African leaders agree steps to fight runaway Ebola outbreak

West African leaders agreed on Friday to take stronger measures to try to bring the worst outbreak of Ebola under control and prevent it spreading outside the region, including steps to isolate rural communities ravaged by the disease.

The World Health Organization and medical charity Medicins Sans Frontieres said on Friday the outbreak, which has killed 729 people in four West African countries, was out of control and more resources were urgently needed to deal with it.

WHO chief Margaret Chan told a meeting of the presidents of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone - the countries worst affected - that the epidemic was outpacing efforts to contain it and warned of catastrophic consequences in lost lives and economic disruption if the situation were allowed to deteriorate.

"The presidents recognize the serious nature of the Ebola outbreak in their countries," Chan said after the meeting. "They are determined to take extraordinary measures to stop Ebola in their countries."

In a communique after their talks, the leaders agreed to deploy security forces to isolate the frontier regions where 70 percent of the 1,323 cases have been detected.

They banned the transportation of anyone showings signs of disease across borders, and pledged to introduce strict controls at international airports to prevent the virus spreading outside the region.

There was international alarm last week when a U.S. citizen died of Ebola in Nigeria - Africa's most populous country - after flying there from Liberia. Two people quarantined in Lagos after coming into contact with him were released on Friday after they tested negative for the disease.

The three leaders also agreed to step up efforts to protect local healthcare workers and encourage them to return to work.

With healthcare systems struggling to cope with the highly infectious disease, which requires rigorous precautions to stop it spreading, more than 60 medical workers have lost their lives, hampering efforts to tackle the outbreak.

Liberia has already put in place tough measures including closing all schools and some government departments. Sierra Leone on Wednesday declared a state of emergency and called in troops to isolate Ebola victims.

However, Friday's agreement marked a reversal by Guinea, which had previously resisted taking tough steps, saying the disease was under control there.

"Somewhat drastic measures will be taken," Guinea's Cooperation Minister Moustapha Koutoub Sano said. "These (border) prefectures and communities will be isolated."

EMERGENCY COMMITTEE

The outbreak has prompted some international organizations to withdraw. The U.S. Peace Corps has said it was withdrawing 340 volunteers from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.

U.S. aid group Samaritans Purse said on Friday it would complete the evacuation of its 60 international staff from Liberia over the weekend. It said two American staff who contracted the disease in Liberia were in a serious condition and would be medically evacuated by early next week.

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Charity WaterAid said on Friday it was suspending its operations in Liberia as well.

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The WHO is launching a $100 million response plan and the United States is providing material and technical support to the three countries. Further assistance will be discussed at a U.S.-Africa summit in Washington next week.

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Guinea President Alpha Conde told Reuters he would represent Africa in those Ebola talks. Sierra Leonean President Ernest Bai Koroma and Liberia’s Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf announced this week they would remain at home to tackle the crisis.

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Chan appealed on Friday to the wider world to provide more medical experts and funding. She pledged to take personal responsibility for coordinating international response efforts and mobilizing the vast support needed to fight the virus, which can kill up to 90 percent of those infected.

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The fatality rate in this epidemic is about 60 percent.

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    The WHO has convened an emergency committee on Aug. 6-7 to decide if the outbreak constitutes a public health emergency of international concern and to recommend measures to tackle it.

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"The demands created by Ebola in West Africa outstrip your capacities to respond," Chan told the presidents.

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Chan said cultural practices such as traditional burials and deep-seated beliefs were a significant cause of the spread and needed to change. In the final stages, its symptoms include external and internal bleeding, vomiting and diarrhea - at which point Ebola becomes highly contagious.

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On Friday, the government of southeastern Nigeria's Anambra state quarantined a mortuary containing the body of a Nigerian man who died in Liberia while tests were conducted to determine the caused of death.

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(Additional reporting by Tom Miles in Geneva, Tim Cocks and Oludare Mayowa in Lagos, Anamesere Igboeroteonwu in Onitsha, and Misha Hussain, Writing by Tim Cocks and Felix Bate; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Alison Williams)

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American aid worker stricken with Ebola arrives in U.S. for treatment

An American aid worker infected with the deadly Ebola virus while in Liberia arrived in the United States from West Africa on Saturday and walked into an Atlanta hospital, wearing a bio-hazard suit, for treatment in a special isolation unit.

A chartered medical aircraft carrying Dr. Kent Brantly touched down at Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Marietta, Georgia, shortly before noon. Brantly was driven by ambulance, with police escort, to Emory University Hospital in Atlanta for treatment in a specially equipped room.

Television news footage showed three people in white biohazard suits step gingerly out of the ambulance. Two of them walked into the hospital, one seeming to lean on the other for support. A hospital spokesman confirmed that Brantly walked into the building under his own power.

Dr. Jay Varkey, an infectious disease specialist at Emory, said he could not comment on a treatment plan until Brantly had been evaluated. Since there is no known cure, standard procedures are to provide hydration with solutions containing electrolytes or intravenous fluids, according to the World Health Organization.

Brantly works for the North Carolina-based Christian organization Samaritan's Purse. A second infected member of the group, missionary Nancy Writebol, will be brought to the United States on a later flight, as the medical aircraft is equipped to carry only one patient at a time.

"It was a relief to welcome Kent home today. I spoke with him, and he is glad to be back in the U.S. I am thankful to God for his safe transport and for giving him the strength to walk into the hospital," Brantly's wife, Amber, said in a written statement. "Please continue praying for Kent and Nancy (Writebol), and please continue praying for the people of Liberia and those who continue to serve them there."

SPECIALLY DESIGNED HOSPITAL ROOM

Brantly and Writebol were helping respond to the worst West African Ebola outbreak on record when they contracted the disease. Since February, more than 700 people in the region have died from the infection.

Despite concern among some in the United States over bringing Ebola patients to the country, health officials have said there is no risk to the public.

The facility at Emory, set up with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is one of only four in the country with the facilities to deal with such cases.

