Thai junta says curfew lifted nationwide

Thailand's military government lifted a curfew nationwide on Friday, citing the absence of any violence and the need to support the country's tourism sector.

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"As the situation has improved and there have been no incidents that can lead to violence ... and in order to improve tourism, the curfew will be lifted in all remaining provinces," the ruling military council said in a televised announcement.

The curfew had been in place from midnight to 4 a.m. in 47 provinces including the capital Bangkok. It had lifted the curfew in 30 provinces, which include the country's main tourist hotspots, over the past week.

(Reporting by Amty Sawitta Lefevre; Writing by Maertin Petty; Editing by Ron Popeski)

Ukrainian forces reclaim port city from rebels

The Ukrainian flag fluttered over the regional government headquarters in the strategic port city of Mariupol on Friday after government forces reclaimed the city from pro-Russian separatists in heavy fighting and said they had regained control of a long stretch of the border with Russia.

The advances are significant victories for the pro-European leadership in a military operation to crush the rebellion, which began in east Ukraine in April, and hold the country together. Parallel peace moves are moving slowly, however, and Russia is threatening to cut gas supplies to Ukraine from Monday in a row over prices.

In central Mariupol, police cordoned off several streets, where roadblocks of sandbags and concrete blocks, once manned by rebels, were riddled with bullet holes, and the burnt-out hulk of an armoured personnel carrier with rebel insignia smouldered.

"At 10:34 a.m. (0734 GMT), the Ukrainian flag was raised over City Hall in Mariupol," Interior Minister Arsen Avakov wrote on Facebook. That was less than six hours after the attack began on the city of 500,000, Ukraine's biggest port on the Azov Sea.

A ministry aide said government forces had attacked after surrounding the rebels and giving them 10 minutes to surrender. At least five separatists and two servicemen were killed before many of the rebels fled.

A group of about 100 Mariupol residents, who had gathered in the centre to show their opposition to the government's actions, exchanged obscenities and crude gestures with Ukrainian soldiers driving through town in a column of armoured trucks.

"The government brought everything here, including a cannon ... people were not allowed to come and witness how the government was shooting its own citizens," 52-year-old Andrei Nikodimovich said.

Mariupol, which has changed hands several times in weeks of conflict, is strategically important because it lies on major roads from the southeastern border with Russia into the rest of Ukraine, and steel is exported through the port.

Regaining full control of the 2,000-km (1,200-mile) frontier is also vital for the government because it accuses Moscow of allowing the rebels to bring tanks, other armoured vehicles and guns across the border.

Avakov said government forces had won back control of a 120-km (75-mile) stretch of border that had fallen to the rebels, but it was unclear who controlled other parts of the frontier.

In Washington, the U.S. State Department said Russia had sent tanks, heavy weapons and rocket launchers to Ukraine in recent days in support of separatists in the east of the country. The confirmation by the United States of reports that Russian tanks had crossed the border into Ukraine is likely to deepen strains with Moscow.

"We assess that separatists in eastern Ukraine have acquired heavy weapons and military equipment from Russia, including Russian tanks and multiple rocket launchers," State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said in a statement.

Harf told a briefing earlier that a convoy of three T-64 tanks, several MB-21 "or Grad" multiple rocket launchers and other military vehicles had crossed from Russia into Ukraine in the last three days.

"This is unacceptable," she said. "A failure by Russia to de-escalate the situation will lead to additional costs."

IMPASSE AT GAS TALKS

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The rebels rose up in the Russian-speaking east and southeast after Russia annexed Crimea in March following the overthrow of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovich, who had triggered protests by spurning trade and political pacts that would have deepened ties with the European Union.

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The new president, Petro Poroshenko, intensified the military operation against the rebels after he was elected on May 25, but is also trying to win support for a peace plan.

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On Friday, one separatist leader, Denis Pushilin, said he could be open to the idea of talks provided there were mediators, including Russia, present. "If an international organisation were also involved, that would be a plus too," he said in an interview on Russian television.

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Poroshenko's aides say progress has been made at initial meetings with a Russian envoy and that any immediate threat of a Russian invasion has receded. But tensions have risen at talks on how much Ukraine should pay for Russian natural gas.

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Ukraine said it was preparing for gas supply cuts on Monday, the deadline for it to settle $1.95 billion in unpaid bills. This could disrupt supplies to the European Union, as about half of its sizable gas imports from Russia flow via Ukraine.

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Political ties have also been strained by the appearance of several tanks in east Ukraine. Avakov accused Russia on Thursday of allowing the rebels to bring them across the border and Poroshenko told Russian President Vladimir Putin by phone that the situation was "unacceptable".

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Evidence that Russia is directly assisting the rebels militarily would implicate Moscow in the uprising, making a mockery of its denials of a role in the fighting.

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(Additional reporting by Pavel Polityuk and Natalia Zinets in Kiev, Vladimir Soldatkin in Moscow and Lesley Wroughton in Washington; Writing by Timothy Heritage and Alessandra Prentice; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Dan Grebler)

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Israeli forces search for three missing Jewish teens in West Bank

Israeli forces are searching for three Jewish teenagers who went missing in the occupied West Bank late on Thursday, the military said on Friday.

As media speculated that the three youths might have been abducted, large numbers of Israeli soldiers scoured the countryside around the flashpoint city of Hebron, carrying out house-to-house searches in neighboring villages and blocking roads.

Local media said the three youngsters had last been seen trying to hitch-hike home from a religious seminary in the Jewish settlement of Gush Etzion, to the north of Hebron.

"Forces are conducting a widespread operation to locate the individuals," the military said in a statement.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened a special meeting of security ministers and said in a statement that Israel held President Mahmoud Abbas's Western-backed Palestinian Authority responsible for the safety of the three.

But Adnan al-Dmairi, a spokesman for Palestinian security services in the West Bank, deflected Israel's criticism.

"Three settlers are missing - why is this the fault of the Palestinian Authority? We have nothing to do with this issue. If a natural disaster hits Israel, would we be responsible? This is mad and unacceptable. We have no knowledge about this," he said.

The military did not name the teenagers. The newspaper Haaretz said two were aged 16 and one was 19. Local media added that one of the three also held American citizenship, and that the U.S. ambassador to Israel had been briefed.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry "expressed grave concern ... and ... our commitment to working with both the Government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority to try to ensure the situation is resolved quickly and the teenagers are returned to their families," a U.S. spokesman said.

"Secretary Kerry has ... spoken to President Abbas to urge him to do everything possible to assist in the effort to find them. President Abbas assured him that he is doing so."

Kerry met Israeli chief peace negotiator Tzipi Livni at a conference in London and later also spoke to Netanyahu, an Israeli spokesman said.

"The prime minister said to Kerry: Abu Mazen (Abbas) is responsible for the wellbeing of the missing (boys)," part of the Israeli statement about the conversation said.

PALESTINIAN PRISONERS

Palestinian militants have said in the past that they want to kidnap Israelis to win concessions from the Israeli government. Some 1,027 Palestinian prisoners were freed in 2011 in return for the release of an Israeli soldier held captive in the nearby Gaza Strip for more than five years.

Chief military spokesman Brigadier-General Motti Almoz said security agencies were "making a very large intelligence effort to try to glean information on what happened to these three youths in the past hours".

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In September 2013, an Israeli soldier was kidnapped and killed by a Palestinian who had lured him to the West Bank. Police say the kidnapper wanted to use the soldier to obtain the release of his brother, held in an Israeli jail.

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(Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah and Arshad Mohammed in London, Editing by Crispian Balmer, Kevin Liffey and Larry King)

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Tunisia to hold parliamentary then presidential elections this year

Tunisia is set to hold separate parliamentary and presidential elections at the end of the year after political parties resolved a dispute over the election date on Friday, political sources told Reuters.

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Tunisia's national assembly approved a new electoral law in May to help the country move to full democracy after the 2011 uprising that inspired the "Arab Spring" revolts.

Boussairi Bou Abdeli, a politician who participated in a dialogue between the parties, told Reuters they had "agreed to hold parliamentary before presidential (elections) this year". Another source confirmed the agreement.

Whether the presidential and parliamentary elections should be held separately or together was the last point of disagreement between the Islamists and secularists.

The agreement allows electoral authorities to set an official date for the first election since the North African state adopted a new constitution that has been praised as a model of democratic transition in the Arab world.

The elections will probably be held at the end of October or in November, the election agency chief Chafik Sarsar told Reuters in an interview last month.

With its new constitution and a caretaker administration governing until elections later this year, Tunisia's relatively smooth progress contrasts with the turmoil in Egypt, Libya and Yemen, which also ousted long-standing leaders three years ago.

Islamist party Ennahda won the first free election after former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's fall and formed the first government, but the assassination of two secular opposition leaders triggered a political crisis.

(Reporting by Tarek Amara; Editing by Catherine Evans and Sonya Hepinstall)

Wisconsin's clerks warned against issuing same-sex marriage licenses

Wisconsin county clerks who issued marriage licenses to same-sex couples over the past week could face charges for breaking the state's marriage laws, the state's attorney general said on Thursday.

The warning from Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, a Republican, comes six days after U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb declared Wisconsin's ban on gay marriage unconstitutional. The ruling was followed by hundreds of same-sex couples rushing to county offices throughout the state to wed.

County Clerks who issue the licenses are doing so without proper authority, said attorney general spokeswoman Dana Brueck in an email.

"It is, and has been, the attorney general's position that Wisconsin's marriage law is still in full force and effect," Brueck wrote.

Milwaukee County Deputy Clerk George Christenson said his office was told by its lawyers it had legal authority to issue the licenses based on Crabb's ruling.

"The court has ruled. He should call off his dogs and turn off his fire hoses," said Scott McDonell, the clerk in Dane County, the second largest county in the state.

In her ruling striking down Wisconsin's 2006 ban on gay marriage, Crabb did not say whether county clerks were allowed to issue marriage licenses or prohibited until further rulings, leaving it up to county clerks throughout the state to decide whether to issue licenses or not.

