Fear rises in Russia gay community

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For those who were once openly gay in Russia, now fear for their lives due to the changes in the law. CNN’s Phil Black reports.

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Protesters begin ‘Bangkok shutdown’

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Thai anti-government protesters wave national flags as they march through the streets of Bangkok in a move to “shut down” the city on January 13, 2014.

The protests in central Bangkok have so far remained relatively peaceful.

Thai anti-government protesters shout and cheer during a rally at the Democracy Monument in Bangkok on Sunday, January 12, 2014.

An anti-government protester moves a barricade across a major intersection in central Bangkok as part of their efforts to force the resignation of Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

Anti-government protesters fill sandbags as they make barricades during a Bangkok rally on January 13, 2014.

A volunteer security guard stands at one of the anti-government People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) intersections that was shut down in early evening, blocking a major shopping district on January 12, 2014.

The People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) protesters demonstrate at the democracy monument on January 12, 2014, in Bangkok, Thailand.

Sandbags block a street outside the Government House in Bangkok on January 12, 2014.

Thai anti-government protesters set up a spot with shade on a street outside the Government house in Bangkok on January 12, 2014.

Anti-government protesters begin to occupy major intersections that were shut early Sunday evening in a major shopping district on January 12, 2014 in Bangkok, Thailand.











Bangkok, Thailand (CNN) — A planned month-long protest intended to force Thailand’s Prime Minister from office began Monday with about 50,000 demonstrators laying siege to major intersections in the large and hectic capital city Bangkok.

Protesters occupied seven main intersections, and blocked one government office, said Lt. Gen. Paradon Pattanathabut.

Demonstrators have said they will surround other ministerial houses, and cut off electricity and water supplies at some government offices.

It’s all part of a so-called “Bangkok shutdown” orchestrated by the People’s Democratic Reform Committee protest group.

On Monday — Day 1 — students stayed at home as 140 schools were closed. Residents moved about the city, although in some places protesters stopped cars from crossing blockades.

Tourism takes a hit in Thailand

Protests hurting Thai economy

Though many areas of the city are unaffected, several of the rally sites are in popular tourism areas.

About 20,000 security personnel kept watch throughout the city. But so far, the shutdown has gone without incident.

Urging caution

Rights groups and others have called on Thai authorities and anti-government protesters to respect human rights and avoid violence during the mass demonstrations.

Since the anti-government protests began in November, eight people have died and 470 have been injured, authorities said.

“The situation in Thailand is tense, volatile and unpredictable,” said Isabelle Arradon, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific deputy director, last week. “There is a real risk of loss of life and injury unless human rights are fully respected.”

READ: What’s behind Bangkok’s looming ‘shutdown’?

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said Friday in New York that he had spoken by telephone with Shinawatra and opposition leader Abhisit Vejjajiva over the past three days “in an effort to help them bridge their differences.”

Ban said he was “very concerned that the situation could escalate in the days ahead,” and particularly on Monday.

“I urge all involved to show restraint, avoid provocative acts and settle their differences peacefully, through dialogue,” he said.

Vejjajiv has denied being a member of the PDRC protest group, but has appeared on stage and among the crowds at some of their demonstrations.

Travel warnings

In a bid to cool tensions, Yingluck dissolved the nation’s parliament in December and called for new elections to be held February 2.

But the move has done little to appease protesters. They have called on the Prime Minister to step down from her caretaker position and be replaced by an unelected “people’s council,” which would see through electoral and political reforms.

The national Election Commission has urged the government to postpone elections amid the continuing unrest. On Wednesday, Yingluck will meet with protest leaders and election commission officials to discuss whether to postpone, her office said.

Dozens of countries have issued travel advisories amid fears the tensions could erupt into violence.

The U.S. Embassy in Bangkok has urged U.S. citizens to avoid large gatherings in the city and to ensure they have a stock of cash and essential items in case the situation deteriorates.

“While protests have been generally peaceful over the last two months, some have resulted in injury and death,” its online warning said. “Even demonstrations that are meant to be peaceful can turn confrontational, and can escalate into violence without warning.”

The protest group said that on Monday it would still allow ambulances to pass along the roads it intends to block, and that it would not block access to airports and public transportation.

Ambitious goal

Protest leaders have said they want to rid Thailand of the influence of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the older brother of Yingluck Shinawatra.

That’s an ambitious goal in a country where every election since 2001 has been won by parties affiliated with Thaksin Shinawatra, a billionaire who built his political success on populist policies that appealed to Thailand’s rural heartland.

Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted in a military coup in 2006 and has spent most of the time since then in exile overseas. If he returns, he risks a two-year prison sentence on a corruption conviction, which he says was politically motivated.

