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The International Effort to Free James Foley

John Cantlie/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- Before a video surfaced online appearing to show the brutal murder of American journalist James Foley, U.S. officials made repeated efforts to win freedom for Foley, attempting to identify and reach his captors through Turkish, Russian and Czech intermediaries.

While officials continue to study and try to authenticate the grisly video that appears to show Foley’s execution at the hands of a captor from the Islamic jihadist group ISIS, details are now starting to emerge about the fevered efforts to gain his release.

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Foley’s capture in November 2012 was initially kept quiet by his family, employers and U.S. officials until January 2013, when the family decided to break their silence and plead publicly for his release.

“We want Jim to come safely home, or at least we need to speak with him to know he’s OK,” said his father, John Foley, in a statement posted online then. “Jim is an objective journalist and we appeal for the release of Jim unharmed. To the people who have Jim, please contact us so we can work together toward his release.”

Soon after, Foley’s home state senators from New Hampshire spearheaded a government effort, sending a series of letters that January to State and Justice Department officials urging aggressive action, according to timeline released by Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H. State Department officials reached out to the Syrian government through the Czech Protecting Power in Damascus, but had not received any diplomatic note in response.

The State Department also requested “that Russia use its influence with the Syrian regime in support of our efforts,” Ayotte’s office said. “The Russian Ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak, confirmed he had relayed the request to the Syrians.”

Ayotte wrote directly to the President of the Turkish IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation, Fehmi Bülent Y?ld?r?m, to seek help in securing Foley’s release, but did not indicate whether or how Yildirim acted in response. Turkish towns along the Syrian border are used by many Syrian rebels and some Islamist militants as safe passage into Syria, and Turkish authorities are believed to have some influence in those circles.

In November 2013, with scant signs of progress after a full year with Foley in captivity, Ayotte and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., put out their own public statement, urging that the effort continue.

“As we mark one year since James’ disappearance, we urge the State Department and the FBI to redouble their efforts to find James and secure his release,” the statement said. “We will continue to assist the Foley family and press federal officials to take every reasonable measure to find James and bring him home.”

Tuesday both senators released statements saying they were trying to determine if the gruesome video of Foley’s death is authentic.

“If confirmed, this barbarous and heinous act shocks the conscience and underscores the truly evil nature of the terrorists we confront, who must be defeated,” Ayotte said.

The State Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment for this report. White House National Security Council spokesperson Caitlin Hayden said U.S. intelligence officials are working to determine if the video is real and that if it is, the White House would be “appalled by the brutal murder of an innocent American journalist.”

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Iraqi Forces Launch Offensive to Take Back Tikrit

iStock/Thinkstock(TIKRIT, Iraq) -- After failing once before, Iraqi forces appear determined to retake the northern city of Tikrit from Islamic State (ISIS) militants.

By the end of Tuesday, the national army, along with local Shiite militias, had driven ISIS fighters out of towns near Tikrit, which is located less than 100 miles northwest of Baghdad.

Known primary as the birthplace of the late dictator Saddam Hussein, the Sunni-dominated city fell into ISIS hands in June as the group overwhelmed local forces with the ferocity of its attacks.

The new offensive to retake Tikrit involves Iraqi ground forces and helicopters coming at ISIS targets from the south and west. By all accounts, no U.S. air power is being used as it was in the retaking of the Mosul Dam earlier this week.

Should Iraqi forces regain control of Tikrit from ISIS, it would be an important victory for the new leaders in Baghdad, who are in the process of forming a new government.

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"New York Times" Reporter Says Afghanistan Won't Let Him Leave

iStock/Thinkstock(KABUL, Afghanistan) -- A New York Times reporter in Kabul was told by a top Afghan official that he could not leave the country pending an investigation of a story he wrote that claims a possible military coup is in the works if an impasse over the presidential election cannot be resolved.

Matthew Rosenberg says that he spoke with the Afghan attorney general Tuesday about his story. According to the Times reporter, the official wanted him to divulge his sources, which Rosenberg refused to do.