Van Hollen had sought the stay from Crabb on Friday and on Monday asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit to halt gay marriages in Wisconsin until appeals are concluded.

According to Fair Wisconsin, an LGBT advocacy organization, 51 of the state's 72 county clerks have issued marriage licenses to same-sex couples since the ruling. A tally by Reuters found that more than 500 gay couples have applied for or have been granted a marriage license.

"The validity of these marriages is uncertain," Brueck said.

Challenges to state bans gathered momentum last June when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down parts of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, ruling that same-sex couples married in states where gay marriage is legal were eligible for federal benefits.

Not including Wisconsin, same-sex marriage is now legal in 19 states plus the District of Columbia. That number would jump sharply if federal court rulings striking down bans in several states are upheld on appeal.

(Reporting by Brendan O'Brien; Editing by Edith Honan)

Ban on rope swinging from Utah arch rock formations considered

Federal officials in Utah are deciding whether to outlaw the increasingly popular daredevil pastime of swinging on ropes dangled from towering sandstone arches and cliffs after one man died and another was badly hurt in the activity.

The U.S. Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management also is taking into account growing complaints from hikers angry at having the solitude of Utah's deserts disturbed by the whoops and hollers of thrill-seekers swinging from the landmark arches.

Corona Arch, near the Colorado River in east-central Utah, has become a particularly popular spot for the rock-swinging crowd, and also the scene of a fatal accident involving one enthusiast in 2013 and a more recent mishap that left another man with a severe head injury.

In both cases, the victims jumped from the arch with ropes that had too much slack.

“We're trying to determine if these activities are appropriate in these places,” Rock Smith, supervisory outdoor recreation planner at the BLM's field office in Moab, Utah, said on Thursday.

He said the agency had launched an assessment of possible restrictions on rope swinging at Corona and the nearby Bowtie Arch, as well as at the twin Gemini natural bridges. Results of the study should be available in a few months, Smith said.

BLM took control of 60,000 acres (24,000 hectares) of public land encompassing the arches last month in a real-estate swap with the state to open up other lands for energy development.

The Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration previously barred rope-swinging permits for commercial outfitters in the area, but private individuals kept pursuing the activity on their own, the agency's Bryan Torgerson said.

The arches and natural bridges are about 10 miles (16 km) east of Moab, and about 40,000 hikers visit them each year, Smith said. But a growing number of visitors have come to swing from the arches, while others rappel down them or traverse the rock formations using zip-lines.

The area also is popular for biking, all-terrain vehicles and the extreme sport of base-jumping, in which climbers skydive from high cliffs with parachutes.

“You see our challenge,” Smith said. “How to mesh all this to protect everybody's experience.”

Rope swinging is strictly prohibited in national parks, "and we have not had it occur," said Kate Cannon, superintendent of Arches and Canyonlands national parks in Utah.

(Reporting by Peg McEntee; Editing by Steve Gorman and Peter Cooney)

Texas man sues doctors for removing wrong kidney

A Texas man has filed a lawsuit seeking more than $1 million in damages from two doctors he said were responsible for removing his healthy kidney and leaving a cancerous one in his body.

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According to a lawsuit filed this week in Tarrant County, Glenn Hermes underwent surgery last year at a Fort Worth hospital and was informed after the procedure that doctors had removed the wrong kidney.

Hermes was "greatly shocked, stunned and depressed," court documents said. He will likely need to be on dialysis or receive a kidney transplant, his lawyer said.

About a month after the initial surgery, Hermes underwent surgery at a Dallas hospital to remove the cancerous growth.

(Reporting by Jana J. Pruet in Fallas; Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Sandra Maler)

Second German tourist dies during Grand Canyon holiday

A German tourist was killed when his kayak capsized on the Colorado River in Arizona's Grand Canyon National Park, authorities said on Thursday, the second German visitor to die in the park this week.

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Park officials said Hans Uhl, 43, was on the first day of a commercial rafting trip on Wednesday when he was unable to right himself after his kayak overturned on a section of the river called Badger Rapids.

When a rescue boat reached Uhl, he was initially responsive, officials said. But he soon lost consciousness, and efforts to resuscitate him by members of his group and park service medical personnel were unsuccessful.

    The National Park Service and the Coconino County Medical Examiner are investigating the death. It was not immediately clear where in Germany Uhl came from.

On Wednesday, park officials said a 64-year-old German tourist collapsed and died on Monday from unknown causes at the popular Desert View Campground in the Southern Rim part of the canyon.

It was the third death of a visitor to the park in just over a week: a Seattle woman died on June 3 from an apparent allergic reaction while on a rafting trip.

The crimson-hued Grand Canyon ranks as one of the world's most popular outdoor tourist venues, attracting more than 4.5 million visitors each year.

There have been eight deaths at the park this year, including four people killed in car crashes or falls from ledges, officials said.

An average of 12 people a year die at the canyon from natural and accidental causes.

(Reporting by David Schwartz; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Sandra Maler)

Florida Supreme Court rules against red light cameras in two cities

Florida drivers caught on camera running red lights before 2010 could qualify for refunds on their tickets under a ruling by the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday.

The court invalidated early efforts by two Florida cities to create red-light ticket ordinances. It does not affect tickets issued since a state law establishing standards for the traffic cameras took effect on July 1, 2010.

Controversy is growing over the use of automated cameras to fine drivers who enter an intersection on a red light. Critics say red-light cameras are more of a revenue-generating gimmick for local governments than effective tools for public safety.

The Florida Legislature this spring considered banning red-light programs, but a bill failed to pass. Local governments have been hotly debating their use.

The 5-2 ruling by the Florida Supreme Court focused on two red-light programs established from 2008 to 2010, before state rules were in place, in Orlando and Aventura, located north of Miami.

“The Orlando and Aventura ordinances are invalid because they are expressly pre-empted by state law,” wrote Justice Charles Canady.

The decision settled conflicting lower court rulings, one against Orlando's ordinance and another upholding a fine levied by Aventura.

Justice Barbara Pariente dissented, saying home-rule authority permitted camera operation.

It is unknown how many other communities had set up camera systems before 2010 under their home-rule powers to set municipal traffic codes.

   In 2013, 77 governments in Florida used red-light cameras, according to a state analysis of the failed legislation to ban them.

The potential cost of the ruling would depend on how many drivers seek refunds.

Under current state law, cities get $75 and the state gets $83 from each camera-generated ticket, according to the legislative analysis.

   The Florida League of Cities, which has argued the cameras improve public safety, said its attorneys were studying the high court’s ruling.

Under current law, the cameras capture license tags, which are matched with state records so a citation can be mailed to vehicle owners, who can fight the ticket in court.

(Editing by Letitia Stein and Eric Walsh)

Serial bank robber's 45-year sentence too harsh: appeals court

A 45-year prison sentence leveled against a serial bank robber, who once appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show as a "bank robbing pimp," was too harsh and must be reconsidered, a U.S. federal appeals court ruled on Thursday.

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Arthur Payton 47, had twice been sentenced to 10-year prison terms for previous bank robbery sprees in San Diego and Detroit when he was convicted in the U.S. District Court for Eastern Michigan of robbing four banks in a third spree.

Payton typically found women who were drug addicted or engaged in prostitution to rob the banks on his behalf and then split the proceeds with his accomplices, the appeals court said.

Prosecutors asked a judge to sentence Payton to at least 25 years in prison, while his lawyers requested a sentence within the federal guidelines, which called for 17-1/2 to 22 years in prison based on his past and present convictions.

Judge Lawrence Zatkoff, citing Payton's brazen recidivism and threat to the public, sentenced him to 45 years in prison in February 2013.

But a sentence that more than doubles the guideline recommendation, stacks 20 years on the government's request and would keep Payton in prison until the age of 91 requires explanation, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit panel said.

"We find the district court's explanation lacking in Payton's case," the judges found.

(Reporting by David Bailey in Minneapolis, editing by G Crosse)

Alabama Republicans say voter fraud found after offering reward

Alabama Republicans, who offered a $1,000 reward for substantiated reports of voter fraud in this month's primary elections, said on Thursday they plan to forward credible evidence of wrongdoing to state prosecutors.

Republicans argue that voter fraud is a central problem in U.S. elections. Democrats say Republican complaints about voter fraud are a smokescreen for Republican efforts to put in place measures like strict voter identification laws intended to make it unduly difficult for voters who tend to vote Democratic like minorities, young people and the elderly to cast ballots.

"It's not just a rumor or a wives' tale, it is actually happening," said Alabama Republican Party Chairman Bill Armistead. "Anyone talking advantage and creating fraud at a polling place needs to be prosecuted."

The allegations collected by Alabama Republicans include a candidate improperly offering to assist voters in filling out their ballots, a woman who was wrongly told she had signed up to vote absentee and could only cast a provisional ballot in person and cases in which voters were told they could only vote for Democratic candidates, Armistead said.

Armistead declined to say how many cases of alleged fraud had been reported to his party after it erected lawn signs urging reports of wrongdoing near polling sites, but said his office was in the process of compiling evidence in the most serious instances to forward to the state's attorney general.

The signs, which provided a hotline to call in reports of fraud and offered a reward, did not indicate any affiliation with the Republican Party. Most of those calling in were Democrats, Armistead said.

Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, said that while the cases of alleged fraud merit investigation, more information was needed before passing judgment on them.

"It’s a good thing to be investigating all these cases," Levitt said. "I would want to see whether they are actually supported by anything or based on a hunch."

(Reporting by Jonathan Kaminsky; Editing by Edith Honan and Will Dunham)

Freed war prisoner Bergdahl leaves Germany for U.S.: Pentagon

Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who spent five years as a Taliban prisoner of war before being released on May 31, left a U.S. military hospital in Germany on Thursday headed to San Antonio, where he will receive further treatment, the Pentagon said.

Rear Admiral John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, said Bergdahl left Ramstein Air Base in Germany aboard a military plane on Thursday afternoon and was due to arrive early on Friday in San Antonio, where he will receive additional care at the Brooke Army Medical Center.