The recent protests in Bangkok were prompted by a botched attempt by Yingluck Shinawatra’s government to pass an amnesty bill that would have opened the door for her brother’s return.

That move added fuel for critics who accuse her of being nothing more than her brother’s puppet, an allegation she has repeatedly denied.

Opposition to Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra is strongest among the urban elites and middle class, particularly in Bangkok.

Thaksin Shinawatra’s traditional support comes from the populous rural areas of north and northeast Thailand.

His supporters, known as “red shirts,” plan to hold demonstrations in various places in Thailand, but not the capital or south of the country, on Sunday. They support the holding of elections on February 2.

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Cairo street eats next big thing?

Posted by MereNews On January - 13 - 2014 ADD COMMENTS

Editor’s note: Follow the Inside the Middle East team on Instagram

(CNN) — In Egypt, the words “street food” and “gourmet” don’t often go hand in hand.

Street food is not about style; it’s meant to be quick, cheap and filling. However Chris Khalifa, a 30-year-old owner of Zooba cafe in Cairo, has tried to change that.

He saw a trend elsewhere in the world: chefs hit the streets and serve dishes out of food trucks.

“I noticed no one had ever tried to do this with Egyptian street food,” said Khalifa. “I try to create a brand around a more gourmet Egyptian street food.”

But instead bringing gourmet food to the street, Zooba turns street food into fine dining. Located in Cairo’s upmarket Zamalek neighborhood, the cafe serves classic street fare like koshari and falafel with a new twist.

The dishes, like spinach-infused “baladi” bread or sweet potatoes roasted with a blowtorch, are prepared by professionally trained chefs, using top-quality ingredients.

Read more: Egypt’s street art revolution

Cairo’s thriving art scene

Khalifa’s business partner, Moustafa El Rafaey, handles the creative side of running the restaurant. Trained at a culinary arts program in the United States, he initially found cooking Egyptian cuisine was quite daunting — and foreign.

Egypt’s farming revolution

“I was scared to be honest,” said El Rafaey. “I had (a) good international background. To leave all this to cook… Egyptian food was a bit scary for me.”

To develop the restaurant’s menu, El Rafaey traveled across Egypt. He mastered local recipes, tried new flavors and searched for best ingredients. He relishes his experience, saying that preparing food is like creating an artwork.

“Anything that puts a smile on your face is an art. When you watch a good dance or listen to a good music that makes your smile,” Elrafaey says. “And I put smiles on people’s faces with my food.”

“When we started, I honestly had no idea how people would respond to a gourmet ‘ful,’ ‘tameya’ or ‘koshari,’” said Khalifa, who quit his banking job to start the restaurant. “The response has been good, people have been coming in.”

Business is so good that they are thinking to expand, opening a second and a third branch of Zooba in Cairo. And perhaps one day, in Dubai or even London — which means taking Egyptian street food to the world.

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State memorial held for Sharon

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Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, a decorated warrior who also took steps for peace, died Saturday, January 11, after eight years in a coma. Sharon was 85. The former general had been hospitalized since suffering a stroke in January 2006. Here, he meets with Israeli journalists in Tel Aviv a month before the stroke.

Sharon, born on a farm outside of Tel Aviv, began working with the Haganah, a militant group advocating for Israel’s independence, after graduating from high school in 1945. He’s shown as a young commander in the Alexandroni Brigade of the fledgling Israeli army in 1948.

Ariel Sharon addresses troops of Unit 101 before their attack on Khan Yunis in what was formerly known as the Gaza Strip on August 30, 1955. Sharon had established the elite commando group two years before. The officer-turned-politician had a career marked with victories and controversies.

By February 1966, when this photo was taken, Sharon was an Israeli military hero. Sharon rose through the ranks of the Israel Defense Forces and was a major general during 1967′s Six-Day War, which ended with Israel notably, if controversially, expanding its territory.

In June 1967, Sharon led his tank battalion to a crushing victory over the Egyptians in the Sinai during the Six-Day War. Here, he witnesses an aerial attack.

Former Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion is briefed in 1971 by Sharon in a trench near the Suez Canal in the Sinai.

Defense Minister Moshe Dayan (left) visits with a bandaged Sharon during the Yom Kippur War in October 1973 on the western bank of the Suez Canal in Egypt. Sharon said his greatest military success came during that war. He surrounded Egypt’s Third Army and, defying orders, led 200 tanks and 5,000 men over the Suez Canal, a turning point.

Sharon transitioned into government, including stints as military adviser, agriculture minister and defense minister. Here, he and Prime Minister Menachem Begin attend a Knesset meeting in June 1977.

