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At least 14 dead in Ramadan protests in Syria
AFP: Security forces shot dead at least 14 people as thousands of Syrians rallied in the streets against President Bashar al-Assad on the first Friday of Ramadan to support the protest hub of Hama, activists said.
Seven people were killed in Irbin, two in Damir, and one in Maadamiya, all near Damascus, and three in Homs,” Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told AFP by telephone.
He said more than 50 people were seriously wounded, while the body of a man with signs of torture was found in front of his home in the Qabun district of the capital after having allegedly been detained by security forces.
State news agency SANA, meanwhile, said two members of the security forces were killed and eight wounded in an ambush on a road in the Idlib region of northwest Syria, near the Turkish border.
And gunmen on an apartment block rooftop in Duma, near Damascus, shot and wounded two other members of the security forces, it said, while assailants also opened fire in Homs.
Communications were completely cut off as the army stepped up an operation to crush dissent in Hama, north of Damascus, where security forces killed at least 30 civilians and wounded dozens more earlier in the week.
“Thousands of demonstrators marched in Deir Ezzor, Daraa and Qamishli in support of the city of Hama despite the extreme heat,” said Abdel Karim Rihawi, who heads the Syrian League for the Defence of Human Rights.
He said they numbered 30,000 in Deir Ezzor alone.
“More than 12,000 people” also marched in Bench, in Idlib province, “to demand the fall of the regime and express their support for Hama and Deir Ezzor,” according to Abdel Rahman.
“Hundreds of people came out of the Al-Mans Uri mosque in Jablah, chanting ‘God is with us,’” he told AFP.
The call for Friday’s protests came from activists on Facebook group The Syrian Revolution 2011, a driving force behind the demonstrations calling for greater freedoms since mid-March.
The Assad regime has sought to crush the democracy movement with brutal force, killing more than 1,649 civilians and arresting thousands of dissenters, according to an updated list from the Syrian Observatory.
It said 389 members of the security forces had also been killed.
US loses AAA credit rating

BBC: One of the top credit rating agencies, Standard & Poor’s, has downgraded the United States’ top-notch AAA rating for the first time ever.
S&P cut the long-term US rating by one notch to AA+ with a negative outlook, citing concerns about budget deficits.
The agency said the deficit reduction plan passed by the US Congress on Tuesday did not go far enough.
Washington was locked in months of acrimonious partisan bickering over a bill to raise the US debt ceiling.
As rumours swirled about the downgrade on Friday evening, officials in Washington told US media that S&P’s sums were deeply flawed.
Unnamed sources were quoted as saying that a treasury official had spotted a $2 trillion [£1.2 trillion] mistake in the agency’s analysis.
“A judgment flawed by a $2tn error speaks for itself,” a US treasury department spokesman said of the S&P analysis. He did not offer any immediate explanation.
John Chambers, chairman of S&P’s sovereign ratings committee, told CNN that the US could have averted a downgrade if it had resolved its congressional stalemate earlier.
“The first thing it could have done is raise the debt ceiling in a timely matter so the debate would have been avoided to begin with,” he said.
However the decision by S&P did little to foster bipartisan spirit, with both Republicans and Democrats using it to justify their stances.
The Speaker of the House, Republican John Boehner, said the downgrade was a response to overspending by the federal government which he said threatened to send “destructive ripple effects’’ through the credit markets.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, for his part, said the move made the case for the Democrats’ plan for a “balanced approach to deficit reduction”.
The other two major credit rating agencies, Moody’s and Fitch, said on Friday night they had no immediate plans to follow S&P in taking the US off their lists of risk-free borrowers.
The S&P announcement comes after a week of turmoil on global stock markets not seen since the days of the 2008 economic crisis.

Israel strikes Gaza again

BBC: Israel has carried out a second night of air strikes against targets in the Gaza Strip.
Palestinians say one of the targets was a training facility for the military wing of Hamas, and smuggling tunnels along the Egypt border were hit.
Medical sources say five people were injured in the attacks.
The Israeli strikes took place hours after Palestinian militants fired rockets at an Israeli town situated 30km from the Gaza-Israel border.
Recent weeks have seen an increase in mortar and rocket fire from Gaza after months of relative calm.
Israeli army sources say that since Wednesday Grad rockets were fired near the towns of Kiryat Gat, Ashkelon and Lachish. They landed in open areas and no-one was hurt.
However on Monday, an Israeli Bedouin woman was lightly wounded by shrapnel when a rocket fired from Gaza exploded near Ashkelon.