"Our first priority is making sure that Sergeant Bergdahl continues to get the care and support he needs," Kirby said in a statement.

Bergdahl was handed over to U.S. forces in Afghanistan on May 31 in exchange for the release of five Taliban leaders held at Guantanamo prison in Cuba. Bergdahl's initial release sparked a wave of euphoria that was quickly replaced by a political uproar over the release of the senior Taliban members.

Lawmakers criticized the Obama administration for failing to give them 30 days' notice before transferring prisoners from Guantanamo as required by law. Some charged that the administration had essentially violated its policy against negotiating with terrorists by doing the deal.

Some of Bergdahl's former comrades in Afghanistan also voiced outrage, charging he had deserted when he walked away from his outpost under unclear circumstances and was later captured.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel acknowledged at a congressional hearing on Wednesday that the swap deal was messy and imperfect, but defended the administration's decision to go ahead with it.

"We made the right decision and we did it for the right reasons: to bring home one of our own people," he said. "America does not leave its soldiers behind."

Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Tom Crosson, another Pentagon spokesman, said Bergdahl would be receiving treatment at Brooke Army Medical Center "for as long as he needs to be."

'REINTEGRATION CARE'

"He's there as part of his reintegration," Crosson said. "There is no set timetable. He's there to receive the reintegration care he needs."

The hospital facility, formally known as the San Antonio Military Medical Center, has teams of specialists and has been helping returning prisoners of war for decades.

Bergdahl's parents, Bob and Jani Bergdahl, were expected to travel to Texas to be with their son. It was not immediately clear when they would depart for San Antonio from their home in Hailey, Idaho, or if they had spoken to their son.

Military officials have said Bergdahl did not immediately contact his parents after his release, but could do so whenever he was emotionally ready. The officials said that was not unusual, with some people wanting to call immediately and others needing to wait.

Bergdahl's parents have been helped by a team of military assistance officers, including two from San Antonio to help them make the transition to Texas, said Army Major Kevin Hickey of the Idaho National Guard.

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(Additional reporting by Laura Zuckerman; Editing by Eric Beech and Peter Cooney)

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Sears worker in upstate New York dies after shelves collapse

A Sears employee in northern New York has died of injuries suffered when storage racks at the store collapsed and pinned him underneath, authorities said.

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Josh Quintilliani, 35, was organizing the racks on Saturday in the Sears store warehouse at the St. Lawrence Center Mall in Massena when the shelves gave way, according to a statement released by the New York State Police.

The racks held plywood, glass and metal materials, the police said.

Quintilliani, of Waddington, New York, was air-lifted to Fletcher Allen Medical Center in Burlington, Vermont, where he died late on Wednesday, police said.

"We extend our heartfelt sympathies to the Quintilliani family," Sears Holdings said in a statement on Thursday. "We take the safety of our employees very seriously and we are currently investigating this matter."

Massena lies on the south shore of Lake St. Lawrence, just south of the Canadian border and about 86 miles (138 km)southwest of Montreal.

(Editing By Ellen Wulfhorst and Sandra Maler)

Lawsuit seeks details of standoff at Nevada ranch

An advocacy group for public employees sued the Bureau of Land Management on Thursday, seeking documents detailing the agency’s actions during an armed standoff with militia in a dispute over a Nevada rancher’s grazing rights.

BLM agents faced off with armed supporters of the rancher, Cliven Bundy, during the altercation, which took place in April near Bunkerville, about 80 miles (130 km) northeast of Las Vegas.

After more than four hours, the agents backed down, citing safety concerns, and returned hundreds of Bundy's cattle which they had rounded up because of his failure to pay for grazing.

In the federal lawsuit filed in Washington, attorneys for the group - Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEEP) - want a federal judge to make the BLM release details about the events surrounding the standoff.

The lawsuit also seeks information about BLM directives for handling similar situations involving armed individuals and details about actions taken to keep BLM agents and staff safe.

Attorneys for PEER say the BLM has refused to release the information despite public records requests.

In an e-mail to Reuters, the BLM referred inquiries to the Justice Department but said the bureau is "working within the legal system to ensure that those who broke the law are held accountable; the safety of government employees continues to be our top priority."

The Justice Department's public affairs office did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment.

BLM officials have so far offered limited comment on the standoff near the Bundy ranch. Critics say any secretiveness only fuels more conspiracy theories and partisan rhetoric.

"To tamp down the rumor mill fueling these high-profile incidents, the BLM should be communicating more with the public, not less," said PEER’s executive director, Jeff Ruch.

PEER says it is a national group that works on behalf of public employees of local, state and national environmental agencies to ensure their fair treatment and safety.

Its attorneys are also asking the BLM to disclose a 2013 annual report which documents threats and attacks on agency workers. The report has been available every year since 1996, according to the lawsuit, but has yet to be published for 2013.

(Reporting by Jennifer Dobner; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Jonathan Oatis)

U.S. food makers sue to stop Vermont's GMO labeling law

Several industry groups representing U.S. food makers on Thursday asked a federal judge in Vermont to block that state's new law that will require labels on food products made with genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

The legal challenge was widely expected and Vermont created a "food fight fund" in anticipation of the move because it was the first state to pass a GMO labeling law that did not require other states to go first.

The fight over GMOs in the United States comes as more than 60 countries around the globe already require labeling of genetically engineered foods. GMOs have fallen out of favor with many U.S. consumers but products made with them are still abundant in the aisles of most U.S. supermarkets.

Connecticut and Maine last year passed GMO labeling legislation similar to that of Vermont, but it is on hold until several other states enact such legislation.

Challengers to the Vermont law, set to take effect on July 1, 2016, are the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), the Snack Food Association, the International Dairy Foods Association and the National Association of Manufacturers.

Among other things, they claim that Vermont's law is a "costly and misguided measure" that would impose burdensome new speech restrictions on food sellers and set the nation on a path toward a 50-state patchwork of GMO labeling policies that have "no basis in health, safety or science."

Representatives for Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell and Governor Peter Shumlin did not immediately return calls for comment.

BIO, a trade group whose members include Monsanto Co, Dow AgroSciences, a unit of Dow Chemical Co, and other companies that sell seeds that produce GMO crops, have said that costs for an average household would rise as $400 per year due to mandatory labeling.

BIO and the GMA also are backing a proposed federal law that would nullify Vermont's labeling law and any other mandatory labeling of GMOs in the United States.

Some of the most popular U.S. GMO crops are corn, soybeans and canola, which are staple ingredients in virtually every type of packaged food, from soup and tofu to breakfast cereals and chips. Organic foods do not contain GMOs.

While proponents and critics vociferously disagree over the safety, environmental impacts and effectiveness of genetically engineered crops, a consumer backlash against them led General Mills Inc to remove GMOs from its original Cheerios. Restaurant chain Chipotle Mexican Grill has all but removed them from its food supply.

(Reporting by Lisa Baertlein in Los Angeles; editing by Andrew Hay)

Court ruling allows Occupy protesters to restore tent city in Idaho

The Occupy movement, which withered after clampdowns on protest encampments in U.S. cities, may now legally erect a tent city in Idaho after a federal court order barred the state from enforcing a ban, citing free speech rights, an attorney for protesters said on Thursday.

    The ruling by a U.S. judge in Boise on Wednesday caps a two-year fight between Idaho officials and Occupy Boise protesters over a tent encampment they created near the state capitol in 2012 before being evicted under a hastily crafted measure approved by lawmakers that barred camping on state property.

    The American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho filed a lawsuit in 2012 against Republican Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter and others on behalf of Occupy Boise, contending the camping measure and another rule limiting protests to seven days were unconstitutional.

U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill last year found the camping ban violated constitutional guarantees of free speech and on Wednesday issued a permanent injunction blocking the state from removing protest tents because such an action “targets political speech for suppression.”

    The state had argued unsuccessfully that Occupy Boise’s request for the injunction on enforcement of the camping ban was moot since the legislature had earlier this year retracted the seven-day limit on protests and other restrictions.

    A spokesman for Otter said on Thursday the state was considering its legal options.

    Although the tent city outside the former Ada County Courthouse in Boise, which sits directly across from the capitol, has long been disbanded, Occupy Boise protesters may decide to erect another camp to underscore their freedom to do so, said Richard Eppink, legal director of the ACLU of Idaho.

    “They may restore the tent city. The point is, the court found Occupy Boise was exercising its legal right to protest on state property,” he said.

(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Cynthia Osterman)

Woman charged with throwing shoe at Clinton in Nevada to undergo competency evaluation

A federal judge in Nevada has ordered a competency evaluation for a woman charged with throwing a shoe at former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during an April speaking appearance in Las Vegas, according to court papers released on Thursday.

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Alison Michelle Ernst is accused of getting past security at an event at Las Vegas' Mandalay Bay Hotel where Clinton was speaking and hurling a soccer shoe and several papers at Clinton from the audience.

A video of the incident posted on the website of CBS News shows Clinton ducking as a shoe flies over her head.

"Is that somebody throwing something at me? Is that part of Cirque de Soleil?" Clinton said. "Thank Goodness she didn't play softball like I did."

The evaluation will consider whether Ernst may have been "legally insane" at the time of the incident as well as whether she is fit to stand trial, U.S. Magistrate Judge Peggy Leen said in issuing the order.

The evaluation was made at the request of Ernst's lawyer, William Carrico, who questioned whether Ernst understood the proceedings against her and could assist in her own defense.

Ernst is charged with entering a restricted building and committing violence against a person in a restricted building or grounds.

(Reporting by Edith Honan; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

Jamaica to decriminalize personal marijuana possession

The Jamaican government has decided to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana, joining the trickle of countries moving to soften laws on the drug known on the Caribbean island as "ganja."

Minister of Justice Mark Golding made the announcement at an afternoon news conference on Thursday saying that Jamaica's Dangerous Drugs Act would be formally amended this summer.

The cabinet of Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller made the decision on June 2, he said.

"Cabinet approved certain changes to the law relating to ganja. These relate to possession of small quantities of ganja for personal use, the smoking of ganja in private places and the use of ganja for medical-medicinal purposes," he said.