"We have a specially designed unit, which is highly contained. We have highly trained personnel who know how to safely enter the room of a patient who requires this form of isolation," Bruce Ribner, an infectious disease specialist at Emory, said Friday.

The plane used to bring Brantly to the United States was equipped with a plastic isolation tent, a medical bed, intravenous lines and monitoring equipment, according to the CDC, which called the set-up an Aeromedical Biological Containment System.

Ebola is a hemorrhagic virus with a death rate of up to 90 percent of those who become infected; the fatality rate in the current epidemic is about 60 percent.

Brantly is a 33-year-old father of two young children. Writebol is a 59-year-old mother of two.

CDC spokeswoman Barbara Reynolds said this week that the agency was not aware of any Ebola patient ever being treated in the United States previously. But five people in the past decade have entered the country with either Lassa Fever or Marburg Fever, hemorrhagic fevers that are similar to Ebola.

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The two Americans will be treated primarily by a team of four infectious disease physicians. The patients will be able to see loved ones through a plate-glass window and speak to them by phone or intercom.

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"There is a little bit of worry," Jenny Kendrix, 46, said of having Brantly brought to the same hospital where her husband is being treated for cancer.

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But 52-year-old Ernie Surunis, at the hospital for a pharmacy conference, said he was not bothered.

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"We can't leave them (in Africa) to die. They went over to help other people," he said.

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(Additional reporting by Daniel Flynn in Dakar, Curtis Skinner in New York, and Alex Dobuzinskis and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Writing by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Sandra Maler, Frances Kerry, Leslie Adler and Lisa Shumaker)

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China police detain six in tainted meat scandal: Xinhua

Police in China have detained six executives of a meat supply company at the center of the latest food safety scare to hit the country, state media reported on Sunday.

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Shanghai's chief of police and deputy mayor Bai Shaokang told local radio that the executives of Shanghai Husi Food, a unit of U.S.-based OSI Group LLC, had been taken into custody, Xinhua news agency said.

The firm had supplied meat to foreign fast food chains McDonald's and KFC-parent Yum Brands Inc, among many others.

The scandal, which also dragged in coffee chain Starbucks Corp.O>, was triggered by a local television report showing staff at Shanghai Husi using long-expired meat. The report also alleged the firm forged production dates.

Food safety has been a huge concern for Chinese consumers after dairy products tainted with the industrial chemical melamine sickened many thousands and led to the deaths of six infants in 2008.

Regulators closed the Shanghai Husi plant on July 20. Police have detained five people, including Shanghai Husi's head and quality manager. It was not clear from the Xinhua report if Bai was referring to the same executives.

“If any wrongdoing was unearthed, we would deal with it strictly according to law,” Bai was quoted as saying.

Yum Brands Inc is the biggest Western restaurant operator in China with 6,400 restaurants. It warned last week that the scare caused "significant, negative" damage to sales at KFC and Pizza Hut restaurants in the period from July 20 through July 30.

After the scandal broke, Yum quickly cut all ties with OSI, which was not a significant supplier to the chain.

McDonald's Corp, which has deep ties to OSI and was more dependent on the supplier, ended its relationship with OSI China. As a result, many of its 2,000 restaurants in the country have suffered meat shortages.

McDonald's Holdings Co Ltd, the Japanese unit of the world's biggest restaurant chain, withdrew its earnings guidance for the year after the scandal forced it to switch to alternative chicken supplies.

(Reporting By Norihiko Shirouzu and Ran Li in Beijing; Editing by Lynne O'Donnell)

Ramadan pilgrimage season in Saudi Arabia mostly free from MERS

Saudi Arabia reported 10 confirmed new cases of a deadly respiratory disease during Islam's fasting month of Ramadan, and subsequent Eid al-Fitra holiday, after fears that an influx of pilgrims over the period might spread the infection more widely.

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Notices of any new confirmed cases are published at the end of every day by the Health Ministry. Ramadan ended a week ago and the Eid al-Fitra holiday ran until late last week.

Hundreds of people were infected by Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in the kingdom in April and May, raising concerns about the pilgrimage in Ramadan and during October's Haj, when millions of people will travel to Mecca and Medina.

MERS, which is thought to originate in camels, causes coughing, fever and pneumonia in some and has killed around 40 percent of people it has infected in the kingdom.

Since 2012, when MERS was identified, Saudi Arabia has reported 298 deaths from the disease and 721 confirmed cases of infection.

This year and in 2013 there were outbreaks in April and May followed by a drop-off in new confirmed cases.

Of the people the Health Ministry confirmed were infected by MERS from the start of Ramadan on June 29 until the end of Eid al-Fitra, two were in Jeddah, the main arrival port for pilgrims and one was in the city of Taif near Mecca. Another MERS patient in Mecca, whose infection had already been confirmed, died of the disease.

The disease is thought to have an incubation period of around two weeks and testing by the authorities can take several days.

While all Muslims must try to make the annual Haj pilgrimage once in their lifetime, they are also encouraged to carry out the Umrah pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina which can happen at any time of year, but is particularly popular during Ramadan.

For a second consecutive year, the authorities have said they will restrict Haj visas in 2014 for safety reasons connected to construction work aimed at enlarging the Great Mosque at Mecca.

Saudi Arabia and the World Health Organisation have said they are imposing no travel or other restrictions due to MERS during the Haj, but have encouraged very young or old pilgrims, and those suffering from chronic disease, not to come this year.

(The story corrects number of people infected in Mecca in paragraph 7)

(Reporting By Angus McDowall; Editing by Stephen Powell)

Bodies of possible Ebola victims found in central Monrovia

The bodies of two men previously showing symptoms of Ebola lay in the streets of Monrovia for four days before being collected by health workers on Sunday, residents told Reuters.

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"They both gave up and dropped dead on the ground on the street of Clara Town," said resident Nema Red, referring to a district of the Liberian capital.

