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Biden to Ukraine Leader: US To Continue Sanctions on Russia for "Irresponsible Actions"

Official White House Photo by David Lienemann(WASHINGTON) -- Vice President Joe Biden spoke with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on Friday, telling the leader that the United States would continue to coordinate with the European Union and the G7 about imposing further sanctions on Russia.

In a readout of their correspondence, Biden called Russia's actions in Ukraine "deeply destabilizing and irresponsible."

The two discussed the political situation in the country, as well as access for international investigators to the MH17 crash site.

President Poroshenko said the government would continue its work to address "critical" economic reforms, and told Biden of his efforts to facilitate the investigation into the Malaysia Airline tragedy.

The Ukrainian leader added that Russia is still supplying heavy weapons to separatists, bringing Ukrainian troops under direct fire from positions on the Russian side of the border.

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US Fighter Jets Escort Plane to Toronto After Passenger Threat

iStock/Thinkstock(TORONTO) -- A Canadian SWAT team burst onto a jetliner that had turn back to Toronto on Friday following word that an "agitated" passenger threatened the aircraft.

American fighter jets escorted Sunwing Flight 772 "as a precautionary measure," according to officials. The plane, originating in Toronto, was bound for Panama City around 8:30 a.m. when a 25-year-old passenger made "an unspecified threat."

Ali Shahi, a Canadian citizen from Mississauga, was taken into custody and charged with mischief to property, mischief interfering with the lawful enjoyment of property, uttering threats, and endangering the safety of an aircraft.

Law enforcement searched the plane and found no suspicious objects. No injuries were reported, according to Peel Regional Police.

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Israel Will Continue 'Neutralizing' Tunnels During Cease-Fire

iStock/Thinkstock(TEL AVIV, Israel) -- Israeli forces will continue "neutralizing" tunnels in Gaza despite a 12-hour cease-fire Saturday, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) announced Friday.

The cease-fire in Gaza will be in effect from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. local time (1 a.m. to 1 p.m. ET).

"During this time, the Operational activities to locate and neutralize tunnels in the Gaza Strip will continue," read a statement from the IDF.

A U.S. official said there was no word from Hamas on whether they'd agree to the cease-fire.

Secretary of State John Kerry had called for a seven-day cease-fire earlier in the day during a news conference in Cairo as part of last-ditch efforts to resolve the 18-day conflict. He had proposed the cease-fire over the Muslim Eid al-Fitr holiday next week, marking the end of Ramadan.

He's now headed to Paris for another round of talks.

As soon as Kerry finished his remarks, Israeli Minister of Defense Moshe Ya'alon announced that troops should be prepared for an expansion of their ground invasion in Gaza.


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More Russian Troops Mass Along Ukrainian Border

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- Russian troops are continuing to gather along the border with Ukraine, the U.S. says.

"The number of Russian troops across -- along the border continues to steadily increase. We have seen that in the past few days, but have seen no indication that the Ukrainians have fired back," State Department spokesperson Marie Harf said on Friday.

Her remarks came after U.S. Ambassador to NATO Douglas Lute said at the Aspen Security Forum on Friday that there are 15,000 Russian troops massed along the border.

That number is slightly higher than the estimate of 10,000 to 12,000 troops that had been reported this week.

Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren told reporters Friday morning that the estimate has likely moved upwards to 12,000. 

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John Kerry's Proposed Seven-Day Gaza Truce in Limbo

State Department photo/Public Domain(CAIRO) -- The "seven days of peace" that Secretary of State John Kerry envisions as a path toward a Gaza cease-fire remain as elusive as ever after last-ditch efforts to resolve the 18-day conflict.

"We don't yet have that final framework, but none of us are stopping," he said Friday of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.

Addressing a news conference in Cairo, he said, "There’s a lot on the table, it didn’t get easy last night. But with good will and good effort, I think progress can be made."

Kerry had proposed the cease-fire over the Muslim Eid al-Fitr holiday next week, marking the end of Ramadan.

He's now headed to Paris for another round of talks.

Kerry said that there was never any formal proposal on which to vote, suggesting that reports that Israel had rejected a cease-fire deal were inaccurate.

"They may have voted on language from a framework but there was no proposal submitted by me on which there was a proposal or a ripe one," he said.

He added later: "It's fair to say that Israel had some opposition to some concepts, but that doesn't mean a proposal, by any means."

Mediators originally tried to sell this latest proposal as a week-long humanitarian truce designed to help the hundreds of wounded Palestinians. Israel wanted the deal to include a stipulation that some of its troops be allowed to remain in Gaza during the humanitarian cease-fire.

Kerry flew to Egypt and, later, Israel before returning to Cairo this week to help broker a deal alongside United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon.

