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Colombia Defense Minister Denies Paying Ransom


COLOMBIA - HOSTAGES: Colombia's defense minister has denied reports that his government paid a ransom for the release of 15 rebel-held hostage earlier this week. Juan Manuel Santos rejected as false Swiss radio reports that 20 million dollars was paid for the hostages, who included French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt and three American defense contractors. He also stressed that the Colombian military planned and executed the operation to free the hostages from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or FARC. On Friday, Colombia released a video recorded during the bloodless rescue.

ZIMBABWE: A former prison guard has smuggled a film out of Zimbabwe that allegedly shows how President Robert Mugabe rigged the June 27th runoff election. The film shows officials with the ZANU-PF party forcing officers at Harare central jail to cast their ballots for Mr. Mugabe. It also shows a prominent opposition leader, Tendai Biti, in leg irons. Shepherd Yuda says he made the film for Guardian Films after his uncle, an opposition activist, was killed by supporters of Mr. Mugabe two months ago. The 36-year-old Yuda has since fled Zimbabwe with his wife and children.

AFGHAN VIOLENCE: Afghan officials say gunmen in southern Afghanistan have killed a member of the country's parliament. Authorities say Habibullah Jan was shot dead late Friday in the Zhari district of Kandahar province. In a separate incident Friday, Afghan police say 10 Taliban militants planting a roadside bomb in Helmand province were killed when it exploded prematurely. Afghan officials also said a U.S.-led coalition air strike on Friday killed 22 civilians in a remote district (Vanth Waigal) of Nuristan province, near the Pakistani border. The U.S.-led coalition confirmed the air raid but said militants -- not civilians -- were killed.

IRAN - NUCLEAR: A government spokesman says Iran is ready to hold talks with world powers about its nuclear program. But he also says Iran's position has not changed and that Tehran will not give up its right to enrich uranium. The remarks today by Gholamhossein Elham come one day after Iran submitted its official response to a package of incentives, drawn up by six world powers (Russia, China, France, Germany, Britain and the United States). The six governments are offering Iran economic and trade benefits if it agrees to stop enriching uranium, a process that can be used to produce nuclear weapons.

LEBANON POLITICS: Officials in Lebanon say the country's rival factions are close to a deal that would end weeks of tension and form a national unity government. The officials say the deal -- brokered with the help of Qatar -- settles disputes over the distribution of key ministerial posts, and could be announced as early as today. Tensions between the various factions have been growing in recent weeks, with sectarian violence claiming at least 10 lives and wounding dozens more. Lebanon's opposition and pro-Western government signed an Arab-brokered deal in May that pulled the country back from the brink of a civil war.

CHINA - TIBET: An envoy to Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, says the latest round of talks with China was one of the most difficult sessions held so far. Lodi Gyari told reporters Friday that at the talks this week, his Chinese counterparts repeated accusations that the Dalai Lama wants to sabotage next month's Olympic Games in Beijing. He said he rejected the accusations, telling his Chinese counterparts that if they are not serious about dialogue, these talks will amount to a waste of time. Chinese state media quoted officials Thursday as saying another meeting between the two sides is possible by the end of the year.

SOKOR BEEF PROTESTS: Another protest against the resumption of U.S. beef imports will be held today in the South Korean capital of Seoul. Protest organizers say they expect hundreds of thousands of people to participate, while authorities put that number closer to 35-thousand. About 20-thousand riot police will be deployed throughout the capital. Several large protests were held in Seoul on a near-daily basis shortly after the new government of President Lee Myung-bak agreed to resume U.S. beef imports in April. The protests were sparked by fears of mad cow disease, which triggered a ban on American beef imports in 2003.

THAILAND - POL: Thailand's Supreme Court has barred former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra from leaving the country while he faces corruption charges. Mr. Thaksin had asked for permission to leave the country for business trips over the next few weeks, but Supreme Court officials say the request was not justified. Mr. Thaksin and his wife are due to appear in court this coming Tuesday to face charges of abuse of power and conflict of interest in a real estate purchase while he was in office. In 2006, a bloodless military coup removed Mr. Thaksin from office and afterwards he remained overseas in exile for nearly 18 months.

BURMA: Burmese authorities have sentenced four opposition members to prison for campaigning against the military government's new constitution. A spokesman for the National League for Democracy, Nyan Win, told reporters Friday that all four were sentenced last month to one year prison terms. He said the activists were arrested in March for distributing leaflets urging voters to reject the constitution, which was drafted by the military government. The government claimed an overwhelming victory in the referendum on the constitution held in May, days after a devastating cyclone left nearly 140-thousand people dead ormissing and more than two-million others homeless.

OBIT - THICH HUYEN QUANG: The leader of Vietnam's Buddhist movement and a staunch opponent of the country's communist government has died at the age of 87. Thich Huyen Quang died today at his monastery in Binh Dinh. The information bureau of the international Buddhist movement in Paris says Quang died after spending the last month in a hospital suffering from heart, lung and kidney ailments. Quang was patriarch of the outlawed Unified Buddhist Church in Vietnam. He spent several years under house arrest, prison or internal exile for bucking (opposing) Vietnam's communist rulers. (News Updates)

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