Rosenberg said that the attorney general and others were "polite but insistent" and told him to return Wednesday with a lawyer.

Meanwhile, Times international editor Joe Kahn later said in a statement: “The Afghan attorney general’s office has advised Matthew Rosenberg that he must remain in Afghanistan while an investigation into his article is ongoing."

A spokesman for the Afghan attorney general remarked that government officials were concerned that Rosenberg's account of what might happen if a new president isn't chosen soon would "create fear and confusion among the people," necessitating the reporter to stay in Afghanistan until the matter is cleared up.

Rosenberg, who stands by his story, said that top Afghan leaders with strong ties to the military are using the threat of a possible interim government to spur candidates Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah to reach a compromise.

An audit of all eight million ballots is being conducted following Abdullah's allegation of massive voter fraud. The preliminary tally following the run-off election had Ghani far ahead of his challenger.

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US Military Confirms Two More Airstrikes Against ISIS Targets Near Mosul Dam

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(MOSUL, Iraq) -- The U.S. military undertook two more airstrikes against Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) targets near the Mosul Dam on Tuesday.

According to United States Central Command, one of the airstrikes successfully destroyed an ISIS checkpoint. The second airstrike, CENTCOM said, was unsuccessful.

The U.S. military said that the airstrikes were conducted to, "support Iraqi security forces and Kurdish defense forces" while they battle ISIS, and to, "protect critical infrastructure, U.S. personnel and facilities, and support humanitarian efforts."

The strikes came one day after the Department of Defense confirmed that the Iraqi forces had retaken the Mosul Dam.

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Gaza Cease-Fire Broken After Rocket Strikes Tel Aviv

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(GAZA CITY, Gaza) -- Despite optimism and another extension to the Gaza cease-fire on Monday, rockets were launched by both sides on Tuesday, including one rocket that struck an open area in Tel Aviv, an area that hadn't been targeted in over a week.

The Israeli military said it launched air strikes in Gaza as a response to a series of rockets that were allegedly fired at the Israeli communities bordering Gaza. The Israeli Iron Dome intercepted a number of rockets.

Palestinian health officials, however, say that several people in Gaza have been killed.

Earlier Tuesday, the Israel Defense Forces said that the latest rocket-fire was another example of, "terrorists [breaching] the cease-fire and [renewing] fire at Israeli civilians from Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip." The IDF then said that it would retaliate by, "striking terror infrastructure, pursuing terrorists, and eliminating terror capabilities in the Gaza Strip."

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Video Appears to Show Beheading of Journalist James Foley

ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images(NEW YORK) -- A disturbing video posted online appears to show the beheading of American journalist James Foley, who was kidnapped while covering the Syrian conflict in 2012.

In the video, a man who appears to be Foley, dressed in orange, kneels beside an armed man clad in black. Foley delivers a statement condemning U.S. action in Iraq and says that the U.S. government is his “real killers.”

“For what will happen to me is only a result of their complacency and criminality,” Foley says in halting speech. “I wish I had more time. I wish I could have the hope of freedom of seeing my family once again, but that ship has sailed. I guess all in all, I wish I wasn’t American.”

Seconds later, the figure dressed in black brandishes a knife and identifies himself as with the Islamic State, the name the brutal terror group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria took on after its leader declared himself the leader of all Muslims.

“Today your military air force has attacked us daily… Your strikes have caused casualties amongst Muslims,” the figure in black says. He then addresses President Obama directly, saying “any attempt… to deny the Muslims their right to live in safety under the Islamic caliphate will result in the bloodshed of your people.”

Foley is then killed. The video continues, showing American Steven Sotloff, who has written for national publications like Time, also dressed in orange and on his knees.

“The life of this American citizen, Obama, depends on your next decision,” the figure in black says.

U.S. intelligence officials said they are aware of the video but declined to comment further.