"Approval has been given also to a proposal for the decriminalization of the use of ganja for religious purposes," he said.

Uruguay recently became the latest country to legalize marijuana use, joining several countries in Europe as well as the U.S. states of Colorado and Washington.

Possession of small quantities of the drug would become a non-arrestable, ticketable infraction in Jamaica resulting in a fine, Golding said.

"Too many of our young people have ended up with criminal convictions after being caught with a 'spliff,' something that has affected their ability to do things like get jobs and get visas to travel overseas," Golding said.

He added that the government would propose a bill in the Jamaican Parliament soon that will expunge the criminal records of people convicted for possession of small amounts of the drug, which is grown widely across Jamaica.

The change means that a person cannot be arrested if he has in his possession up to 57 grams (2 ounces) of ganja in a public space.

Anyone ticketed will be given 30 days to pay the fine, failure of which will result in it becoming a minor offense, resulting in the offender doing court-ordered community service.

According to Golding, possession of ganja for religious or therapeutic purposes as prescribed by a registered medical practitioner, or for scientific research by an accredited institution, will also be decriminalized.

(Editing by David Adams and Sandra Maler)

Woman charged with throwing shoe at Clinton in Nevada to undergo competency evaluation

A federal judge in Nevada has ordered a competency evaluation for a woman charged with throwing a shoe at former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during an April speaking appearance in Las Vegas, according to court papers released on Thursday.

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Alison Michelle Ernst is accused of getting past security at an event at Las Vegas' Mandalay Bay Hotel where Clinton was speaking and hurling a soccer shoe and several papers at Clinton from the audience.

A video of the incident posted on the website of CBS News shows Clinton ducking as a shoe flies over her head.

"Is that somebody throwing something at me? Is that part of Cirque de Soleil?" Clinton said. "Thank Goodness she didn't play softball like I did."

The evaluation will consider whether Ernst may have been "legally insane" at the time of the incident as well as whether she is fit to stand trial, U.S. Magistrate Judge Peggy Leen said in issuing the order.

The evaluation was made at the request of Ernst's lawyer, William Carrico, who questioned whether Ernst understood the proceedings against her and could assist in her own defense.

Ernst is charged with entering a restricted building and committing violence against a person in a restricted building or grounds.

(Reporting by Edith Honan; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

Nextdoor CEO pleads no contest to hit and run charge

Nextdoor CEO Nirav Tolia, whose social networking website espouses neighborhood safety and community, pleaded no contest Thursday in a San Mateo court to a misdemeanor for leaving the scene of a highway accident that a driver says Tolia caused.

Tolia will pay a $239 fine, spend 30 weekend days in a county program in lieu of 30 days' jail time, serve two years' probation, and will be responsible for restitution to the victim, said San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe.

Tolia originally faced felony criminal charges, but Wagstaffe said he reduced them to a misdemeanor "hit and run causing injury" because of Tolia's forthrightness in admitting his role in the accident.

"I’m glad he accepted responsibility right up front and never tried to lie about what happened or avoid responsibility," he told Reuters.

The work program includes activities such as picking up litter or trimming weeds along public roads and at schools, Wagstaffe said.

“I am relieved that after further examination of the facts, the DA reduced the charge to a misdemeanor and that Thursday's hearing brought the matter to a close," Tolia said in a statement.

The incident occurred in August when executive recruiter Patrice Motley lost control of her car after Tolia swerved into her lane. Her Honda del Sol spun across two lanes and crashed into the median on Highway 101 near Candlestick Park, south of San Francisco, she stated in court documents in a separate civil case.

Tolia drove his wife and child home in their black BMW X5 SUV without stopping or calling 911, the lawsuit stated. Witnesses wrote down his license plate number and gave it to authorities.

Tolia told police in an interview he was shaken and did not call 911 because he was in shock. Last month, he said he was saddened by Motley's injuries and was troubled by the incident.

Ten years ago, Tolia resigned as chief operating officer of Shopping.com after the company learned he had lied about the status of his Stanford University degree and previous work experience.

Nextdoor has raised just over $100 million from backers including Benchmark, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Tiger Global. Its last funding, a $60 million round in October, valued the company at more than $500 million.

(Editing by Matt Driskill)

Grief, resolve marks Oregon high school graduation ceremony after fatal shooting

Two days after a teenaged gunman shot dead a classmate and took his own life, a Oregon high school held a graduation ceremony marked by grief, bewilderment and vows to move forward.

Tuesday's shooting, the third outburst of gun violence to shake a U.S. high school or college campus in less than three weeks, unfolded on what was supposed to be the second-to-last day of classes at Reynolds High School in Troutdale, Oregon, a suburb of Portland.

Instead, school officials canceled the last day of classes on Wednesday, along with final exams, and arranged for grief counselors to be made available for students.

The disruption continued at a senior class commencement ceremony on Thursday evening, with nearly 500 students, as well as parents and teachers battling mixed emotions: the joy of graduation and the lasting mark of tragedy.

The crowd observed a moment of silence in memory of 14-year-old Emilio Hoffman, who was killed, and later erupted in cheers and applause for Todd Rispler, the school gym teacher who was grazed by gunfire but fought to initiate the school lockdown, which police said likely saved lives.

"It's very important that you as graduates realize that this is your night. I also hope that you remember the one, who like you, will never walk the halls of Reynolds High School again, but for a different reason," Principal Wade Bakley said in an address after the moment of silence.

"Celebrate loud so everyone can hear you, including Emilio," he said.

Hoffman was shot to death when fellow freshman student Jared Michael Padgett, 15, walked into the boys' locker room of the gymnasium and opened fire with a AR-15 assault-style rifle, also grazing Rispler.

Police converging on the school exchanged shots with Padgett and later found him dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in a bathroom stall.

Thursday's commencement was in many ways similar to other graduation ceremonies across the nation. Balloons were tied to a fence outside the Portland's Veterans Memorial Coliseum and students donned caps and gowns that matched the school colors - white for girls and green for boys.

Student Cole Bronson, wearing his cap and gown, looked for a way forward in brief remarks to reporters assembled outside the arena.

"We are down, not out," he said. Tonight is our night, class of 2014."

(Reporting by Shelby Sebens; Writing by Steve Gorman and Eric M. Johnson; Editing by Grant McCool and Matt Driskill)

Pilot killed in small plane crash north of New York City

The great-grandson of oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller was killed on Friday when his small plane crashed in fog and rain shortly after taking off from a suburban New York airport, a family spokesman and the Federal Aviation Administration said.

Dr. Richard Rockefeller, 64, of Falmouth, Maine, was piloting the Piper PA-46 aircraft when it went down about 10 minutes after takeoff from Westchester County Airport in Purchase, 23 miles (37 km) north of New York City, family spokesman Fraser Seitel and the FAA said.

He was the only person on board, according to an FAA statement.

Rockefeller flew to New York on Thursday to have dinner with his father, banker and philanthropist David Rockefeller, who was celebrating his 99th birthday, and was returning home to Maine, Seitel said.

Conditions at the airport on Friday morning were poor, and visibility was low, said Peter Scherrer, the airport's manager, at a news conference.

"There were foggy conditions outside. You can only see about a quarter mile down the runway," he said. "Those are extreme conditions for the airport."

Several flights had taken off but many others had been canceled, he said.

"Richard was an experienced pilot, who had flown for many years," Seitel said.

The FAA and National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the crash.

Rockefeller took off at 8:08 a.m., but his single-engine plane soon disappeared from radar, the airport manager said.

It crashed into trees on a horse farm about a half mile away in Purchase, New York, 23 miles (37 km) north of New York City, local police said. It broke into many pieces, and debris was spread about 100 feet (30 meters), police said.

The plane narrowly missed a house that was occupied, officials said.

Rockefeller was one of six children of David Rockefeller, a former chairman of Chase Manhattan Corporation and grandson of Standard Oil founder John D. Rockefeller.

He practiced and taught medicine in Portland, Maine, until 2000, has served on the advisory board to Doctors Without Borders and was a former chairman of the Rockefeller Family Fund, according to his biography on the fund's website.

Rockefeller frequently flew in and out of the small suburban airport, where about 400 planes take off and land each day, the manager said.

He was married and had two grown children, his biography said.

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(Additional reporting by Victoria Cavaliere in New York and Richard Valdmanis in Boston; Editing by Eric Beech and Ellen Wulfhorst)

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Bergdahl arrives in Texas: Pentagon

U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who spent five years as a Taliban prisoner of war before being released on May 31, was in stable condition at a military hospital in Texas and has not yet met with his parents, military officials said on Friday. Bergdahl, who arrived in the pre-dawn hours of Friday on a military flight from Germany, was in a good enough physical condition to meet with debriefers but has not been informed of the controversy surrounding his capture, the officials said.

"What we are trying to do is get him to recognize that the coping skills he used to survive this long, five-year ordeal may not be healthy and functional now," Colonel Bradley Poppen, an Army psychologist, told a news conference held near the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio where Bergdahl will receive care.

No timeline has been set for his recovery, said officials who declined to give any further details about contacts between Bergdahl and his family to respect their privacy.

While the Army also gave little information about Bergdahl's health and emotional state, officials said they were pleased with his physical state on arrival.

"He appeared just like any sergeant would, when they see a two-star general: A little bit nervous. But he looked good," said Major General Joseph DiSalvo. Bergdahl had been able to walk into the hospital, and was settling in after a long transatlantic flight from Germany.

The military hospital has teams of specialists and has been helping returning prisoners of war for decades.

Bergdahl has had one request when it comes to food, military officials said - peanut butter.

Bergdahl was handed over to U.S. forces in Afghanistan in exchange for five Taliban leaders held at Guantanamo prison in Cuba. His release initially sparked a wave of support that was quickly overshadowed by a political uproar over the freeing of the senior Taliban members. Lawmakers criticized the Obama administration for failing to give them 30 days' notice before transferring prisoners from Guantanamo as required by law. Some charged that in doing the exchange, the administration had effectively violated its policy against negotiating with terrorists.