He formally made the proposal to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Thursday evening and the Israeli Security Council held a meeting Friday afternoon to vote on the deal.

The U.N. has proposed a 12-hour "pause" in fighting to which, Ban says, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has agreed, and that Ban and Kerry hope would be extended to 24 hours.

Kerry made no mention Friday of Palestinian militant group Hamas, only referring to “many different Palestinian factions.”

Hamas, which has been accused of firing hundreds of rockets into Israel throughout the conflict, had rejected an earlier cease-fire deal.

The conflict, which emerged after three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and killed, eventually escalated and the Israeli Defense Forces launched Operation Protective Edge on July 8.

Hundreds of Palestinians and dozens of Israelis, mostly soldiers, have died in the conflict.

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No Survivors in Air Algerie Crash, French President Says

Purestock/Thinkstock(OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso) -- French troops are headed to a remote area in Mali to secure the site of Thursday's Air Algerie jet crash, the third major international aviation disaster in a week.

French President Francois Hollande announced Friday that there were no survivors in the crash of the MD-83 aircraft, which disappeared from radar less than an hour after it took off early Thursday from Burkina Faso's capital, Ouagadougou, for Algiers. The plane had requested permission to change course due to bad weather.

The jetliner -- owned by Spanish company Swiftair and leased by Algeria's flagship carrier -- had 110 passengers and six crew members on board.

President Hollande, who spoke after a crisis meeting, also announced that one of the aircraft's two black boxes have been located in the wreckage, in the Gossi region near the Burkina Faso border. It is being transported to the northern Mali city of Gao.

French forces, stationed in Mali to help combat al Qaeda and tribal separatists, are tasked with securing the crash site and gathering information. Much of the region is desert, rugged and remote, with few roads and an average high temperature of 101 degrees Farenheit this time of the year.

The airline said that among the passengers were 51 French nationals along with 24 Burkina Faso nationals, six Lebanese, five Canadians, four Algerians, two Luxemburg nationals, one Swiss, one Nigerian, one Cameroonian and one Malian. The six crew members were Spanish.

News of the plane's disappearance came when Swiftair released a statement saying the plane had not arrived at its destination.

The crash of the Air Algerie plane is the latest in a series of aviation disasters. In March, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared over the southern Indian Ocean with 239 people on board. No wreckage from the plane has been found.

And last week, a Malaysia Airlines jetliner was shot down over a war-torn section of Ukraine, with U.S. officials blaming it on separatists firing a surface-to-air missile.

On Wednesday, a Taiwanese plane crashed during a storm, killing 48 people.

While fliers are jittery about the tragedies, air travel remains relatively safe. There have been two deaths for every 100 million passengers on commercial flights in the last decade, excluding acts of terrorism. Travelers are much more likely to die driving to the airport than stepping on a plane.

There are more than 30,000 motor-vehicle deaths in the U.S. each year, a mortality rate eight times greater than that in planes.

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River in China Mysteriously Turns Bloody Red Overnight

File photo. (iStock/Thinkstock)(BEIJING) -- A waterway in eastern China has mysteriously turned a blood red color.

Residents in Zhejiang province said the river looked normal at 5 a.m. Beijing time on Thursday morning. Within an hour, the entire river turned crimson. Residents also said a strange smell wafted through the air.

“The really weird thing is that we have been able to catch fish because the water is normally so clear,” one local villager commented on China’s microblogging site Weibo.

Inspectors from the Wenzhou Environmental Protection Bureau said they have not found the cause of the incident, although water samples seem to indicate the suspicious color was a result of illegal dumping in the river.

“We suspect that somebody dumped artificial coloring in the water because he thought the typhoon yesterday would cause heavy rain, and nobody would notice [the color],” Jianfeng Xiao, Chief of the bureau told China News.

“It turned out there wasn’t heavy rainfall yesterday, so the evidence is left behind,” Xiao said.

Xiao said there is a paper manufacturer, a food coloring company and clothing-maker along the river.

The bureau is still investigating the incident.

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Clashes Break Out as Palestinians Declare 'Day of Rage'

iStock/Thinkstock(JERUSALEM) -- Could the conflict in Gaza spark a third intifada -- or Palestinian uprising -- in the West Bank?

Following a deadly strike on an United Nations school in Gaza, thousands of Palestinians from Ramallah demonstrated at a checkpoint near Jerusalem late Thursday night.

On Friday, clashes are breaking out in the Old City, where Israel put restrictions on who could attend Friday prayer services at Dome of the Rock.

Two Palestinians were killed by Israeli police during a violent demonstration at the Kalandia checkpoint that drew an estimated 10,000 people. Israel says it responded to protestors who opened fire with automatic rifles.

Palestinians have declared Friday a so-called "Day of Rage," so Israel is bracing for mass protests again at Kalandia, in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Extra police and border patrol units are on duty the capital.