Both men had shown symptoms of Ebola such as bleeding and vomiting before they died but scared locals had refused to take them to the hospital, she added.

Information Minister Lewis Brown confirmed that the bodies had been collected, although he said they had only been there for a few hours. "I can confirm that the bodies were in the street. They have been removed," he said on Sunday.

(Reporting by Derick Snyder in Monrovia and Emma Farge in Dakar; Editing by Stephen Powell)

In Liberia's capital, fear of Ebola hampers official response

Health workers turned up in Monrovia's Clara Town district on Sunday to remove two bodies of possible victims of the Ebola virus, four days after they dropped dead there when nobody would take them to hospital.

At a swampy field elsewhere in the Liberian capital, the health ministry ordered 100 graves to be dug for victims of the deadly tropical virus, but only five shallow holes partly filled with water had been prepared by Saturday evening.

Monrovia's overcrowded and understaffed Elwa Hospital has had to turn away Ebola cases this week, a scenario exacerbated by the withdrawal of some international staff following the infection of two U.S. health workers here.

One of them has arrived for treatment in the United States and the second is due to follow on an overnight flight on Monday.

Strong resistance like this from workers too afraid to handle infected corpses or communities opposed to burying them nearby has slowed down stretched West African governments as they seek to control the worst Ebola outbreak in history.

The Ebola virus has killed 227 people so far in Liberia and at least 826 people in the region, according to the World Health Organization.

Nema Red, a resident of Clara Town, said the two men who lay dead in the street for days had shown symptoms of Ebola such as bleeding and vomiting.

"They started seeking help from the community to take them to the hospital, but community members ran for their lives ... they both gave up and dropped dead on the ground in the streets of Clara Town," she said, saying they lay there four days.

Information Minister Lewis Brown confirmed the bodies had been collected but said they had only been there for a few hours. "They have been removed," he said, adding their houses would be fumigated and relatives placed under surveillance.

BOTCHED BURIALS

Ebola, which is fatal in more than half of cases in the current outbreak, is transmitted by direct contact with the blood or fluids of the infected, including the dead.

Monrovia's first burial site for 30 bodies, in the poor township of Johnsonville, was abandoned by health workers after the land owner refused to sell the land to bury Ebola victims.

A few of the corpses were left floating in body bags in pools of water, which led to complaints from the residents.

A local man, Bill Marshall, said residents had not been consulted before the cemetery was created. "Ebola, we don't know where it came from and we don't know its effect," he said. "The grave will give us Ebola, it will kill us."

At a second site, an angry crowd gathered, shouting at health workers dressed in white protective suits who sought to appease them by handing out Ebola information flyers.

"You will have to kill us first," shouted one group.

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Soldiers from the Liberian army with shields and bulletproof vests arrived on the scene shortly afterwards. A source in the health ministry said the bodies were finally buried overnight with the help of around 40 additional workers.

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STRICT MEASURES

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The government says that high levels of mistrust and resistance from local communities justifies a series of strict new measures designed to control the outbreak.

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Liberia plans to close schools and consider quarantining some communities as part of an action plan outlined this week by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

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In a crisis meeting on Sunday attended by the president, officials decided that the names of those in contact with suspected Ebola cases would be shared with airport and security authorities to restrict their movements.

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Brown added that the government had decided to enforce mandatory cremations to limit contact with the dead and to avoid contamination of water sources.

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"The Johnsonville burial did not go that well," said Brown. "From now on, victims will be cremated."

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(Additional reporting and writing by Emma Farge; Editing by Tom Heneghan)

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U.S. doctor stricken with Ebola said to be improving

An American doctor stricken with the deadly Ebola virus while in Liberia and brought to the United States for treatment in a special isolation ward is improving, the top U.S. health official said on Sunday.

Dr Kent Brantly was able to walk, with help, from an ambulance after he was flown on Saturday to Atlanta, where he is being treated by infectious disease specialists at Emory University Hospital.

"It's encouraging that he seems to be improving - that's really important - and we're hoping he'll continue to improve," said Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta.

Frieden told CBS's "Face the Nation" it was too soon to predict whether Brantly would survive, and a hospital spokesman said Emory did not expect to provide any updates on the doctor's condition on Sunday.

Brantly is a 33-year-old father of two young children who works for the North Carolina-based Christian organization, Samaritan's Purse. He was in Liberia responding to the worst Ebola outbreak on record when he contracted the disease.

Since February, more than 700 people in West Africa have died from Ebola, a hemorrhagic virus with a death rate of up to 90 percent of those infected. The fatality rate in the current epidemic is about 60 percent.

Frieden told ABC's "This Week" that the CDC was "surging" its response, and that it will send 50 staff to West Africa "to help stop the outbreak in the next 30 days."

Amber Brantly, Dr. Brantly's wife, said she was able to see her husband on Sunday and he was in good spirits, and that the family is confident he is receiving the very best care. "He thanked everyone for their prayers," she said in a statement.

A second U.S. aid worker who contracted Ebola alongside Brantly, missionary Nancy Writebol, will be brought to the United States on a later flight as the medical aircraft is equipped to carry only one patient at a time.

Standard treatment for the disease is to provide supportive care. In Atlanta, doctors will try to maintain blood pressure and support breathing, with a respirator if needed, or provide dialysis if patients experience kidney failure, as some Ebola sufferers do.

SECOND MISSIONARY EXPECTED SOON

Writebol, a 59-year-old mother of two who worked to decontaminate those entering and leaving an Ebola isolation unit in Liberia, was due to depart for the United States overnight on Monday, Liberia's information minister said.

Writebol's husband, David, who had been living and working in Liberia with his wife, was expected to travel home separately in the next few days, their missionary organization, SIM USA, said in a statement.

Despite public concern over bringing in Ebola patients, the CDC's Frieden said the United States may see a few isolated cases in people who have been traveling, but did not expect widespread Ebola in the country.