New Hampshire Sens. Kelly Ayotte and Jeanne Shaheen, from the state where Foley's parents live, each released statements on Tuesday offering thoughts and prayers to Foley's family. While each awaited confirmation of the video's authenticity, Ayotte said that if the video is confirmed, it would represent a "barbarous and heinous act."

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International Critics Turn Tables, Wag Finger at US over Ferguson Crisis

iStock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- The images of conflict coming out of Ferguson, Missouri, often look more like a restless Middle East capital than a Midwest town.

Police aggression. Detention of journalists. A call for respect for minority populations. They’re the type of issues the United States is usually scolding other countries about. This time, however, the criticism is coming the other direction.

Iran’s Grand Ayatollah tweeted about the “brutal treatment” of black people in the United States using the #Ferguson hashtag; China’s official mouthpiece wrote about America’s “human rights flaw”; and the Egyptian government called for “restraint and respect for the right of assembly and peaceful expression of opinion.”

The condemnation is not only limited to countries who may be gloating about the chance to slam the United States about its internal affairs for a change.

On Monday, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, through a spokesman, called on authorities “to ensure that the rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression are protected.”

“He calls on all to exercise restraint, for law enforcement officials to abide by U.S. and international standards in dealing with demonstrators," Stephane Dujarric, the spokesman said.

Amnesty International, the global human rights organization, said it had sent observers to Ferguson. It’s the first time the group has deployed such a team within the United States.

The killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, by a white police officer and the police response to the protests that followed have raised tough, and for many Americans often uncomfortable, questions about the militarization of police, the treatment of press, and brought simmering racial tensions to the front burner.

Yet they have also afforded America’s foes the opportunity to point their fingers at the country that holds itself up as the beacon of freedom, justice and equality.

The United States has frequently denounced Iran’s suppression of dissent, including violent responses to political protests in recent years. But Iran’s Supreme Leader said the Ferguson violence was an example of American hypocrisy about human rights.

“Today like previous years, African-Americans are still under pressure, oppressed and subjected to discrimination. #Ferguson,” a Twitter account attributed to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei, wrote on Sunday.

“Racial discrimination is still a dilemma in the U.S. #Ferguson,” he added. “Look at how US govt treats black community! It's not about 50-100 years ago but it's about today!”

Egypt, a country that has been criticized by the U.S. and others for its brutal police response to the Arab Spring uprising and persecution of minority sects, also weighed in.

The Foreign Ministry reportedly said it was “closely following the escalation of protests” in Ferguson and called on authorities to show “restraint.”

China’s official Xinhua news agency published a commentary saying that Ferguson is an example of how “racial divide still remains a deeply-rooted chronic disease that keeps tearing U.S. society apart.”

“The Ferguson incident once again demonstrates that even if in a country that has for years tried to play the role of an international human rights judge and defender, there is still much room for improvement at home,” the commentary said.

The Russian government, which rarely misses an opportunity to criticize the United States these days, has not said anything official about the Ferguson unrest, but RT, the Kremlin-funded network, has covered the protests closely.

Some opposition figures in Russia have lamented that the police response in Ferguson will give President Vladimir Putin, who often uses Western precedents to justify his own actions, an excuse the next time he wants to crack down.

“Dear American gvrnmnt [sic],you can't imagine how those who fight for freedom in Russia hate you these days. Putin saw this,” Maria Baronova, an activist who was arrested and jailed during an anti-Putin protest in 2012, wrote on Twitter.

U.S. State Department spokesperson Marie Harf responded to criticism from countries with mixed human rights records over the heavy-handed tactics of police in response to the Ferguson protests.

"When we have problems and issues in this country, we deal with them openly and honestly. We think that’s important, and I would encourage the countries you named particularly to do the same thing," Harf said, responding to a reporter who asked about reactions coming from countries including Egypt, China, Russia and Iran.

She rejected "any sort of comparison" between the U.S. urging Egypt not to jail journalists and opposition protesters and U.S. authorities’ handling of the protests in Ferguson.