Sharon with his son, Gilad, and wife, Lily, during a stop in Egypt in 1979.

An official Israeli inquiry found Sharon indirectly responsible for the September 1982 killings of as many as 2,000 Palestinians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps outside of Beirut, Lebanon. The report — which led to Sharon’s prompt resignation — determined the then-defense minister did nothing to stop Christian militiamen allied with Israel from entering the camps. Here, demonstrators are seen near Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s home in Jerusalem, calling for the resignations of Begin and Sharon.

Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, in combat helmet and flak jacket, leads his troops toward a meeting with Christian forces in East Beirut in June 1982. Israel had invaded southern Lebanon in retaliation for an assassination attempt linked to the group Abu Nidal.

Sharon, no longer in the Israeli military, stands at the future site of a settlement in Gaza in February 1990.

Serving as foreign minister, Ariel Sharon talks with U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright during the October 1998 Middle East peace summit in Maryland.

Sharon made a political comeback in the 1990s, eventually becoming leader of the Likud party in 2000. In February 2001, the prime minister-elect touches the ancient stones of the Western Wall as he prays at Judaism’s holiest site in Jerusalem. He took office the following month.

The prime minister, at a March 2002 media briefing in Jerusalem, announces a widespread army operation against what he called Palestinian terrorism. He spoke out against Yasser Arafat, then a key Palestinian leader. Sharon said that Israel considered Arafat an enemy and that he would be completely isolated “at this stage.”

In June 2003, Sharon, right, met with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, left, and U.S. President George W. Bush to discuss a Middle East “road map” for peace. After the meeting, Sharon expressed his “strong support” for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Sharon sits alone as he waits for other Knesset members to arrive for a vote on March 28, 2005. Sharon pushed for Israel’s historic 2005 withdrawal from 25 settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, which was turned over to Palestinian rule for the first time in 38 years.

Immediately after he fell ill in early 2006, Sharon’s prime minister power was transferred to Vice Premier Ehud Olmert. Sharon is shown only weeks before his devastating stroke.

The politician pays a visit to his Negev Desert farm in early 2006.

Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert looks toward the empty chair of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as a note is passed to him during a special meeting of the cabinet in April 2006. Israel’s Cabinet declared Sharon permanently incapacitated, a decision marking the official end of his five-year tenure. Sharon suffered his stroke in January 2006 and was in a coma.





















Editor’s note: What’s your reaction to Sharon’s death? What will be his legacy? Share your views.

Jerusalem (CNN) — International leaders and top Israeli officials attended a state memorial ceremony Monday for Israel’s former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who died last week.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair were among those at the official ceremony outside Israel’s parliament, the Knesset.

Under bright sunshine, rows of mourners gathered around Sharon’s coffin, over which the blue-and-white Israeli flag was draped.

“You never rested when in service of your people, when defending your land and when making it flourish,” said Israeli President Shimon Peres, who delivered a eulogy to Sharon at the beginning of the ceremony.

A towering military and political leader, Sharon died Saturday after eight years in a coma.

Peres, a friend and sometimes rival of Sharon, compared him to “a lion,” saying he’d contributed “an unforgettable chapter” to Israel’s history.

‘A complex man’

Wearing a skullcap and sunglasses, Biden sat alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In his speech, the Vice President praised the tenacity of Sharon, a divisive figure in the Middle East.

“Prime Minister Sharon was a complex man … who engendered strong opinions from everyone,” Biden said.

“But like all historic leaders — all real leaders — he had a North Star that guided him, a North Star from which he never, in my observation, never deviated,” he said. “His North Star was the survival of the state of Israel and the Jewish people, wherever they resided.”

The memorial was followed by a funeral procession that includes a stop in Latrun for a special meeting of the Israel Defense Forces and will end with a military funeral at Sharon’s Shikmim Ranch. Sharon was wounded in Latrun in 1948 during Israel’s war for independence.

‘One of the giants’

Thousands of people on Sunday paid their last respects to Sharon as his body lay in state outside the parliament.

“He was one of the giants. He was very special,” said Ayala Weisel, who said she grew up learning of Sharon as a widely admired soldier who fought for his country.

She was one of many mourners who shared memories with CNN on Sunday of Sharon.

Chaim Friedman, a tour guide, described Sharon as a decisive leader.

“He was known as the bulldozer because he got his way and he made things happen. He’s well respected for that,” Friedman said. “Sometimes in Israel, you have to do it the straight way, or you have to find the other way to get things done, and he managed to do it.”

READ MORE: Sharon’s life on the front lines

A darker view

But others have painted a darker picture of Sharon’s legacy.