Some of Bergdahl's former comrades in Afghanistan alleged he had deserted when he walked away from his post, in circumstances that are unclear, and was later captured.

Bergdahl's return to U.S. soil was quietly welcomed in his hometown of Hailey in central Idaho, where businesses and supporters of the Bergdahl family have received hate mail and phone calls from detractors labeling the Army sergeant a deserter and traitor.

“We're still standing with Bowe," said Sue Martin, owner of Zaney's River Street Coffee House, where Bergdahl worked before enlisting.

"He has the personal insight and the intelligence to be able to address this long period of healing," she said.

Bergdahl's parents, Bob and Jani Bergdahl, were expected to travel to Texas from Idaho, although it was not immediately clear when, or whether they had spoken with their son.

In a statement on behalf of the family, the Bergdahls said they do not intend to make their travel plans public.

"They ask for continued privacy as they concentrate on their son's reintegration," the statement said.

(Additional reporting by David Alexander in Washington, Laura Zuckerman in Hailey, Idaho and Curtis Skinner in New York; Writing by Jon Herskovitz and Cynthia Johnston; Editing by Catherine Evans, Susan Heavey and Jim Loney)

LinkedIn must face customer lawsuit over email addresses

A federal judge said LinkedIn Corp ( id="symbol_LNKD.N_0">LNKD.N) must face a lawsuit by customers who claimed it violated their privacy by accessing their external email accounts, downloading their contacts' email addresses and soliciting business from those contacts.

U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh in San Jose, California, found that while customers consented to LinkedIn's sending an initial "endorsement email" to recruit contacts, they did not agree to let the professional networking website operator send two reminder emails when the initial email is ignored.

This practice "could injure users' reputations by allowing contacts to think that the users are the types of people who spam their contacts or are unable to take the hint that their contacts do not want to join their LinkedIn network," Koh wrote in a 39-page decision released on Thursday.

"In fact," she added, "by stating a mere three screens before the disclosure regarding the first invitation that 'We will not ... email anyone without your permission,' LinkedIn may have actively led users astray."

Koh said customers may pursue claims that LinkedIn violated their right of publicity, which protects them from unauthorized use of their names and likenesses for commercial purposes, and violated a California unfair competition law.

She dismissed other claims, including a claim that LinkedIn violated a federal wiretap law, and said customers may file an amended lawsuit.

Crystal Braswell, a LinkedIn spokeswoman, said the company is pleased that some claims were dismissed, and "will continue to contest the remaining claims, as we believe they have no merit."

LinkedIn is based in Mountain View, California, and had about 300 million users at the end of March.

Larry Russ, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The lawsuit seeks class action status, a halt to the alleged improper email harvesting and marketing, and money damages.

It is among a series of cases challenging the extent to which Internet companies can mine user data to boost profits.

Last September, in a separate decision critical of some of Google Inc's ( id="symbol_GOOGL.O_1">GOOGL.O) practices, Koh let Internet users, some with Gmail accounts and some without, pursue a lawsuit challenging the search engine company's practice of scanning emails to provide targeted advertisements.

The recent case is Perkins et al v. LinkedIn Corp, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California, No. 13-04303.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Dan Grebler)

Obama warns of U.S. action as jihadists push on Baghdad

President Barack Obama on Thursday threatened U.S. military strikes in Iraq against Sunni Islamist militants who have surged out of the north to menace Baghdad and want to establish their own state in Iraq and Syria.

Iraqi Kurdish forces took advantage of the chaos to take control of the oil hub of Kirkuk as the troops of the Shi'ite-led government abandoned posts, alarming Baghdad's allies both in the West and in neighboring Shi'ite regional power Iran.

"I don’t rule out anything because we do have a stake in making sure that these jihadists are not getting a permanent foothold in either Iraq or Syria," Obama said at the White House when asked whether he was contemplating air strikes. Officials later stressed that ground troops would not be sent in.

Obama was looking at "all options" to help Iraq's leaders, who took full control when the U.S. occupation ended in 2011. "In our consultations with the Iraqis, there will be some short-term immediate things that need to be done militarily," he said.

But he also referred to long-standing U.S. complaints that Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki had failed to do enough to heal a sectarian rift that has left many in the big Sunni minority, shut out of power when U.S. troops overthrew Saddam Hussein in 2003, nursing grievances and keen for revenge.

"This should be also a wakeup call for the Iraqi government. There has to be a political component to this," Obama said.

Vice President Joe Biden assured Maliki by telephone that Washington was prepared to intensify and accelerate its security support. The White House had signaled on Wednesday it was looking to strengthen Iraqi forces rather than meet what one U.S. official said were past Iraqi requests for air strikes.

As security concerns mounted, U.S. weapons maker Lockheed Martin Corp LMT.N said on Thursday it was evacuating about two dozen employees from northern Iraq, and the U.S. State Department said other companies were relocating workers as well.

"We can confirm that U.S. citizens, under contract to the Government of Iraq, in support of the U.S. Foreign Military Sales program in Iraq, are being temporarily relocated by their companies due to security concerns in the area," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement.

She declined to say how many contractors were being relocated and their location, but said the U.S. Embassy and consulates were still operating normally.

With voters wary of renewing the military entanglements of the past decade, Obama stepped back last year from launching air strikes in Syria, where the same Sunni group - the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, is also active. But fears of violence spreading may increase pressure for international action. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said international powers "must deal with the situation".

In Mosul, ISIL staged a parade of American Humvee patrol cars seized from a collapsing Iraqi army in the two days since its fighters drove out of the desert and overran the city.

At Baiji, near Kirkuk, insurgents surrounded Iraq's largest refinery, underscoring the potential threat to the oil industry, and residents near the Syrian border saw them bulldozing tracks through frontier sand berms - giving physical form to the dream of reviving a Muslim caliphate straddling both modern states.

AIR POWER

At Mosul, which had a population close to 2 million before recent events forced hundreds of thousands to flee, witnesses saw ISIL fly two helicopters over the parade, apparently the first time the militant group had obtained aircraft.

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It was unclear who the pilots were, but Sunnis who served in the forces of Saddam have rallied to the insurgency, led by an ambitious Iraqi former follower of al Qaeda's Osama bin Laden.

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State television showed what it said was aerial footage of Iraqi aircraft firing missiles at insurgent targets in Mosul. The targets could be seen exploding in black clouds.

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Farther south, the fighters extended their lightning advance to towns only about an hour's drive from the capital, where Shi'ite militia are mobilizing for a potential replay of the ethnic and sectarian bloodbath of 2006 and 2007.

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Trucks carrying Shi'ite volunteers in uniform rumbled towards the front lines to defend Baghdad.

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The forces of Iraq's autonomous ethnic Kurdish north, known as the peshmerga, took over bases in Kirkuk vacated by the army. "The whole of Kirkuk has fallen into the hands of peshmerga," said peshmerga spokesman Jabbar Yawar.

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"No Iraqi army remains in Kirkuk now."

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Kurds have long dreamed of taking Kirkuk and its huge oil reserves. They regard the city, just outside their autonomous region, as their historic capital, and peshmerga units were already present in an uneasy balance with government forces..

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The swift move by their highly organized security forces to seize full control demonstrates how this week's sudden advance by ISIL has redrawn Iraq's map - and potentially that of the entire Middle East, where national borders were set nearly a century ago as France and Britain carved up the Ottoman empire.

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Since Tuesday, black-clad ISIL fighters have seized Mosul and Tikrit, Saddam's hometown, and other towns and cities north of Baghdad. The army has evaporated before the onslaught, abandoning bases and U.S.-provided weapons. Online videos showed purportedly a column of hundreds, possibly thousands, of troops without uniforms being marched under guard near Tikrit.

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Security and police sources said Sunni militants now controlled parts of the town of Udhaim, 90 km (60 miles) north of Baghdad, after most of the army troops left their positions.

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"We are waiting for reinforcements, and we are determined not to let them take control," said a police officer in Udhaim.

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"We are afraid that terrorists are seeking to cut the main highway that links Baghdad to the north."

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ISIL and its allies took control of Falluja at the start of the year. It lies just 50 km (30 miles) west of Maliki's office.

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OIL PRICE SURGE

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The top U.N. official in Iraq assured the Security Council the capital was in "no immediate danger". The council offered unanimous support to the government and condemned "terrorism".

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As with the back-to-back war in Syria, the conflict cuts across global alliances. The United States and Western and Gulf Arab allies back the mainly Sunni revolt against Iranian-backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but have had to watch as ISIL and other Islamists have come to dominate large parts of Syria.

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Now the Shi'ite Islamic Republic of Iran, which in the 1980s fought Saddam for eight years at a time when the Sunni Iraqi leader enjoyed quiet U.S. support, may share an interest with the "Great Satan" Washington in bolstering mutual ally Maliki.

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The global oil benchmark jumped over 2 percent LCOc1 on Thursday, as concerns mounted that the violence could disrupt supplies from the OPEC exporter. Iraq's main oil export facilities are in the largely Shi'ite areas in the south and were "very, very safe", oil minister Abdul Kareem Luaibi said.

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ISIL fighters have overrun the town of Baiji, site of the main oil refinery that meets Iraq's domestic demand for fuel. Luaibi said the refinery itself was still in government hands. But late on Thursday, police and an engineer inside the plant said insurgents were surrounding it.

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Militants have set up military councils to run the towns they captured, residents said. "They came in hundreds to my town and said they are not here for blood or revenge but they seek reforms and to impose justice. They picked a retired general to run the town,” said a tribal figure from the town of Alam.

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“'Our final destination will be Baghdad, the decisive battle will be there' - that’s what their leader kept repeating."

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Security was stepped up in Baghdad to prevent the Sunni militants from reaching the capital, which is itself divided into Sunni and Shi'ite neighborhoods and saw ferocious sectarian street fighting in 2006-2007 under U.S. occupation.

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By midday on Thursday, insurgents had not entered Samarra, the next big city in their path on the Tigris north of Baghdad.

