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UN Chief: Agreement on Gaza Cease-Fire 'Very Close'


GAZA - ISRAEL: U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas are "very close" to an agreement on a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip. At a news conference in the West Bank city of Ramallah today, Mr. Ban urged the parties to conclude their indirect negotiations as soon as possible. He said he hopes for an agreement over the next few days, but also said it is time for Israel's government to consider a unilateral cease-fire. The U.N. chief spoke after meetings with leaders of the Palestinian Authority. Fighting continued in Gaza today, with Israeli air strikes pounding 40 Hamas targets before dawn, including smuggling tunnels and rocket launching sites.

BUSH - FAREWELL: U.S. President George Bush told the American people in his farewell speech to the nation that he "always acted with the best interests of our country in mind." In his last televised address from the White House Thursday night, Mr. Bush acknowledged he had endured setbacks during his eight-year tenure. But he said he followed his conscience and did what he believed was right, and was willing to make "the tough decisions." The outgoing president reflected on the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States during his speech.

US PLANE CRASH: U.S. authorities say all 155 people on board a domestic airliner escaped safely after the plane made a crash-landing into the frigid waters of the Hudson River in New York City Thursday. The 150 passengers and five crew climbed onto the wings of the sinking Airbus or got into inflatable rafts and waited to be picked up by ferries and tourist boats. Several people suffered from exposure to the freezing temperatures. U.S. Airways Flight 1549 splash-landed in the Hudson minutes after taking off from La Guardia airport. Authorities say the plane may have struck one or more birds, disabling one or both of its engines.

US - IRAQ: A Pentagon spokesman says U.S. defense officials are drawing up plans for a quick withdrawal from Iraq, in case the move is ordered by President-elect Barack Obama. Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell says a 16-month timeline for the pullout of U.S. forces was just one of the options being prepared for Mr. Obama's review, oncehe takes office next week. Morrell told reporters Thursday it was prudent for the Pentagon to draw up the plans, considering Mr. Obama campaigned on withdrawing combat forces from Iraq in less than two years. There are currently 142-thousand U.S. troops serving in Iraq.

SOMALIA - PIRATES: A top U.S. Navy commander says the United States will soon be able to move aggressively to capture pirates off the coast of Somalia -- and bring them to trial. Vice Admiral William Gortney, commander of the U.S. 5th Fleet, says the United States is nearing a deal with an unidentified country in the region to take captured pirates into custody and try them. Up until now, no country has been willing to hold the pirates, so the United States has limited its operations to disrupting and deterring pirates, but not capturing them. Admiral Gortney says under the new plan, his forces will arrest suspected pirates even if they are not attacking a ship.

ZIMBABWE CURRENCY: Zimbabwe's reserve bank says it is issuing a new 100-trillion dollar bank note and other trillion-dollar denominations in a continuing effort to keep up with the world's highest inflation rate. In a statement published in today's edition of the state-run "Herald" newspaper, The Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe says the move is being made to ensure the public has adequate access to cash from banks. Only last week, the bank issued currency with a face value of 50 billion and 20 billion dollars. The government also scrapped limits on cash withdrawals from banks, allowing workers to withdraw their full salaries.

US - BURMA - SANCTIONS: The United States has imposed additional sanctions against key financial backers of Burma's military government. The action by the U.S. Treasury Department affects two individuals and 14 companies. The Department says the new additions bring the total number of sanctioned Burmese companies and individuals to 100. A top Treasury official, Adam Szubin, said Washington will apply sanctions as long as Burma continues to suppress democratic dissent. The two individuals penalized Thursday were identified as Zaw Zaw and Win Aung.

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