And the same decisions that made Sharon a controversial figure during his lengthy tenure as a military man and politician were back on display in the initial reactions to his death.

These moments include his role as defense minister during the 1982 war in Lebanon. During that conflict, he was held indirectly responsible by an Israeli inquiry in 1983 for the massacre of hundreds of Palestinians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. He was forced to resign.

He also raised ire in the Arab world by encouraging Israelis to build settlements on occupied Palestinian land, but later did an about-face and pushed for the historic withdrawal from settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, which were turned over to Palestinian rule for the first time in nearly four decades.

“We deal with the death of Sharon as an end for the crimes he committed against the Palestinian people,” said Isra Almodallal, a spokeswoman for Hamas, the Palestinian movement that runs Gaza. “The biggest crime was the Sabra and Shatila massacre in Lebanon, and we deal with Sharon as a criminal person.”

READ MORE: Five things to know about Sharon

CNN’s Ben Wedeman reported from Jerusalem, and Jethro Mullen reported and wrote from Hong Kong. CNN’s Mariano Castillo, Saad Abedine and Faith Karimi contributed to this report.

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(CNN) — The first lady of France, Valerie Trierweiler, has been hospitalized since Friday following allegations that President Francois Hollande has been having an affair with a French actress, a top member of Trierweiler’s staff said.

Patrice Biancone, head of Trierweiler’s Elysee office, told CNN, “She needed rest. We are hoping that she will leave the hospital at the beginning of this week.”

He said that the first lady entered a hospital after allegations surfaced in the French tabloid Closer linking Hollande romantically to actress Julie Gayet.

“We all know why she went in after the story came out,” said Biancone, clearly making the link between the revelations of the magazine and Trierweiler’s hospitalization.

Trierweiler and Hollande are not married but live together, and she makes official state appearances. They met when she was a reporter for Paris Match magazine, a publication she still works for.

Hollande, 59, left his longtime common-law wife, Segolene Royal — the mother of his four children — for Trierweiler, 48, before the 2012 presidential election.

Closer reported Hollande had been slipping out of the back door of the Elysee Palace and hopping on a motor scooter driven by a bodyguard to Gayet’s apartment. The magazine also reported the bodyguard brought croissants to the apartment one morning.

Hollande has not denied the affair but has threatened legal action.

Le Parisien first reported Trierweiler has been hospitalized since Thursday. The paper said the full story will appear in Monday’s edition.

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Feed your hungry babies, Pope tells mothers

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Pope Francis baptizes a child inside the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican on Sunday, January 12. The Pope baptized 32 infants during the ceremony.

The Pope blesses a baby during the baptism ceremony.

Pope Francis leads the ceremony before the baptisms.

The Pope baptizes one of the 32 children.

A candle is lit during the baptismal ceremony.

A child is baptized during the ceremony.

Pope Francis leaves the Sistine Chapel after the ceremony.








(CNN) — It boasts some of the world’s most celebrated works of art: Michelangelo’s frescoes depicting the creation of man and a severe God at the Last Judgment.

But on Sunday, Pope Francis told mothers not to feel intimidated by the splendid surroundings of the Sistine Chapel as he baptized 32 sometimes wailing babies.

At the yearly event, Francis, who has become known for the more simple style he has introduced in the Vatican, offered a brief homily centered on the infants.

“Today the choir sings but the most beautiful choir is of children,” he said.

“Some are crying, because they are uncomfortable, or because they are hungry. If they are hungry, mothers, give them something to eat. … They are the central figures, the protagonists.”

Formally welcoming the children as members of the Catholic Church, the pontiff poured water from a shell-shaped dish over the heads of the babies, dressed in white satin or silk gowns.

In the same chapel last March, he was elected as the first Latin American pope. He has since made headlines for embracing a humble way of life.

Also on Sunday, Pope Francis named 19 new cardinals from Africa, Latin America, Asia and elsewhere during his weekly address to worshipers gathered in St. Peter’s Square.

Sixteen of the new appointees, who will be instated next month, are under the age of 80, making them eligible to enter a conclave to elect the Pope’s successor.

The pontiff also said three archbishops emeriti, over the age of 80, will join the College of Cardinals.

CNN’s Lindsay Isaac and Hadia Messia contributed to this report.

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Iran to start eliminating uranium stockpile

Posted by MereNews On January - 13 - 2014 ADD COMMENTS

(CNN) — Save the date: Iran has pledged to start eliminating some of its uranium stockpile on January 20, the White House said Sunday.

That gives an official start time for the six-month interim deal with Iran, which was first announced in November.