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“The situation inside Samarra is very calm today, and I can’t see any presence of the militants. Life is normal here,” said Wisam Jamal, a government employee in the mainly Sunni city, which also houses a major Shi'ite pilgrimage site.

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LOW MORALE

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The million-strong Iraqi army, trained by the United States at a cost of nearly $25 billion, is hobbled by low morale and corruption. Its effectiveness is hurt by the perception in Sunni areas that it pursues the hostile interests of Shi'ites.

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The Obama administration had tried to keep a contingent of troops in Iraq beyond 2011 to prevent a return of insurgents, but failed to reach a deal with Maliki. A State Department official said on Thursday that Washington was disappointed after "a clear structural breakdown" of the Iraqi forces.

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Iraq's parliament was meant to hold an extraordinary session on Thursday to vote on declaring a state of emergency, but failed to reach a quorum, a sign of the sectarian political dysfunction that has paralyzed decision-making in Baghdad.

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The Kurdish capture of Kirkuk overturns a fragile balance of power that has held Iraq together since Saddam's fall.

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Iraq's Kurds have done well since 2003, running their own affairs while being given a fixed percentage of the country's overall oil revenue. But with full control of Kirkuk - and the vast oil deposits beneath it - they could earn more on their own, eliminating the incentive to remain part of a failing Iraq.

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With Syria's Kurds already exploiting civil war there to run their own affairs, Iraqi Kurdish expansionism could worry U.S. ally Turkey, which has its own large Kurdish minority and fears a renewed attempt to redraw borders and create a Kurdish state.

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Maliki's army already lost control of much of the Euphrates valley west of the capital to ISIL last year, and with the evaporation of the army in the Tigris valley to the north, the government could be left with just Baghdad and areas south - home to the Shi'ite majority in Iraq's 32 million population.

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Iran, which funds and arms Shi'ite groups in Iraq, could be brought deeper into the conflict, as could Turkey to the north. In Mosul, 80 Turks were held hostage by ISIL after Ankara's consulate there was overrun.

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Maliki described the fall of Mosul as a "conspiracy" and said the security forces who had abandoned their posts would be punished. In a statement on its Twitter account, ISIL said it had taken Mosul as part of a plan "to conquer the entire state and cleanse it from the apostates" - meaning Shi'ites.

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Militants were reported to have executed soldiers and policemen after their seizure of some towns.

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ISIL, led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, broke with al Qaeda's international leader, Osama bin Laden's former lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahri, and has clashed with al Qaeda fighters in Syria, often employing brutal methods against enemies.

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In Syria, it controls swathes of territory, funding its advances through extorting local businesses, seizing aid and selling oil. In Iraq, it has carried out regular bombings against Shi'ite civilians, killing hundreds a month.

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(Additional reporting by Ghazwan Hassan in Tikrit, Ziad al-Sinjary in Mosul,; Mustafa Mahmoud in Kirkuk, Raheem Salman and Isra al-Rubei'i in Baghdad and Jeff Mason,; Steve Holland, Roberta Rampton, Lesley Wroughton and Andrea Shalal in Washington; Writing by Peter; Graff and Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Philippa Fletcher, Will Waterman and Peter Cooney)

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Brazil wins, comes alive for World Cup despite protests

Brazil exploded with street parties as its soccer team won the World Cup's opening game on Thursday but scattered violent protests were a reminder that many locals remain angry over the billions spent to host the tournament.

Millions of fans dressed in Brazil's canary yellow, green and blue home colors, cheered throughout Brazil's victory over Croatia in Sao Paulo and continued the revelry into the night, with a heavy backdrop of police and troops to maintain order.

The country briefly fell silent when Croatia took an early lead, but fireworks, horns and drum beats reached a crescendo as Brazil rallied for a 3-1 win.

Despite worries over traffic and the Sao Paulo stadium, which was completed six months late and wasn't fully tested before the game, there were no reports of major logistical before or after the game.

Brazil's coach, Luiz Felipe Scolari, after the game praised the stadium as "incredible" and "fantastic."

The smooth first game, and the victory, seemed to raise the spirits of many who feared the worries of the past year could spoil the party. "Despite all the controversy, this is the World Cup and we are Brazilians. We need to forget about all that now and cheer," said Natia Souza, a fan in downtown Sao Paulo.

President Dilma Rousseff, who attended the game and has defended the Cup against criticism ahead of her bid for re-election in October, was jeered by many in the stadium crowd and by fans at big-screen viewings across the country.

The tournament's run-up was largely overshadowed by construction delays and months of political unrest with many Brazilians furious over $11 billion being spent to host the Cup in a country where hospitals and schools are often poor.

Protests flared on Thursday in many of the 12 Brazilian cities that will host games, including Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Belo Horizonte. Some gathered more than 1,000 people, while others saw just a few dozen.

Late in the morning, police fired tear gas, rubber bullets and noise bombs to disperse about 600 demonstrators who gathered in eastern Sao Paulo, about six miles (10 km) away from the Corinthians arena where the game took place.

Activists and human rights groups criticized some of their tactics. One protestor, already hit by rubber bullets, was photographed in a choke hold by one police officer while another blasted pepper-spray in his face.

Six people were injured, including some journalists, a police spokesman said. Three protesters were arrested.

More than 10 were arrested in the southern host city of Porto Alegre, a police spokesman said. Demonstrators there overturned a police car and smashed bank windows.

Roughly 1,000 protesters in Rio de Janeiro marched peacefully, though some burned Brazilian flags and carried signs saying "FIFA go home," in a reference to the world soccer body. On the city's Copacabana beach, where thousands gathered for an outdoor broadcast, protesters hurled rocks at a studio set up by a British television crew.

In the southeastern city of Belo Horizonte, a Reuters photographer was hit in the head by a rock and was in stable condition.

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IMPROVING MOOD

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Elsewhere, the dour mood of recent months lifted.

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Led by 22-year-old star striker Neymar, the team is widely fancied to win a record sixth World Cup - and its first on home soil. Neymar scored twice and was named man of the match in the win against Croatia.

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In Salvador, another host city, locals sang soccer songs and beat drums as others hung yellow and green streamers.

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"You can feel the atmosphere building up with fans coming here in good spirits," said Ben, an English fan in the sweltering Amazon city of Manaus.

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Yet the list of possible problems is long. In fact, hosting a successful tournament may ultimately prove harder for Brazil than winning it. About a dozen disgruntled airport workers blocked a road outside Rio's international airport on Thursday morning, causing heavy traffic. Some businesses in Rio, the venue for seven Cup games, including the final, boarded up windows and doors in case vandals emerged with any protests.

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A rough tournament would likely cause Rousseff's popularity, already under pressure, to fall further, even if the mood, for now, has improved.

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Stressing his desire to have fun during the Cup, Leandro Aguiar, a 25-year-old fan in São Paulo, said: "It's too late to complain. In October we'll decide what's good and what's bad."

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Any major logistical problems and unrest could also further dent Brazil's reputation among investors, which has suffered since a decade-long economic boom fizzled under Rousseff.

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Brazil's performance as host will also give clues as to how it might do in two years, when Rio hosts the Olympics.

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(Additional reporting by Paulo Prada and Rodrigo Viga Gaier in Rio de Janeiro; Fabiola Gomes, Brad Haynes, Alberto Alerigi, Caroline Stauffer and Esteban Israel in Sao Paulo, Neil Maidment in Salvador, David Ljunggren in Manaus and Andrew Cawthorne in Porto Alegre; Editing by Kieran Murray)

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Two senior Twitter executives resign as growth lags

Twitter Inc ( id="symbol_TWTR.N_0">TWTR.N) on Thursday announced the abrupt departure of two senior executives, including the chief operating officer who had been responsible for the social media company's efforts to revive flagging user growth.

Ali Rowghani, once seen as an influential No. 2 who oversaw Twitter's product development, finances and dealmaking, departed after clashing with Chief Executive Officer Dick Costolo over whether he should continue to oversee product innovation, a person familiar with the matter said.

Hours later, Chloe Sladden, the vice president of media who reported to Rowghani, said in a tweet late Thursday that she had also resigned.

Although Rowghani had been praised for orchestrating a series of financing deals for Twitter that culminated in a successful initial public offering in 2013, his ouster, which had the backing of Twitter's board of directors, underscores the tensions and rising pressure at Twitter to tweak its microblogging offering to attract new users.

Formerly the chief financial officer at Pixar Animation Studios, Rowghani joined Twitter as CFO in 2010 but steadily expanded his influence to rival Costolo's. He was appointed COO in 2012 and was tasked last year with increasing Twitter's user base and revenue, with high-ranking executives such as former vice president of product Michael Sippey reporting to him rather than Costolo.

But the mood within the San Francisco company has turned sour as user growth flagged and its stock price traded at nearly half its value six months ago.

Costolo projected privately in 2013 that Twitter would reach 400 million users by the end of that year, according to news reports, but the company reported 255 million users as of early 2014.

The company said it did not intend to replace Rowghani, whose responsibilities will be taken over by other managers.

Twitter hired Google Inc ( id="symbol_GOOGL.O_1">GOOGL.O) executive Daniel Graf to lead its product development in April. The source familiar with the company's internal politics said that was what precipitated showdown talks between Rowghani and Costolo over his role.

Twitter shares jumped 3.5 percent to $36.80 on Thursday.

TWEAKS

Some Twitter employees also openly questioned Rowghani’s long-term plans after he sold $9 million worth of shares in April, said one employee who asked not to be named.

The move bothered a swathe of the workforce particularly because Rowghani had asked early employees to sign agreements that would prevent them from selling their own shares. Twitter eventually backed down from that request, this person said.

Some analysts warned that a shake-up at the top would not be enough to spur growth at Twitter.

"His resignation implies that the platform has not seen acceleration in important user and engagement metrics," Jordan Rohan, an Internet analyst at Stifel, wrote in a research memo. "At this point we are not sure if or when user engagement will rebound."

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Arguing that tweaks to Twitter's product would result in better user engagement, Costolo has asked Wall Street for time to show improvement, particularly in April after Twitter disclosed data showing flagging momentum in user growth.