The facility at Emory chosen to treat the two infected Americans was set up with CDC and is one of four in the country with the ability to handle such cases. The Americans will be treated primarily by four infectious disease physicians, and will be able to see relatives through a plate-glass window and speak to them by phone or intercom.

Frieden said it was unlikely Brantly's wife and children, who left Liberia before he began showing symptoms, contracted the disease because people who are exposed to Ebola but not yet sick cannot infect others.

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The CDC has said it is not aware of any Ebola patient having been treated in the United States previously. Five people entered the country in the past decade with either Lassa Fever or Marburg, both hemorrhagic fevers similar to Ebola.

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President Barack Obama has said some participants at an Africa summit in Washington this week would be screened for Ebola exposure. Frieden said on Sunday there was no reason to cancel the event.

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"There are 50 million travelers from around the world that come to the U.S. each year ... We're not going to hermetically seal this country," he told Fox News Sunday.

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(Additional reporting by Emma Farge in Dakar; Writing by Doina Chiacu and Cynthia Johnston; Editing by Frances Kerry and Sandra Maler)

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U.S. doctor stricken with Ebola said to be improving

The second American aid worker who contracted the Ebola virus in West Africa was expected to arrive in Atlanta on Tuesday in serious condition, while a New York hospital was testing a man with symptoms of the deadly disease.

New York's Mount Sinai Hospital on Manhattan's Upper East Side said on Monday it was testing a man who traveled to a West African nation where Ebola has been reported. The man, who had a high fever and gastrointestinal symptoms, had been placed in strict isolation and was being screened to determine the cause of his symptoms.

The New York patient added to concerns about the often fatal disease after two American healthcare workers contracted it in West Africa, where they had traveled to help fight the disease that has killed nearly 900 people since February.

Missionary Nancy Writebol, 59, will fly on a medical aircraft from Liberia to be treated by infectious disease specialists in a special isolation ward at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, according to Christian mission group SIM USA.

Emory's specialists on Saturday began treating 33-year-old U.S. doctor Kent Brantly, who also returned home after being stricken with Ebola during the emergency response to the worst outbreak on record of the hemorrhagic virus.

Writebol and Brantly are believed to be the first Ebola patients ever treated in the United States. They served in Monrovia on a joint team run by Christian aid groups SIM USA and Samaritan's Purse and are returning separately because the plane equipped to transport them can carry only one patient at a time.

Writebol was in serious condition, SIM USA said on Monday.

“Her husband told me Sunday her appetite has improved and she requested one of her favorite dishes – Liberian potato soup – and coffee," Bruce Johnson, president of SIM USA, said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Brantly's wife, who had returned home to Texas before he became ill, said in a statement late on Sunday that she had seen her husband and that he was in good spirits.

"He thanked everyone for their prayers and asked for continued prayer for Nancy Writebol's safe return and full recovery," Amber Brantly said. SIM said a missionary group of two adults and six children it evacuated from Liberia due to the outbreak arrived on Sunday in Charlotte, North Carolina, where they will be housed temporarily on the organization's campus. None have shown symptoms of infection, the group said.

EXPERIMENTAL DRUG

Both Brantly and Writebol saw their conditions improve by varying degrees in Liberia after they received an experimental drug previously tested only on monkeys, said a representative for Samaritan's Purse. The drug was developed by San Diego-based private biotech firm Mapp Biopharmaceutical Inc.

Shares for another company, Canada-based Tekmira Pharmaceuticals Corp, one of a few to have developed Ebola treatments advanced enough to be tested on people, slumped after media reports about the Mapp drug.

There is no proven cure for Ebola, and the death rate in the current epidemic is about 60 percent, experts say.

Standard treatment for the disease is to provide supportive care. Doctors at Emory will try to maintain blood pressure and support breathing of the workers, with a respirator if needed, or provide dialysis if they experience kidney failure, as some Ebola sufferers do.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said there were no plans to stop flights to the United States from countries grappling with Ebola. Screening is being done to watch for travelers exhibiting symptoms, including some participants at a U.S.-hosted Africa summit in Washington.

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Brantly and Writebol each had lived in Liberia since last year with their spouses and, in Brantly's case, two young children.

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Brantly joined the Samaritan's Purse post-residency program after completing his residency in family medicine at John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth, Texas, and then became part of the organization's medical team helping to fight Ebola.

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Writebol, a mother of two from Charlotte, is a longtime missionary who had been working for SIM USA as a hygienist who decontaminated the protective suits worn by medical workers inside the isolation ward at a treatment center in Monrovia.

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(Reporting by Rich McKay; Additional reporting by Mark Felsenthal in Washington and Barbara Goldberg in New York; Writing by Daniel Wallis and Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Eric Beech)

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China's JinkoSolar must face U.S. lawsuit over pollution, protests

JinkoSolar Holding Co must face a shareholder lawsuit accusing the Chinese solar panel maker of concealing that one of its factories was dumping toxic waste into a nearby river, a U.S. appeals court ruled on Thursday.

The decision by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York overturned a lower court's January 2013 dismissal of the case against JinkoSolar and its underwriters, sending the lawsuit back to U.S. District Judge Paul Oetken.

The appeals court said JinkoSolar's failure to disclose "ongoing, serious pollution problems" in prospectuses for two stock offerings in 2010 "rendered misleading" statements about its other efforts to comply with Chinese environmental laws.

JinkoSolar's share price fell 40 percent over three trading days in September 2011 after hundreds of people gathered at its plant on the outskirts of Haining, in China's Zhejiang province, whose pollution they claimed was killing fish in a nearby river.

Some protesters overturned vehicles and damaged nearby buildings before riot police dispersed the group.

JinkoSolar's American depositary shares were down $1.08, or 4.1 percent, at $25.17 in morning trading. The company and its law firm did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

In a prospectus for its May 2010 initial public offering, JinkoSolar had described having installed equipment at its plants to lower pollution, and hired 24-hour-a-day environmental monitoring teams to ensure compliance with Chinese standards.