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US Pins Hopes on Last-Ditch Cease-Fire Proposal for Gaza

State Department photo/ Public Domain(WASHINGTON) -- The last best chance for a quick resolution to the crisis in Gaza could come Friday, after Israel and Hamas review a cease-fire proposal drafted by Secretary of State John Kerry.

With the conflict becoming increasingly bloodier, Kerry is not much concerned with the Israeli response as he is with the militant group Hamas, which has so far rejected every plan to end the 19-day air and ground war.

According to Israeli officials, the proposal is in three parts and includes a one-week cease-fire in Gaza in which Israel will not totally withdraw its force; negotiations toward a more lasting agreement; and assurances from the U.S., European Union and United Nations that there will be serious talks about disarming Hamas of rockets and tunnels and the lifting of the blockade of Gaza.

Apparently, the major stumbling block is Hamas political wing chief Khaled Meshal, who has taken a harder line than other members of his militant organizations.

Foreign ministers from Qatar and Turkey will try to convince Meshal to accept the cease-fire plan. Failing to do so will likely mean Israel will escalate its offensive in Gaza, which has cost 800 Palestinian lives as well those of 32 Israeli soldiers.

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Iraqi Lawmakers Pick New President

iStock/Thinkstock(BAGHDAD) -- Iraq moved one step closer to forming a new government Thursday, as lawmakers overwhelmingly approved veteran Kurdish politician Fuad Masum as the country's next president.

Masum's appointment comes a week after parliament chose a new speaker. Lawmakers now have 15 days to select Iraq's next prime minister, without question the most crucial decision to be made as Iraq deals with the Sunni extremists who've taken over large swaths of the north and west.

According to the constitution, the prime minister must be a Shiite. Incumbent Nouri al-Maliki, who has been blamed for fomenting much of the political unrest in Iraq, wants to remain prime minister.

Maliki has resisted calls to form a unity government in order to better defeat the Islamic State, which has shown no signs of stopping its efforts to wrest control of Iraq from the central government in Baghdad.

Although returning Maliki to power would demonstrate some continuity, parliament also runs the risk of completely disenfranchising Sunnis and Kurds if he wins another term as prime minister.

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EU Approves More Sanctions Over Ukraine Crisis

iStock/Thinkstock(BRUSSELS, Belgium) -- The European Union approved further sanctions linked to the crisis in Ukraine, adding more Ukranian and Russian individuals and entities to its list Thursday.

The Council's Committee of Permanent Representatives implemented further restrictions as a result of the annexation of Crimea. The subjects of the prohibitions will have their assets frozen and undergo a visa ban.

The individuals and entities added follow 72 people already listed under EU sanctions.

"The meeting also reached agreement on extending the designation criteria," representatives said in a statement. "This will pave the way for imposing asset freezes and visa bans on persons and entities that actively support or are benefiting from Russian decision makers responsible for the annexation of Crimea or the destabilisation of Eastern Ukraine."

In addition to sanctions, the group discussed additional measures to restrict trade with and investment in Crimea and Sevastopol.

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Wreckage From Algerian Jetliner Found in Mali, Says Office of French President

iStock/Thinkstock(OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso) -- The wreckage of an Algerian airliner that disappeared from radar Thursday was found in Mali near the border of Burkina Faso, according to a statement from the office of the French president.

"The device has been clearly identified despite its disintegrated state," read the statement.

The Air Algerie jetliner had 110 passengers and six crew members when it took off from Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, en route to Algiers, the airline said.

Air navigation services lost track of the plane, an MD-83 model, about 50 minutes after it took off.

French forces, which are stationed in Mali to help combat al Qaeda and tribal separatists, sent two planes searching for the airliner.

Earlier in the day, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said the aircraft "probably crashed."

A French military detachment was dispatched to the area to secure the site and gather first information on the wreckage.

The airline said that among the passengers were 51 French nationals along with 24 Burkina Faso nationals, six Lebanese, five Canadians, four Algerians, two Luxemburg nationals, one Swiss, one Nigerian, one Cameroonian and one Malian. The six crew members were Spanish.

News of the plane's disappearance came when Swiftair, the Spanish company that operated the plane, released a statement saying the plane had not arrived at its destination.

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Prince George's Birthday Gifts from President Obama Revealed in New Exhibit

John Stillwell - WPA Pool /Getty Images(LONDON) -- Ever wonder what President Obama got Prince George when he was born?

This weekend, the Buckingham Palace children's exhibit will answer that question and more.

President Barack Obama sent the son of Kate Middleton and Prince William a blue alpaca wool baby blanket shortly after his birth last year on July 22, according to the Palace.