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But in the end, slowing growth may only be a reflection of Twitter's limited appeal.

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"The issue for Twitter is not per se the management team," said Hudson Square Research analyst Daniel Ernst. "I think they are doing all the right things. The issue for Twitter is not Twitter, it's that the expectations Twitter could become as big as Facebook were incorrect."

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Technology news website Re/code first reported on Wednesday that Twitter was considering a shake-up in top management, including a possible shift in Rowghani's responsibilities. (r.reuters.com/weq99v)

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(Reporting by Supriya Kurane, Lehar Maan and Abhirup Roy in Bangalore and Gerry Shih and Joseph Menn in San Francisco; Editing by Don Sebastian, Jeffrey Benkoe, Tom Brown and Eric Walsh)

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Interim Thai government by August: military leader

The head of the junta that seized power in Thailand last month said on Friday that an interim government would be set up by August, the first time he has given a clear date on delegating any sort of power in the country.

General Prayuth Chan-ocha, in an address to senior military officials, announced the date as part of a three-phase plan of reconciliation, formation of a government and elections to be rolled out by the ruling National Council for Peace and Order.

"A government will be set up by August, or at the very latest September," Prayuth told a meeting devoted to the 2015 national budget. He did not say whether the government would be comprised of civilian or military types.

The army took power on May 22 in a bloodless coup after six months of sometimes violent street protests pitting mainly rural supporters of ousted Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra against her Bangkok-based, royalist opponents.

Prayuth repeated in his address that a temporary constitution would be drafted within three months. It would take at least a year until a new general election could take place.

"In the next three months we must do everything properly, whether it is the constitution or other matters. Everything for the first phase should be complete by August," Prayuth said.

Most Bangkok residents have taken the coup in stride. Business has gone on more or less as usual in the capital's offices and restaurants and public transport remain packed, though a midnight to 4 a.m. curfew is still in place.

The military has lifted the curfew in 30 provinces, including resort destinations, to entice back tourists - a mainstay accounting for 10 percent of economic activity.

A general said military leaders could well ease the curfew further to enable soccer fans to watch the World Cup in bars. The junta this week ordered broadcasting authorities to ensure all World Cup games were broadcast on free-to-air channels.

"We may lift the curfew in more provinces ... We understand the wishes of Thai people during the World Cup competition," Lt. General Teerachai Nakvanich, Commander of the First Army Region, told reporters.

But the junta has acted firmly to curb dissent. Soldiers, barely visible in most districts, have been quickly mobilized to snuff out any bid to stage protests.

POLITICIANS, ACTIVISTS, JOURNALISTS ROUNDED UP

The military has rounded up at least 300 politicians, activists and journalists. Many are linked to exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, alleged by opponents to have directed from abroad the government led by his sister Yingluck.

On Thursday, police charged prominent activist Sombat Boonngamanong with inciting unrest, violating cyber laws and defying the junta's orders. He had spearheaded an online campaign promoting street protests against the coup.

Thailand has been polarized for nearly a decade between supporters of Yingluck Shinawatra and her brother, former telecommunications tycoon Thaksin who was ousted by a 2006 coup.

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A court found Yingluck guilty of abuse of power on May 7, for transferring the country's security chief to another post so that a relative could benefit from related job moves, and ordered her to step down after months of street protests aimed at toppling her government.

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Military leader Prayuth says he stepped in to restore order and has made the economy and the welfare of farmers a priority.

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The army has begun payments to hundreds of thousands of farmers under a costly rice-buying scheme, one of the key policies that brought Yingluck to power in 2011.

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Prayuth told Friday's meeting that the military had no plans to keep the scheme going. "Today, if you ask me, there will definitely be no rice pledging scheme, but whether we have one in the future or not is a different matter," he said.

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Opponents said the scheme ran up huge losses. Farmers are owed more than $2.5 billion under the program, a key element in a court ruling that removed Yingluck from office.

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(Editing by Ron Popeski and Michael Perry)

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Canadian cannabis producers set their sights high

By unlocking the once-obscure medical marijuana market, Canada has created a fast-growing, profitable and federally regulated industry with a distinct appeal to the more daring global investor.

About a dozen producers of the drug will find themselves in the spotlight this year as they consider going public or prepare to so through share sales or reverse takeovers to capitalize on recent regulatory changes, investment bankers said.

The Canadian companies are in a race to raise money to build facilities, attract patients and grab shares in a market projected to grow to C$1.3 billion ($1.20 billion) in the next 10 years.

Despite facing considerable risks, they have the advantage of being in one of the few countries where medical marijuana is legal nationwide and where licensed operators can mass-produce it.

In the United States, the drug remains illegal at the federal level. Some 20 U.S. states have legalized medical marijuana, but investors worry about the prospect, however remote, that the federal government may strike down those laws.

Although the U.S. market is home to companies including Medical Marijuana Inc ( id="symbol_MJNA.PK_0">MJNA.PK) and Cannabis Science Inc ( id="symbol_CBIS.PK_1">CBIS.PK), their northern counterparts are likely to benefit from greater legitimacy and legal clarity. Sources said much of the private equity investment in the Canadian industry had come from the United States.

“Canada is one of the few countries anywhere where its citizens have a constitutionally protected right to access medical marijuana with a physician's consent," said Paul Rosen, chief executive officer of PharmaCan, a holding company with large stakes in four producers. "And you've got the government trying to create an industry around it."

Tweed Marijuana Inc ( id="symbol_TWD.V_2">TWD.V), which converted an old chocolate factory into a marijuana farm, led the pack by becoming the first publicly held Canadian company in the sector. Its April offering was oversubscribed within 15 minutes of being announced, sources said.

Inspired by Tweed, PharmaCan plans a listing in the next month or so. Producers Organigram, Aphria and Bedrocan expect to go public in the next three months, while CannMedica and others are looking at doing so.

Highlighting the industry's mainstream allure, Tweed's listing was led by two highly respected Bay Street firms, mid-sized investment bank GMP Securities and boutique adviser Jacob Securities.

Other banking firms involved in the sector include Dundee Securities, Bloom Burton, PowerOne Capital Markets, Jordan Capital Markets and Delavaco Group.

RISKS AND REWARDS

An April overhaul by regulator Health Canada has thrown the market open. More than 850 companies have applied for licenses to produce the drug, and 13 have obtained them so far.

"This is Health Canada's realization that medical marijuana deserves to have a space in the treatment paradigm," said Bloom Burton President Brian Bloom. "What they're asking in return is that the standards of manufacturing, distribution and vigilance are similar to what is seen in the pharmaceutical industry."

Analysts expect only a few major companies to remain standing a few years from now.

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"The winners will be the ones that are going to have a strong brand, a strong customer acquisition strategy, and have the ability to scale up quickly,” said Jacob Securities analyst Khurram Malik.

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Health Canada estimates the sector will grow tenfold in its first 10 years, reaching about 450,000 users and C$1.3 billion in sales.

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Malik says that is only half of the market's potential because the same number of people already use medical marijuana through the black market and Health Canada’s measures will bring greater access and lower prices.

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"It's an industry that has been born out of almost nothing, and it is moving very rapidly into something very large," he said. "The flip side is you're also going to have a lot of risk."

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Indeed, a list of risk factors takes up about half of the 22 pages in Tweed's latest quarterly filing.

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Potential industry pitfalls include legal changes, resistance from home growers suing for the right to keep producing their own pot and physicians who are not convinced about the drug's benefits.

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"We believe that there's not enough evidence out there that shows us that we could use this product safely," said Dr. Louis Hugo Francescutti, president of the Canadian Medical Association. "We're actually being asked to authorize use of a product blindfolded."

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Michael Krestell, president of investment bank M Partners, says investors betting on the sector at this stage are looking for “high-risk, high-reward” opportunities. [ID:nL1N0MN27A]

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He expects the planned offerings to be in the C$5 million to C$20 million range, with the companies valued at C$60 million to C$100 million.

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Tweed, which has a market capitalization of $108 million, raised C$15 million when it went public through a reverse takeover of a listed entity.

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Bankers expect most of the medical marijuana companies to take this approach since it is often faster and cheaper.

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For despite the potential of the industry, its biggest challenge is to establish credibility among patients, doctors and more-cautious investors.

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"I don't care if we're the biggest seller of medical marijuana in the first year or two," said Aphria CEO Vic Neufeld, who previously led vitamin maker Jamieson Laboratories, "but I want to make sure that we are the most trusted."

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($1 = 1.0844 Canadian dollars)

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(Additional reporting by Euan Rocha; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)

Resurgent violence underscores morphing of al Qaeda threat

- In Iraq, an al Qaeda splinter group is threatening Baghdad after seizing control of two cities. In Pakistan, the Taliban attacked a major airport twice in one week. And in Nigeria, the Islamist militant group Boko Haram was blamed for another mass kidnapping.

A cluster of militant attacks over the past week is a reminder of how the once-singular threat of al Qaeda has changed since the killing of Osama bin Laden, morphing or splintering into smaller, largely autonomous Islamist factions that in some cases are now overshadowing the parent group.

Each movement is different, fueled by local political and sectarian dynamics. But this week’s violence is a measure of their ambition and the long-term potential danger they pose to the West.

Between 2010 and 2013, the number of al Qaeda and al Qaeda-related groups rose 58 percent and the number of "Salafi jihadists" - violent proponents of an extreme form of Islam - more than doubled, according to a report by the RAND Corp think tank.

Daniel Benjamin, former U.S. State Department counterterrorism coordinator under President Barack Obama, said he was "considerably more optimistic 18 months ago than ... now" about the threat posed by al Qaeda-related groups.

   Few examples are more vivid than the fall of northern Iraq, which has raised the prospect of the country's disintegration as a unified state.

Sunni insurgents known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, seized the northern city of Mosul on Tuesday, and then overran an area further south on Wednesday, capturing the city of Tikrit and threatening Iraq's capital, Baghdad.