But shareholders said JinkoSolar's failure to reveal the pollution it was creating made its other statements misleading, constituting securities fraud.

Writing for a three-judge 2nd Circuit panel, Circuit Judge Ralph Winter said JinkoSolar could have disclosed more, even if its prospectuses "gave comfort" to investors that it was trying to comply with environmental regulations.

"These descriptions did not guarantee 100% compliance 100% of the time," Winter wrote. "Such compliance may often be unobtainable, and reasonable investors may be deemed to know that. However, investors would be misled ... if in fact the equipment and 24-hour team were then failing to prevent substantial violations of the Chinese regulations."

Michael Bigin, a lawyer for the shareholders, said his clients are pleased, and look forward to pursuing their case, which seeks class-action status.

The case, which spells the company's name differently, is Meyer et al v. JinkoSolar Holdings Co et al, 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 13-616.

(Editing by Grant McCool)

Millions of jellyfish-like creatures wash up on western U.S. beaches

Millions of jellyfish-like creatures have washed up on beaches along the U.S. West Coast over the past month, giving the shoreline a purple gleam and, at times, an unpleasant odor, ocean experts said on Thursday.

Though not poisonous to most people, beachgoers should avoid the animals because their venom can cause stinging in the eyes and mouth, said Steve Rumrill, an expert at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Known as Velella velella to scientists, and more informally as "by-the-wind sailors," the creatures regularly cluster offshore each spring. But it is unusual for so many to wash ashore at once, especially this late in the summer, he said.

In addition to the millions that have been spotted on beaches from Southern California to Washington, millions more are floating near the ocean surface offshore, Rumrill added.

Ocean experts do not know why more by-the-wind sailors are washing up this year, or why they are arriving later than usual, said Erin Paxton, spokeswoman for the Oregon Coast Aquarium.

Climate change may be a factor, but it is impossible to be certain, Rumrill said. "This is a wind-driven event, and winds are unusual this year," he said.

Though most people think the animals are jellyfish, they are in fact colonies of much smaller creatures known as hydrozoans, Rumrill said.

Hundreds of tiny organisms cluster together to create a gleaming purple body and a translucent sail-like protrusion that looks like a single animal.

(Editing by Daniel Wallis and Eric Walsh)

Southwest Airlines, SeaWorld to end marketing partnership

Southwest Airlines and SeaWorld said on Thursday they are ending a longtime marketing partnership, as the airline faces pressure from animal rights groups critical of the marine life conditions at its popular tourist attractions.

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The companies called it a mutual decision to drop the contract when it expires at the end of the year. SeaWorld Entertainment Inc and Southwest Airlines Co began joint promotions in 1988.

"The companies decided not to renew the contract based on shifting priorities," they said in a joint statement.

Southwest now wants to focus on international services and local market efforts, while SeaWorld is looking to new markets in Latin America and Asia, they said.

The announcement followed a petition drive by animal rights activists asking the airline to end the partnership.

SeaWorld has faced increasing scrutiny over conditions for its killer whales, following last year's broadcast of the documentary "Blackfish," telling the story of an orca that killed a trainer at SeaWorld's park in Orlando, Florida, in 2010.

SeaWorld also has theme parks in California and Texas.

The companies said they would continue to work together through Southwest Vacations.

(Reporting by Letitia Stein; Editing by Eric Walsh)

U.S. EPA extends 2013 biofuel compliance deadline for third time

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday extended the deadline for the third time for refiners to show compliance with 2013 federal biofuel use targets, a move quickly criticized by the oil industry.

Annual compliance reports would be due 30 days after the pending publication of the final rule establishing the 2014 renewable fuel percentage standards, the agency said on its website.

Thursday's move was the third extension of the 2013 Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) compliance deadline, which was originally to have been Feb. 28 and was first pushed to June and then to September.

The EPA said the extension was necessary because refiners need to know their 2014 obligations before they can determine how many biofuel credits they may need to carry over from 2013 in order to comply with this year's requirements.

Final 2014 targets are expected to be sent to the White House within weeks, at which point the long-delayed rule will enter its final review before public release.

But consideration of the proposal at the White House's Office of Management and Budget could also take several weeks.

"We're concerned this delay means EPA will further delay the final RFS requirements for this year," said Carlton Carroll, a spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute. "The administration's inability to meet deadlines is a clear example of how the program is unworkable."

Carroll noted that the law governing the renewable fuel program requires EPA to finalize its volume requirements for 2015 by Nov. 30 "but we're still waiting for them to finalize requirements for this year."

The RFS requires increasing amounts of biofuels such as corn-based ethanol and soy biodiesel to be blended into the U.S. fuel supply each year through 2022, peaking at 36 billion gallons.

The agency caused an uproar in the renewable fuel industry last fall by lowering the proposed 2014 targets.

Many biofuel industry sources expect the EPA to slightly raise the proposed levels in the final rule but still leave them below the original mandate.

(Reporting by Ros Krasny; Editing by Sandra Maler)

Tropical storm Bertha forms off the eastern Barbados coast: NHC

Tropical Storm Bertha, the second named storm of the 2014 Atlantic Hurricane Season, has formed east of the southern Lesser Antilles, the U.S. National Hurricane Center (NHC) said on Thursday.

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The storm was located about 275 miles (445 km) east-southeast of Barbados, and about 385 miles (620 km) east-southeast of St. Lucia, with maximum sustained winds of 45 miles per hour (75 kph), the Miami-based weather forecasters said.

The storm is moving toward the west-northwest at near 20 miles per hour (31 kph).

(Reporting by Anupam Chatterjee in Bangalore; Editing by Anupama Dwivedi)

Quake of 5.5 magnitude strikes near Algerian capital: USGS

A magnitude 5.5 earthquake struck 9 miles (14 km) southeast of the Algerian capital Algiers on Friday, the United States Geological Survey said.

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The quake's epicenter was recorded at a relatively shallow depth of 6.2 miles.