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UN Refugee Agency to Increase Humanitarian Aid to Refugees in Iraq

Purestock/Thinkstock(ERBIL, Iraq) -- The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees released a statement on Tuesday announcing a push for increased humanitarian aid via air, land and sea.

The aid operation will begin with a four-day airlift utilizing Boeing 747s sent from Jordan to Erbil, Iraq. Following the airlift, road convoys from Turkey and Jordan and sea and land shipments from Dubai via Iran will arrive in the next two weeks. Included in these initial aid shipments, the U.N. Refugee Agency says, are 3,300 tents, 20,000 plastic sheets, 18,500 kitchen sets and 16,500 jerry cans.

The U.N. agency notes that approximately 200,000 people have fled from the city of Sinjar and neighboring areas when they were seized by armed groups in early August. The number of refugees has slowed in the last week, but still require support, according to UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards.

Many refugees are living in schools, mosques, churches, unfinished buildings or within family tents pitched by the UNHCR.

In total, the U.N. agency says, about 1.2 million Iraqis may have been displaced in 2014, including about 600,000 displaced from the recent conflicts in Mosul and Sinjar.

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Pentagon: Strikes to Protect Mosul Dam Are Not 'Mission Creep'

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby told reporters Tuesday that helping the Iraqis retake control of the Mosul dam fell squarely within President Obama’s authorization for the mission, and pushed back against the notion that the airstrikes are a sign of “mission creep.”

“Mission creep refers to the growth or expansion of the golden objectives of a military operation, that the golden objectives change, morph into something bigger than they were at the outset. It doesn’t talk about -- mission creep doesn’t refer to numbers of sorties, numbers of troops, numbers of anything. It doesn’t refer to timelines. It doesn’t even refer to intensity. It’s about the mission itself. Nothing has changed about the mission that -- and the missions that we’re conducting inside Iraq,” said Kirby.

“Airstrikes are authorized under two mission areas: humanitarian assistance and the protection of U.S. personnel and facilities. The airstrikes that we conducted in and around Mosul dam over the last 72 hours or so fit into both those categories,” he said.

Kirby would not get into specific intelligence, but said that the U.S. decided that ISIS controlling the largest dam in Iraq was not an acceptable risk.

“We believed that should the dam remain in control of [ISIS], whose intentions are obviously not perfectly clear and certainly not in the best interests of the people of Iraq, if that dam were to blow or they were to open and flood the gates, that it could have an effect as far south as Baghdad. That’s where we have people,” he said.

Kirby also had harsh words for ISIS, calling the group “barbaric” when asked about reports that members were executing children.

“The barbarism doesn’t seem to know any limits here, and while I can’t point to a specific child, we do have information that would lead us to believe that they have conducted atrocities, killed women, children, men alike,” he said.  “If you don’t believe in their twisted view of reality and their extreme barbaric version of Islam, you appear to be fair game to them.”

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Some Air France Crews Won't Fly to Ebola-Hit Nations

iStock Editorial/Thinkstock(PARIS) -- Some Air France crews won't fly to Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria -- the African nations hit hardest by the deadly Ebola virus.

According to AFP, while some of Air France's employees have refused to fly to these countries, all of the airline's flights have had their usual number of crew members onboard.

The Ebola outbreak is already the deadliest on record and has shown no signs of slowing. About 42.5 percent of Ebola deaths since the virus was discovered in 1976 have occurred since March 2014, according to the World Health Organization.

According to data released by the WHO, as of Saturday, in Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone, there have been 2,240 cases of Ebola and 1,229 Ebola-related deaths.

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Gunmen Escape After Shooting Two People in Pretoria Court

iStock/Thinkstock(PRETORIA, South Africa) --  A police officer and a court orderly were shot in a Pretoria, South Africa court on Tuesday.

News 24 reports that two men who were set to appear in court came in with guns and started shooting. Both men then escaped.