The militants are exploiting deep resentment among Iraq's Sunni minority, which lost power when the 2003 U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein. Since the U.S. withdrawal in 2011, the Sunni population has become increasingly alienated from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shii'ite-dominated government and his U.S.-trained military.

This has helped fuel the stunning resurgence of ISIL. The group seeks to create a caliphate based on medieval Sunni Islamic principles across Iraq and neighboring Syria, where it has become one of the fiercest rebel forces in the civil war to oust President Bashar al-Assad.

ISIL underscores the complexity of the new galaxy of militant groups. Earlier this year, it split from the core al Qaeda organization completely, after a dispute between ISIL's leader and bin Laden's successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

"WE ARE TALKING ABOUT YEARS"

Even if Iraq can survive the onslaught, there is no saying how long it might take to restore order. "This is a very protracted war against terror," said an adviser to Maliki. "We are not talking about months. We are talking about years."

It has taken years for the situation to reach its current low point. After the 2003 Iraq invasion, the disgruntled Sunni population initially served as the base for a bloody insurgency against the U.S. military and emerging Shi'ite majority rule.

That revolt appeared to have been quelled by the time U.S. troops left in December 2011. But Iraqi Sunni grievances simmered, fanned by what they saw as Maliki's sectarian rule and failure to build an inclusive government and army.

The future members of ISIL, then calling themselves the Islamic State of Iraq, were ready when the uprising in Syria started in 2011 and moved in to take advantage of the chaos. Bolstered by their success on the battlefield, they renamed themselves the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

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With ISIL's lightning advance in Iraq in recent days, the army has seen thousands of soldiers desert their posts in the north. And in Baghdad, fears of a sectarian bloodbath have grown.

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Benjamin, now at Dartmouth University, said that groups like ISIL and rival Jabhat al-Nusrah in Syria, while serious regional problems, do not pose the same direct threat to the United States and its allies that bin Laden's al Qaeda did.

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"We shouldn't lose sight of that," he said. "I don't think it's an existential threat by any means."

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TENSIONS HIGH IN PAKISTAN

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Tensions are also running high in Pakistan, where a brazen attack by the Pakistani Taliban on the country’s biggest airport in Karachi underscored the resurgence of an Islamist group with longtime ties to al Qaeda. Ten militants were killed in a gun battle that claimed at least 34 other lives.

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   The Pakistani Taliban has vowed a large-scale campaign against government and security installations after months of failed peace negotiations. In response, the Pakistani army is expected to ramp up air strikes in restive tribal areas.

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   So far, cities like Islamabad and Lahore have not seen the kind of violence that has plagued other parts of the country. But observers expect that to change.

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   The Pakistani Taliban operate closely with al Qaeda, which has senior commanders deployed in the tribal areas, as well as the Afghan Taliban, who provide their Pakistani comrades with funding and logistical support.

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   Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has long advocated peace talks with the Taliban but the picture changed radically after the airport attack, with public opinion swinging back again in favor of an all-out military operation against the militants.

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Signaling possible escalation, U.S. drones struck Taliban hideouts in Pakistan, killing at least 10 militants in response to the Karachi airport attack, officials said on Thursday, in the first such raids by unmanned CIA aircraft in six months.

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Pakistani government officials said Islamabad had given the Americans "express approval" for the strikes - the first time Pakistan has admitted to such cooperation.

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BOKO HARAM

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In Nigeria, Islamist group Boko Haram, another al Qaeda-linked group, has stepped up attacks in recent months after the kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls in April sparked international outrage.

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The group is suspected in the abduction last week of up to 30 women form nomadic settlements in Nigeria's northeast, close to where it grabbed the schoolgirls, residents and Nigerian media said. The militants were reported to be demanding cattle in exchange for the women.

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    Along with a desire for international attention, analysts believe the increasingly ferocious attacks are designed to embarrass the Nigerian government and ultimately give Boko Haram more negotiating power in its demand for the introduction of sharia law in northern Nigeria.

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Bomb attacks in the capital of Abuja in the run-up to the World Economic Forum in May killed scores of people and illustrated the powerlessness of security forces to stop them.

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    Ahead of an election next year, President Goodluck Jonathan appears at pains to show his government can tackle Boko Haram, ordering a "full-scale operation" against the group and authorizing security forces to use "any means necessary under the law."

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    But that's easier said than done, given the difficulties faced by security forces in Africa's most populous nation.

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Some analysts say that while Boko Haram's tactics are similar to al Qaeda's, any links are tenuous at best.

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    "They've got no particular interest in attacking Western targets. It's all focused on their aims: introducing sharia law and a level of autonomy, self-determination for the north," said Martin Roberts, a senior Africa analyst at research firm IHS.

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One group that has repeatedly set its sights on American targets is the Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which was believed to have been behind the failed attempt in 2009 to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner by the so-called "underwear bomber."

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In a message to the U.S. Congress on Thursday, Obama repeated his administration's warnings that AQAP is "the most active and dangerous affiliate of al Qaeda today."

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But the militant splinter groups are evolving so rapidly that - thanks to ISIL's rapid expansion and to operations against AQAP in Yemen - that may no longer be true.

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(Additional reporting by David Dolan in Abuja and Warren Strobel in Washington.; Writing by Jason Szep and Matt Spetalnick; Editing by David Storey and Lisa Shumaker)

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Mega-events may get less ambitious as Brazil counts World Cup costs

Plagued by delays and opposition at home, the World Cup in Brazil might be a turning point for sporting mega-events, forcing soccer's governing body and the International Olympic Committee to accept less ambitious bids to reduce the risk of public backlash.

Described by Brazil's government as "the Cup to end all Cups," the tournament kicked off on Thursday to a backdrop of controversy and concern.

The world soccer organization, FIFA, is facing corruption allegations over how Qatar won the right to host the 2022 World Cup as well as match-fixing claims, fewer countries are keen to host big events and even some sponsors are starting to question the "halo effect" of associating with them.

Ever since the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, which set the gold standard, large sporting events have been increasingly used to drive infrastructure projects and try to regenerate cities.

Sports economists and sources inside FIFA say Brazil, the most expensive World Cup ever at an estimated cost of $11.3 billion, has shown both the limits and the risks of this model.

Although the nature of the bidding process means countries able to splurge on state-of-the-art stadiums will still attract support, there is a growing sense among the populations of cities and nations considering being hosts for major sporting events that bigger is not always better.

"I think we are at a turning point in the history of mega-events and I think the turning point will lead to a very much reduced ambition towards infrastructure connected with these events," said Wolfgang Maennig, a professor at Hamburg University who specializes in sports economics.

For Maennig, who won Olympic gold at Seoul 1988 as a German rower, big sporting events have become so political and controversial they risk losing both corporate sponsors and countries willing to host them.

He points to the IOC's difficulty in finding a country to hold the 2022 Winter Olympics. Germany's Munich and Switzerland's St. Moritz-Davos both withdrew planned bids when people in the two places voted 'no' in referendums, leaving the IOC scrambling for a suitable candidate.

In Brazil, which will also host the 2016 Olympics, protests and strikes have dominated the public mood since millions took to the streets during a World Cup warm-up last June to bemoan poor public services.

"The positive to be taken out of Brazil is that we have learnt from it and will do things differently next time," one FIFA source said. The source added that FIFA should have insisted that Brazil cut the number of host cities from 12, which would have reduced the number of potential problems with unfinished infrastructure, and made good on the threat to move games if venues weren’t quite ready for prime time.

Soccer’s European body UEFA has already got the message - reducing the burden on any one country for its European Championship, with the 2020 tournament to be played in 13 cities across Europe.

FLAT-OUT NERVOUS

For sponsors the equation may be changing too, as negative headlines have swelled from the usual trickle to a flood.

Sponsors took the rare decision to speak out on the corruption probe into Qatar's bid, with Adidas saying the negative debate around FIFA "is neither good for football nor for FIFA and its partners." Coca-Cola was similarly outspoken.

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"The minute soccer moves from the sports pages to the political pages I think sponsors have to get concerned because their message is getting crowded," said David Carter, director of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California.

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"People are flat-out nervous," he said. "The last thing you can afford when you're investing hundreds of millions of dollars into a global sports opportunity is to have to cross your fingers and hope for it to turn out alright."

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Carter said the price FIFA commands from sponsors was at risk of going down if they saw less benefit from being directly connected with FIFA and the World Cup. Still, that is unlikely to happen anytime soon given that sponsorship deals are usually organized over many tournaments - Adidas for example has signed up as a FIFA sponsor until 2030.

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And the mega-events remain very healthy on some levels. For example, the prices for television rights have continued to rise with little sign of abating.

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Sixty percent of Brazilians now think hosting the Cup is bad for Brazil, according to a recent poll, and thousands have marched nationwide carrying banners telling FIFA to "go home."

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Brazil may have exploded with street parties as its team won the opening game on Thursday but scattered violent protests were a reminder that many locals remain angry over the cost of the tournament.

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One source working at a leading World Cup sponsor said the firm had been forced to change its marketing strategy in response to public negativity surrounding this year's event.

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However, Andrew Sneyd, an executive at World Cup sponsor Budweiser responsible for marketing, was more upbeat on Brazil, saying it was Budweiser's largest campaign to date and no adjustments had been made in response to local opposition.

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CHANGE NOT EASY

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Changing the way these events are structured is not easy.

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In countries other than the most advanced soccer economies like Britain or Germany, stadiums have to be built and infrastructure improved to put on events like the World Cup.

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The challenge is how to make them less ambitious and less controversial without excluding developing nations who almost always need to invest heavily to get venues up to standard.

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A different FIFA source said there was a growing awareness of the social and economic responsibility that came with putting on the World Cup but that the bidding process remained one of faith - you have to trust the country chosen will deliver on its promises.

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Still, the tide seems to be turning because of growing popular resistance to huge spending on sporting events.

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For Maennig the answer lies in bids that are more collaborative with the local population.

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"I am pushing my home city Berlin to have a completely different Olympic bid (for 2024) by asking residents to participate in an Olympic concept they would be in favor of,” he said.

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(Editing by Todd Benson, Kieran Murray and Martin Howell)

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