George, who turned one earlier this week, was also sent a handmade rocking horse with the presidential seal on its saddle, and a polo mallet with a head made from the branch of an oak tree that once stood on the south lawn of the White House.

These lavish gifts will be on display at the Palace for the “Royal Childhood” exhibit, which opens Saturday and lasts for eight weeks. It is a yearly tradition that starts with the Queen leaving for Balmoral Castle in Scotland.

While the Queen is on holiday, visitors can come into the palace and tour the exhibit.

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US Says Russian Military Has Fired Artillery into Ukraine

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- Russian military forces have fired artillery rounds into eastern Ukraine to target Ukrainian military positions, and plans to send even more heavy multiple rocket launchers to Russian separatists, U.S. officials said for the first time Thursday.

A Pentagon official labeled the Russian activity as “a clear escalation” of the conflict in that region that has drawn worldwide attention since Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot out of the skies over Ukraine, apparently by a Russian-built missile system.

“We have new evidence that the Russians intend to deliver heavier and more powerful multiple rocket launchers to the separatist forces in Ukraine, and have evidence that Russia is firing artillery from within Russia to attack Ukrainian military positions,” said Marie Harf, a State Department spokeswoman.

Harf did not provide additional information as to how the U.S. concluded that the Russian military had been shelling Ukrainian military positions. However, she said that the information that the heavier rocket launchers were headed into Ukraine had been gleaned from what she referred to as “human intelligence.”

Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren later said, “We do know now that the Russians have been firing artillery from Russia into Ukraine to attack Ukrainian military positions.”

“This has been happening, we believe, for several days,” said Warren. “This is a military escalation, there’s no question about it.”

As evidence that the Russians intend to deliver heavier multiple rocket launchers to separatist forces in Ukraine, Warren referred to activity at a site in southwestern Russia where the Russian military has provided training for Russian separatists and gathered heavy military equipment for their use.

Senior intelligence officials referred to the site outside of Rostov on Tuesday when they made their case for why Russia had “created the conditions” for the shoot-down of the Malaysian airliner with a Russian-built SA-11 surface-to-air missile.

Since the shoot-down, “there’s been ongoing multiple rocket launcher activity at the Rostov site and multiple rocket launchers continue to depart and return to Rostov at irregular intervals,” Warren said.

For the last month, the Russian military has gathered between 10,000 and 12,000 troops along the border with Ukraine, officials said. The forces are deployed along the border at varying distances, with some elements coming as close as five miles to the border with Ukraine, one official said.

It has been difficult to determine what the Russian intent is for these forces, the official said, but the information released Thursday indicates at least some of them have been engaged in artillery fire targeting Ukrainian military positions.

Ukrainian officials have alleged direct Russian military support for separatists for weeks. Over the past 24 hours, pictures have appeared in Ukrainian media outlets that were purportedly taken by a Russian soldier displaying the artillery equipment his unit has used during its deployment to the border. The images have since been taken down from the Russian social media site on which they were originally posted.

While officials did not provide a precise time as to when the Russian military began to fire artillery across the border, a U.S. official said it began as early as July 15.

Videos posted on social media on July 16 appeared to show Grad rockets being fired from inside Russia into Ukraine. The Grad system is a multiple rocket launcher system used by the Russian military that has been provided to Russian separatists.

NATO Supreme Commander Gen. Philip Breedlove tweeted his concerns about the videos the following day. “I am deeply concerned by this latest video that appears to show Russia engaging in military action against Ukraine,” he wrote.

Senior intelligence officials said Tuesday that the flow of Russian heavy military equipment has continued into eastern Ukraine since the crash of the Malaysian airliner.  The flow of weapons included tanks, armored personnel carriers and Grad multiple rocket launcher systems.

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Peace Corps Suspends Kenya Program

iStock/Thinkstock(NAIROBI, Kenya) -- The Peace Corps is suspending its entire volunteer program in Kenya as a result of security concerns in the region, a U.S. State Department official announced Thursday.

The organization has been monitoring the environment in the country, along with the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi.

"The Peace Corps plans to continue to monitor the security environment and reassess the security situation at an appropriate future date to determine if and when volunteers can return," the official said in a statement. "The Peace Corps has enjoyed a long partnership with the government and people of Kenya and is committed to continuing volunteers’ work there."

Violent attacks in the country, along with the incident at Westgate Mall in 2013 that killed at least 67 people, have raised concerns over safety.

The United States has kept up a partnership with Kenya for more than 50 years, set on improving Kenya's economy and developing its health, education, and security sectors. The U.S. provides between $700 million and $1 billion in annual assistance, and the embassy in Nairobi will remain open and staffed for its regular operations.

"The commitment of the United States to Kenya is unwavering. We remain a strong and steadfast partner of the government and people of Kenya," the State Department official added.

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