Cuba upholds sentence on US contractor

BBC: Cuba's Supreme Court has upheld a 15-year prison sentence imposed on a US contractor accused of crimes against the state.
The contractor, 62-year-old Alan Gross, was convicted in March of distributing illegal communications equipment in Havana.
He says he was just trying to help Cuba's small Jewish community.
The rejection of his appeal is likely to further sour relations between the US and Cuba.
In his appeal hearing last month Gross admitted bringing satellite equipment into the country, but said he never intended to harm the Cuban government.
The Supreme Court rejected his argument, saying he was part of a US government programme aimed at "destabilising" and "subverting" Cuba's communist system.
Gross's US lawyer, Peter Kahn, said in a statement that his family was "heartbroken" by the decision, but remained hopeful that there could be a diplomatic solution.
The case has brought US-Cuba relations to a standstill after a brief warming under President Barack Obama, says the BBC Havana correspondent, Michael Voss.
The appeal verdict will make it impossible for Washington to launch any further initiatives, our correspondent adds.
Gross was arrested in December 2009. He was in Cuba working as a contractor for the US Agency for International Development (USAID) on a secretive programme aimed at promoting democracy in Cuba.
He was found guilty and sentenced in March for "acts against the independence and integrity of the state".
The White House called the prison term "another injustice" for Gross and said he had already spent too long in jail.
Gross' wife Judy had already made a separate plea to President Raul Castro for this immediate release on humanitarian grounds.
Cuban officials have hinted that they are sympathetic to humanitarian appeals but could not act before the Supreme Court had ruled, our correspondent says.

Chavez offers Kadhafi ‘a big hug’

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said Friday he has written embattled Libyan leader Moamar Kadhafi offering him "a big hug" and denouncing NATO's "imperial" attacks on Libya.
"The proud, gracious and merciful God bless and keep you. May he bless and protect the heroic and dignified people of Libya," Chavez read from his letter to Kadhafi during a live broadcast on VTV, the national news channel.
"Moamar, a big hug with an infinite sense of brotherhood," he said.
Kadhafi has weathered a rebel uprising against his rule, backed by an intensive NATO air campaign, and held onto power despite an International Criminal Court arrest warrant for crimes against humanity.
"The empire is threatening the people," said Chavez, a harsh critic of US foreign policy who has said on many occasions that foreign intervention in Libya is aimed at wresting control of the country's oil.
Chavez' letter was in response to a message Kadhafi sent last Monday through Libyan Secretary of Finance and Planning, Abdul Hafid Al Zleitniun, while he was visiting Caracas.
"Long live the people of Libya, long life to you, my fighting brother," said the Venezualan leader, one of the Libyan leader's closest allies in Latin America.
Chavez, who has ignored Libya's rebel organization, the National Transition Council, criticized the international community's recognition of the rebel group last week and argued the act "destroys the foundations of international law."
The Venezuelan president, who is being treated for cancer, has repeatedly demanded an end to military aggression and the opening of a peaceful resolution to Libya's internal conflict.
Separately, Chavez sent a letter to the National Assembly advising that he intends to return to Cuba on Saturday for a second round of chemotherapy. (AFP)

Sonia ‘recovering’ after surgery

BBC: India’s governing Congress party leader Sonia Gandhi is recovering after undergoing “successful” surgery abroad for an undisclosed medical condition, a party spokesman has said.
Janardhan Dwivedi said the “surgery is over [and] the surgeon had indicated that it was successful”.
He said Mrs Gandhi was recovering in an intensive care unit of a hospital.
The Italian-born Mrs Gandhi, 64, holds no official government post but is seen as India’s most powerful politician.
India has some of the best medical facilities and doctors in the world and speculation is rife as to why Mrs Gandhi chose to go elsewhere for surgery.
Some reports suggest she may be receiving specialist treatment not yet available in India, but these are unconfirmed.
“As this is a personal matter that pertains to her health and medical treatment, her family requests that her privacy be respected,” Dwivedi said.
The news that Mrs Gandhi was abroad, possibly in the US, came as a complete surprise when it was announced on Thursday.
Mrs Gandhi was “likely to be away for two to three weeks”, Mr Dwivedi had said.
Correspondents say her absence comes at a critical time for the government as it deals with corruption scandals and high price rises.
Mrs Gandhi has named a four-member team to run party affairs during her absence. The team includes her son and MP Rahul Gandhi, who is tipped as a future prime minister.
The Congress president’s absence from parliament on Monday was remarked upon in the Indian media, but explained by a “viral infection” from which she was said to be suffering.
Mrs Gandhi is the widow of former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. She nominated Manmohan Singh to the prime minister’s post in 2004 but is frequently portrayed as being more powerful than him.
She is at the head of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, which has ruled India for most of the time since the country gained independence from British colonial rule in 1947.

Sudan blocks South's oil shipment

BBC: Sudan has blocked an oil shipment from the new state of South Sudan, accusing it of failing to pay customs duties.
The oil was being held at the northern export hub of Port Sudan, a government spokesman in Khartoum said.
South Sudan has to export oil via the north because it has no port or refineries of its own.
Relations between the two countries have deteriorated since South Sudan became independent on 9 July, analysts say.
Khartoum's foreign ministry spokesman, Al-Obeid Meruh, said 600,000 barrels of oil was being held.
He said South Sudan had failed to pay the north for the use of its pipeline, refinery and port.
"When the ship leaves the port, the South has to pay the customs authorities. This is the first time they didn't pay," Meruh told the AFP news agency.
In June, Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir warned that pipelines carrying South Sudan's oil would be shut if a deal over payments was not reached.
Khartoum has been demanding $32 (£19) a barrel, but the South was pushing for a lower fee, AFP reports.
An official in South Sudan's Ministry of Mines and Energy, David Loro, said Khartoum's move was aimed at sabotaging the South's economy.
The two sides have been involved in several disagreements since South Sudan became independent.