“A few pro-al-Qaida Iranian nationals have been tried and convicted,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi said. Their number, he said, is less than “the fingers on one’s hand,” according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA). He did not give details.

Asefi said cases of foreign nationals in Iran with alleged links to al-Qaida are under investigation and no trial dates have been set, IRNA reported.


Putin critics meet to protest changes

Hundreds of Kremlin critics gathered yesterday on Constitution Day to denounce what they call a retreat from democracy as President Vladimir Putin signed a bill scrapping gubernatorial elections.

Putin denied that he seeks to change the constitution, a concern raised by critics who fear his administration might seek amendments to keep him in power past 2008. The constitution allows only two consecutive four-year terms.

The new law signed by Putin gives the president the right to appoint governors and dissolve regional legislatures if they refuse to confirm his nominees. Russia consists of 89 regions, whose leaders are currently chosen by popular election. Putin’s other main proposal would end the direct election of lawmakers in the lower parliament house, the State Duma.

Putin proposed the changes in response to terrorist attacks in August and September that killed more than 450 people.

At yesterday’s meeting, an unusual alliance of liberals and communists joined in urging broad public opposition to that bill and other Kremlin-sponsored political reforms that critics say will strengthen Putin’s grip on the country at the expense of democracy.

Guizhou province, China

Flood waters leave 36 miners trapped

Thirty-six miners were trapped by floods in China’s southwestern province of Guizhou, Xinhua news agency said, the latest in a series of accidents in the world’s most dangerous mining industry.

Forty-four of 80 miners underground at the time of yesterday’s flooding had been rescued, Xinhua said.

The condition of the trapped miners was unknown.

Cairo, Egypt

Mubaraks are focus of diverse protest

About 1,000 people gathered downtown yesterday, many with their mouths covered by yellow stickers reading “Enough,” to protest the possibility that President Hosni Mubarak might run for a fifth term or that his son, Gamal, might succeed him.

Later, hundreds of security forces surrounded the offices of Kamal Khalil, a veteran activist who spoke out against the Mubaraks at the protest. The police stayed four hours but did not make any arrests.

Hosni Mubarak, 76, has been president since 1981, when he replaced the assassinated Anwar Sadat. His current six-year term ends in October, and he has not said whether he will run again.

The protest drew Islamists, nationalists, leftists and liberals. The Egyptian Movement for Change, a group of political parties and intellectuals, organized the protest to demand a constitutional change allowing more than one presidential candidate.

Hosni Mubarak has never had a vice president. There has been strong speculation in recent years that his son, Gamal, 41, is being groomed as his successor.

Egypt holds presidential referendums, rather than elections, in which people vote “yes” or “no” for a sole candidate.