(Writing by Ron Popeski; Editing by Michael Urquhart)

Nine months on, Philippines plans $3.9-bln effort to relocate typhoon Haiyan victims

The Philippines will spend 170 billion pesos ($3.89 billion) to rehouse some 200,000 families displaced by last year's super typhoon Haiyan that killed 6,100 people, the government said in a masterplan released on Friday.

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It has taken a startling nine months to hammer out the plan because crippling bureaucracy entailed lengthy vetting, say government consultants, and sparse technical data on geological hazards and land use plans held up relocation decisions.

Thousands of displaced families remain in makeshift tents or substandard temporary shelter areas, but all-out reconstruction will begin soon after President Benigno Aquino approves the plan, although it is not clear when this will happen.

"We are confident the rehabilitation efforts will now shift to high gear," said Panfilo Lacson, presidential assistant for rehabilitation and recovery.

"We are hoping to achieve at least 80 percent completion of these priority projects before the end of the president's term," he added. Aquino's term runs until June 2016.

About a million homeowners will also receive shelter assistance under the plan for houses that were either destroyed or partially damaged, said Lacson, a former senator.

The effort will also help build sturdier government facilities, such as schools and evacuation centers, besides providing livelihood and training assistance for farmers, fishermen and those who raise livestock.

Lacson said the budget department had made available about 137 billion pesos this year, with the rest to be released in next year's budget, and promised transparency in project funding.

The slow pace of government reconstruction work has attracted criticism.

"It's alarming that as the typhoon season starts, we still see tents in Tacloban," said Prospero de Vera, a professor of public administration at the University of the Philippines.

Tacloban, the main city on the Philippines' central island of Leyte, was a wasteland after Haiyan destroyed about 80 percent of houses made of light materials, and is slowly returning to life.

"The normalcy in the lives of the people has not returned until now in Tacloban, and that is the biggest disaster of all," added De Vera.

By July, Manila had released more than 35 billion pesos in aid after Haiyan, the budget department has said, spent on food and temporary shelter areas for displaced families, as well as to rebuild some public buildings.

But that amount is just a drop in the bucket, with state funds and loans from lenders such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank and bilateral sources committed to typhoon rehabilitation reaching at least $4 billion.

Haiyan, one of the strongest typhoons to ever hit land, tore through the central Philippines last November, reducing most of what was in its path to rubble in tsunami-like surges and driving nearly 4 million people from their homes.

The pace of government reconstruction slowed after Aquino last year abolished congressional allocations, called "pork barrel" funds, because bureaucrats were too careful in signing contracts.

Last month, the Supreme Court declared illegal the president's stimulus fund, prompting impeachment cases to be filed against Aquino in the wake of the decision.

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($1=43.7500 Philippine pesos)

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(Reporting by Manuel Mogato; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

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Quakes strike Myanmar, India's Andaman Islands; no tsunami warning

Earthquakes of magnitude 6.2 and 6.1 struck Myanmar and India's Andaman islands on Thursday, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) said.

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No Tsunami warning was issued after the Andaman quake, an official at the India Meteorological Department said.

The Myanmar quake struck 185 miles west of Mergui and was 19.3 miles deep, according to USGS.

(Reporting by Aditya Kalra; editing by Malini Menon)

Six die after Algerian quake sparks panic in capital

At least six people died after a magnitude 5.5 earthquake hit southeast of the Algerian capital on Friday, shaking buildings and sending panicked families rushing into the streets of Algiers, authorities said.

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The United States Geological Survey said the quake had struck nine miles (14 km) southeast of Algiers and its epicenter was recorded at a relatively shallow depth of 6.2 miles.

There were no reports of major damage, according to Algerian state television. But four people died trying to jump from windows or escape their buildings in panic and another two died of heart attacks, a health official said.

Many Algerians still have strong memories of 2003 when Algeria's strongest earthquake in years - measuring 6.7 - struck the capital and surrounding areas, killing at least 2,000 people and crumbling buildings in nearby towns.

(Reporting by Hamid Ould Ahmed; Writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

Rescuers in Indian landslide say hopes for survivors 'bleak'

Hopes of finding survivors in India from a landslide that swallowed up more than 100 people faded on Friday as rescuers dug through mud and debris following heavy rains, with the death toll rising to 52.

Finding people alive would be extremely unlikely, said Gautam Sarkar, a senior official involved in the rescue, as hundreds of rescuers toiled to sift debris after Wednesday's landslide submerged 46 homes and almost wiped out a village.

"The houses have been buried under layers of wet mud, which makes chances of survival bleak, since no oxygen can go in," Sarkar said.

Nevertheless, additional earth-moving machinery was being brought in, said Alok Avasthy, operations head of a national disaster response team, who estimated the search effort would run for another two days.

The number of confirmed deaths was 52, both officials said, after mud came crashing down on the village of Malin in India's western state of Maharashtra. Eight people were rescued soon after the disaster, but more than 100 remain missing.

The mood was somber as residents rushed back and forth along a 3-km (1.86 miles) route from their remote village to the nearest medical clinic, in a frantic bid to track family members.

Paddy farmer Lakshman Pote, who was tending his rice fields when the hill above the village collapsed on his home, identified five of his family among the dead, but says one of his sons is still missing.

"It happened all of a sudden," Pote said. "I heard a loud noise and the entire hill came crashing down in a matter of a minute."

Rescue officials have not been able to pinpoint the reason for the mudslide.

The area had earlier been lashed by heavy rains. In India, these can often bring disaster, particularly as they swell rivers and lakes. Another potential cause was deforestation, newspapers said.

For now, the focus remains on recovering the bodies of the missing, with doctors saying post-mortem examinations revealed the corpses had suffered heavy battering and severe fractures. 

An ambulance on Friday afternoon brought bodies from the village, wrapped in red body bags, to the medical clinic, in just one of several trips as the death toll swelled.