The police officer was reportedly shot in the head and suffered serious injuries. The court orderly was slightly wounded.

The gunman were reportedly appearing on charges of house robbery and possession of unlicensed firearms.

This is the same court where Oscar Pistorius was granted bail.

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Three of Pope Francis' Family Members Die in Car Crash

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images(ROME) -- Pope Francis received sad news on Tuesday: Three of his family members died in a car crash.

The wife and two small children of the pope's 38-year-old nephew, Emanuel Bergoglio, were killed when their car collided with a corn truck northeast of the Argentinian capital of Buenos Aires. Bergoglio himself was badly injured and is in critical condition.

The pope's spokesperson, Federico Lombardi, said Francis was "profoundly saddened" by the news, which he received by telegram in his Vatican residence.

The accident occurred just as the pope arrived back in Rome from a five-day trip to South Korea.

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IDF Confirms Renewed Attacks from Gaza Amid 24-Hour Cease-Fire

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(GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip) -- Israel Defense Forces is targeting "terror sites" in Gaza after confirming renewed rocket attacks from the area.   

"Yet again, terrorists breach the ceasefire and renew fire at Israeli civilians from Hamas ruled Gaza Strip. This continued aggression will be addressed accordingly by the IDF; we will continue striking terror infrastructure, pursuing terrorists, and eliminating terror capabilities in the Gaza Strip, in order to restore security for the State of Israel," said IDF spokesperson Lt. Col. Peter Lerner.

Until midnight Tuesday, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators had agreed late Monday that a cease-fire between the two sides would continue, but now Israel says the militant group Hamas has violated the deal. The 24-hour extension of the truce would have allowed for the two sides to hammer out a long-term agreement to end hostilities that led to the invasion of Gaza and 2,000 deaths, nearly all of them Palestinians.

Al Jazeera reported that the Israelis and Palestinians had agreed to more serious talks within a month to discuss such issues as building a Gaza seaport, one of the demands made by Hamas.

The plan discussed by negotiators also includes the reconstruction of Gaza following weeks of bombardment by Israeli war jets and rockets. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas would oversee this project.

There was no word about Israel's chief demand -- that is, the demilitarization of Hamas to guarantee the security of the homeland.

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Pentagon Confirms Retaking of Mosul Dam

AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images(MOSUL, Iraq) -- Late Monday night the U.S. Department of Defense confirmed that the Mosul Dam had been retaken from militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, noting that 35 U.S. airstrikes "eliminated [ISIS] positions in and around the Mosul Dam complex."

In a statement, Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said that more than 90 targets were destroyed, including vehicles, equipment and fighting positions. The airstrikes also allowed Iraqi forces to successfully clear the dam and work to expand their area of control.

Kirby also reiterated that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel was "extraordinarily proud of the men and women serving on land and sea who conducted these operations."

Kirby's statement also noted that the way in which Iraqi forces worked during the operation "reflects the growing determination of Iraqis to fight back against [ISIS]."

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World Health Organization Activates Travel and Transport Task Force for Ebola Outbreak

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(GENEVA) -- The World Health Organization (WHO) activated a Travel and Transport Task Force on Monday that will monitor the ongoing outbreak of Ebola and provide prompt information to the travel and tourism sector and to travellers.

The WHO maintains that airborne spread of the disease is extremely unlikely, and that travelling on an airplane and contracting Ebola is also small, as most people suffering from the disease do not feel well enough to travel, as well as the required direct contact with bodily fluids from an infected individual.

Still, the WHO is asked all affected countries to conduct exit screening of all individuals at international airports, seaports and major land crossings to prevent the international spread of the disease. The only way an infected individual is to be allowed to cross borders, the organization says, is if that travel is part of a medical evacuation.

The WHO did not, however, recommend a ban on international travel or trade, and that exit screenings or travel restrictions are not recommended for non-affected countries that do not share borders with the nations currently impacted by the Ebola outbreak.

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