The conversion to PNG was a general Abiword "feature", but it got solved 
last July with Abiword 2.7.6 (see link below).
On my XO libabiword-2.6.4-6.olpc3 is installed (build 802).

Is it possible to install an libabiword-olpc rpm of version 2.7.6 or newer?
July 04, 2009
Marc Maurer: Impressive AbiWord release
We just released AbiWord 2.7.6, which is an awesome release in my opinion!
It for example adds native JPEG support, so we don’t convert every JPEG 
internally to PNG anymore. This will be of great benefit on the OLPC 
laptop, where kids use built-in camera to produce photos in JPEG format 
and add them to their document. This will greatly reduce the filesize of 
their document. It will also be a lot less bandwidth intensive when 
collaborating on such a document.

On 11/26/2009 03:01 PM, Philipp Kocher wrote:
> Hi all,
> We would like the students to create simple html-documents with text and
> images and upload them to the schoolserver for a simple homepage. The
> Write activity (we are using version 60 on build 802) has a feature
> "Keep as Hypertext (HTML)", but when images are inserted into the
> document the files get huge (10 times bigger than original image).
> If I check the file size in the datastore, an image created with Record
> (file size 38kB, mimetype image/jpg) inserted in a html document
> containing nothing else than the image, the html file is 554kB (mimetype
> text/html).
> The image is saved in the html-document with:
> <img ... src="data:image/png;base64,{image data}">
> I can do the same thing with Abiword 2.8.1 and the html file is just
> 52kB, probably because it is using jpg:
> <img ... src="data:image/jpeg;base64,{image data}">
> There is an old ticket for that (last modified 2 years ago):
> Ticket #1442 non-PNG image support for Abiword
> Any suggestions for a workaround? Is there an other activity we could
> use to create html pages?
> Best regards,
> Philipp
> PS: other document types created with Write have the same problem:
> image/jpg:                     38kB (created with Record activity)
> application/rtf:              821kB (created with Write activity)
> text/html:                    554kB (created with Write activity)
> application/vnd.oasis.opendocument.text: 406kB (created with Write
> activity, default)
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