"Four bodies," an emergency worker called out to clinic staff as the corpses were unloaded.

(Writing by Sruthi Gottipati; Editing by Rafael Nam and Clarence Fernandez)

Monsoon rains cause floods, but fewer wildfires, in New Mexico

In normally drought-stricken New Mexico, near-historic levels of monsoon rains this month caused a sharp rise in flash flood warnings, but have dampened the risk of devastating wildfires, experts said on Friday.

The city of Albuquerque saw a total of 3.4 inches of rain in July, the highest level recorded for the month since 1930 when 4.45 inches fell.

Coming on the back of three years of severe drought, the downpours have washed out dozens of roads, and even a section of the Union Pacific railroad tracks south of Santa Rosa.

"This is the third wettest July on record," said Don Shoemaker, spokesman for the National Weather Service's office in Albuquerque. "We have also seen a significant rise in flash floods."

The National Weather Service has needed to put out more than 400 flood advisories for northern and central New Mexico since January, with 300 of them issued in July alone. So far there have been no reports of flashflood fatalities this year.

That was thanks in part to the state's fire departments, which Shoemaker said train specifically for fast-water rescues in areas such as the arroyos, or creeks, that surround Albuquerque.

New Mexico's monsoon season runs from mid-June to mid-Sept, and then the spigots shut off unless there is a significant snow fall in the winter.

Experts say a saving grace of the particularly heavy recent rains is that there have been fewer of the wildfires that typically ravage the state's parched national forests each year.

Bill King, district fire officer for the Jemez Ranger District in the Santa Fe National Forest, said the wildfire risk was lowered at the end of July, from extreme in June, and that the rains meant the U.S. Forest Service has been able to divert resources from New Mexico to fires in Washington and Nevada.

The last big wildfire in the state was the Diego Fire in the Santa Fe National Forest, which burned some 3,500 acres in late June, King said.

"In July we had a few localized fires that didn't spread," he added. "We've seen a lot of lightening which caused some fires which were quickly contained."

(Reporting by Joseph Kolb; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Sandra Maler)

Trappers search for Washington state otter that attacked swimmers

Wildlife trappers in Washington state searched on Friday for a river otter blamed for a rare attack on humans that sent a boy and his grandmother to the hospital, wildlife experts said.

The boy was swimming in the Pilchuck River in Snohomish County, about 36 miles (57 km) northeast of Seattle, when the otter repeatedly bit and scratched him, said Captain Alan Myers of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The boy's grandmother tried to intervene and the otter also attacked her, scratching and badly injuring her eye, he said.

Both were hospitalized after the incident on Thursday and are expected to make full recoveries.

"All indications are that this was unprovoked," Myers said. "Those animals do not have a tendency for aggression."

River otters are semiaquatic animals that generally live along river banks and hunt for fish underwater. They are able to hold their breath for about eight minutes. An adult can weigh between 11 and 30 pounds (5 to 14 kg).

Trappers were searching for the otter, who will likely be euthanized unless it is a female with pups.

"It's not yet known if this was a female trying to protect her pups, or an aggressive male protecting territory," Myers said. "In the case of a female with pups, we will try to relocate the animal to a remote location," he added.

Myers also warned people visiting the area to be cautious.

"In my 15 years with the department, I've never had an experience with an aggressive otter," he said.

(Reporting by Victoria Cavaliere in Seattle; Editing by Daniel Wallis and James Dalgleish)

Florida Lionfish ban, nation's first, goes into effect

Florida's ban on importing invasive lionfish, the first of its kind in the nation, goes into effect on Friday as wildlife managers look for a way to control the spread of the barbed, red-and-white striped fish.

Bringing the fish into the state is now punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and a year in prison.

Lionfish, native to the waters off Southeast Asia, are believed to have arrived in the region as pets for aquariums. Over time, some were released into the wild.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which approved the ban in mid-June, also loosened fishing rules making it easier for recreational divers and fisherman to catch lionfish.

Scientists are concerned that lionfish will decimate other species found in Florida waters. The fish, which have few known predators, live in warm waters up to 1,000 feet deep and feed on anything from shrimp to other fish.

The loinfish, which can grow up to a foot in length, are covered in poisonous spines. While they are not aggressive, they can flare the barbs much like a porcupine if threatened.

"They're here to stay," said Roldan Muñoz, a researcher with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in North Carolina who studies the lionfish.

"If we can prevent more of them from getting dumped into the water ... as well as making it easier for people to harvest them it's a good start," he said.

The first lionfish sighting was in 1985 off the coast of South Florida, according to Pam Schofield, a fishery researcher for the United State Geological Service (USGS).

In the mid-1990s they began spreading up Florida's east coast and can now be found year-round from the shores of Venezuela to North Carolina.

Lionfish have been spotted on the U.S. East Coast as far north as Rhode Island, but aren't able to survive in the frigid winter waters.

A lionfish database operated by the USGS includes more than 4,000 sightings logged since 1985, though estimates of the total lionfish population aren't available.

In September, the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will consider additional punishment for breeding lionfish.

(Editing by Frank McGurty and Sandra Maler)

Investigators probe whether ferry killed humpback whale in Alaska

Authorities in Alaska are investigating whether a state ferry killed a 30-foot (9-meter), 25-ton (22.6-tonne) humpback whale in a collision near Kodiak Island, or whether the giant mammal was already dead when it was struck, officials said on Friday.

Kate Wynne, a marine mammal specialist for the University of Alaska Sea Grant Program, said there was no doubt the whale died from being hit by a sea-going vessel.

"It came onto the bow of the state ferry and into the harbor," said Wynne, who took part in the whale's necropsy.

"Whether it was dead when it was hit by the ferry or whether it was alive, that remains the question. But some ship killed it. That's obvious."

Humpback whales are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act, and officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are overseeing the investigation, a NOAA spokeswoman said.

Wynne said the state ferry Kennicott was en route to Kodiak from Homer on July 26 when it struck the whale. As the ship slowed in the harbor, its body fell into the waves and only resurfaced two days later, she said.