“As of that day, for the first time in almost a decade, Iran’s nuclear program will not be able to advance, and parts of it will be rolled back, while we start negotiating a comprehensive agreement to address the international community’s concerns about Iran’s program,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement Sunday.

Iranian officials also confirmed the start date for the deal, state media reported.

As part of the agreement, Iran has agreed to start eliminating its stockpile of higher levels of enriched uranium, to dismantle some infrastructure that makes higher-level uranium enrichment possible, and not to start up additional centrifuges.

Representatives from the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog agency will also monitor Iran’s nuclear facilities and make sure the country is taking the required steps as part of the deal.

In exchange, some sanctions against Iran will be eased as part of what the White House calls “modest relief.”

U.S. officials estimate the overall sanctions relief provided to Iran as part of the deal will total around $7 billion — $4.2 billion of which consists of restricted Iranian assets that will be freed up gradually.

“The $4.2 billion in restricted Iranian assets that Iran will gain access to as part of the agreement will be released in regular installments throughout the six months,” Kerry said. “The final installment will not be available to Iran until the very last day.”

But there’s a bipartisan push in Congress to tighten, rather than ease, sanctions on Iran. U.S. President Barack Obama made it clear Sunday that he would push back.

“Imposing additional sanctions now will only risk derailing our efforts to resolve this issue peacefully, and I will veto any legislation enacting new sanctions during the negotiation,” Obama said in a written statement.

Senior Obama administration officials echoed that sentiment Sunday, but also said if Iran doesn’t make good on its promises, the United States could decide to step up sanctions.

Iranian lawmakers have threatened to boost uranium enrichment levels if the United States imposes more sanctions against the country.

One of Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Majid Ravanchi, told CNN Sunday that the enactment of additional sanctions from the U.S. Senate would “ruin the entire agreement.”

“We hope we will not face that,” he said.

Word of the deal’s start date drew mixed reactions from Capitol Hill Sunday.

“I’m concerned that this agreement takes us down that path where sanctions pressure is relieved, but Iran maintains its ability to produce a nuclear weapon,” said House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Ed Royce, R-California. “Given these stakes, it’s regrettable that the President does not want to work with Congress to bolster his negotiating hand with additional sanctions, which would go into effect should Iran fail to meet its commitments.”

Rep. Adam Schiff, D-California, called the interim agreement a “meaningful step forward” and said new sanctions would be counterproductive.

“We will know soon enough if Iran is committed to a diplomatic resolution of its nuclear program. If it is not, new sanctions will move with lightning speed out of the Congress and with my full support.” he said. “Many obstacles remain, and I continue to be skeptical of Tehran’s willingness to abandon pursuit of nuclear weapons technology, but I am also fully convinced that we must try the diplomatic path.”

The agreement struck in November with representatives from Iran, the United States, Britain, China, Russia, France and Germany has been widely hailed as a successful interim measure to stave off an unwanted conflict over Tehran’s nuclear program.

But after initially celebrating a diplomatic success, Iran had reportedly lashed out at the United States for making public a modified version of the agreement that Tehran said did not reflect its interpretation.

It took three rounds of meetings with technical experts to hammer out the details of implementing the deal, European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton said in a statement Sunday.

Another Iranian deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araqchi, announced the deal’s start date at a press conference Sunday, saying that his country would stop 20% uranium enrichment at that time, the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency reported.

“There’s $4.2 billion of Iran’s oil income which will be released, and from the other side, the conversion of 20% enriched material to oxide or diluting it (will) be carried out. This action on our side, and that one on theirs, will be performed within a six-month span,” he said.

Even as they hailed the start date as a significant step forward Sunday, officials cautioned that the toughest negotiations are yet to come.

“The negotiations will be very difficult,” Kerry said, “but they are the best chance we have to be able to resolve this critical national security issue peacefully, and durably.”

CNN’s Kevin Liptak, Jamie Crawford, Elise Labott, Linday Isaac, Sara Mazloumsaki, Chelsea Carter and Jim Sciutto contributed to this report.

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Corporate jet crash in Germany kills 4

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Journalists detained in Egypt

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Al Jazeera’s Bernard Smith, Sherif Mansour of the Committee To Protect Journalists, Brian Stelter on the

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Analysts: Syrian refugee crisis getting worse

Posted by MereNews On January - 12 - 2014 ADD COMMENTS

Our FlashBrief analysts weigh in on what needs to be done to end Syria’s refugee crisis.

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U.S. Jobless Hit 8½-Year Low

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U.S. Jobless Hit 8½-Year Low

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New-Home Slowdown Pressures Recovery

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