She said the whale had suffered typical ship-strike damage, with a vessel having apparently "T-boned" it at the base of its skull, producing a fractured skull, vertebrae and ribs.

Wynne said the damage from the impact would be similar to a human being getting struck by a train.

(Reporting by Steve Quinn; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Sandra Maler)

Three new plants protected by the U.S. Endangered Species Act

A variety of sunflower found in some Southern states and two other rare plants were designated on Friday as endangered species by the U.S. federal government.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the whorled sunflower, Short’s bladderpod and fleshy-fruit gladecress for protection under the Endangered Species Act because populations of the three are dwindling to critical levels.

The agency blamed the trend on a loss of natural habitats due to construction, damage from off-road vehicles and fluctuating water levels, as well as competition from invasive, non-native plants. A lack of genetic variety and relative scarcity of the plants have made the three species particularly vulnerable to extinction, it said.

"Our goal is not to let anything die out. We do not have all of the knowledge to know what we can lose and what it is there for," said Tom MacKenzie, spokesman for the Southeast Region of U.S. Fish and Wildlife.

The whorled sunflower - sometimes called the giant sunflower - grows in open pastures and along roadsides, mostly in Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee.

A moist prairie plant, it has dwindled due to fire-suppression and agriculture, said Scot Duncan, a biology professor at Birmingham-Southern College and author of Southern Wonder, a book on Southern ecology.

Short's bladderpod, a member of the mustard family found in Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee, lives mostly in craggy outcroppings of dry limestone cliffs and cedar glades.

The gladecress population is limited to the Bankhead National Forest of Alabama, in a place called Indian Tomb Hollow.

"Indian Tomb Hollow is a special place with lots of unique flora and fauna. It is exciting news to see it get the protection it deserves," said Ben Prater, director of conservation for Wild South, a Southeast conservation non-profit, which works in the Bankhead.

The plants will receive final federal designation on Sept. 2.

(Editing By Frank McGurty and Sandra Maler)

India evacuates thousands as Nepal landslide sparks flood fears

Authorities in eastern India began evacuating thousands of villagers on Saturday after efforts to clear a deadly landslide in neighboring Nepal sparked fears of flash floods downstream, government officials said.

The landslide, triggered by heavy rains in Nepal's Sindhupalchowk district, killed at least nine people and buried dozens of homes. More than 100 people are believed missing.

The slide has also created a mud dam blocking the Sunkoshi river, which runs into India's Bihar state as the Kosi river.

Indian officials said water levels were already above the danger mark. They feared that as Nepal blasts through the landslide to clear it, a torrent of water could be unleashed inundating hundreds of Bihar's villages.

"We are repeatedly appealing to villagers settled along the Kosi embankments to flee to safer places as soon as possible," the principal secretary in Bihar's disaster management department, Vyasji, who goes only by one name, told reporters.

"The blasting of blockage in river could result in a 10-metre high wall of water sweeping down Kosi into Bihar which could bring trouble," he added.

The Kosi river remains a key concern for both India and Nepal after it broke its banks in 2008 and changed its course, submerging swathes of land and affecting more than two million people in Bihar. More than 500 people died.

The Nepal army said they had started opening the dam by setting off two controlled blasts and water had started to drain out slowly.

But Indian authorities are taking no chances and have put eight districts under flood alert, and begun evacuations in the districts of Supaul, Madhubani and Saharsa.

Sluice gates at a barrage along the Kosi at the Indo-Nepal border have been opened, rescue teams deployed and over 200 boats sent out to evacuate villagers, said senior officials.

DEATH TOLL MAY RISE

In Nepal, nine bodies were recovered from the debris of dozens of collapsed houses and search and rescue operations were under way.

Police warned the death toll was likely to rise further.

"More than 100 people may still be missing as 50-60 houses are buried according to the accounts of the local people," a police spokesman told Reuters.

Survivors said the mishap happened while they were asleep.

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"Everything started falling all of a sudden. I had not seen such a disaster before," Durga Lal Shrestha, who was injured in the landslide, told Reuters TV from his hospital bed in Kathmandu.

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Television channels showed part of a forested hill that collapsed and blocked the river.

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Witnesses said mud and rocks came crashing down, blocking the river and creating a 3 km-long lake that has inundated part of the Arniko highway that connects Kathmandu with Tibet.

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Residents in downstream villages have also been asked to evacuate as the mud dam could collapse at any time.

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"The landslide has caused huge damage. We cannot make any estimates of the number of deaths now. We are looking for other people who might be trapped," police officer Bharat Bahadur Bohara told Reuters from the site.

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Monsoon rains that start in mid-June and continue through September are crucial for many countries in South Asia. Yet scores of people die every year in landslides and floods.

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Heavy rains in June last year caused rivers and lakes to burst their banks, killing almost 6,000 people in the Indian state of Uttarakhand.

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(Writing by Nita Bhalla; additional reporting by Jatindra Dash in BHUBANESHWAR; Thomson Reuters Foundation correspondent in PATNA; Editing by Malini Menon and Stephen Powell)

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Magnitude 6.0 quake strikes of coast of Japan

A magnitude 6.0 earthquake struck off the coast of Japan's Okinawa island on Sunday, according to the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre.

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The quake struck at a depth of about 6.2 miles, 125 miles north-northeast of Okinawa's capital city of Naha. No tsunami warning was issued.

(Editing by Matt Driskill)

Heavy floods in Bulgaria kill one person, trigger evacuations

Rescue teams evacuated over 500 people overnight from the small Bulgarian town of Mizia after torrential rains caused flooding that claimed at least one casualty, an interior ministry official said on Sunday.

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Rescue teams with boats and helicopters were still evacuating stranded people on Sunday. One man was found dead in his flooded home, said Nikola Nikolov, head of the ministry's fire safety and civil protection unit.

Over 50 houses have collapsed after the Skut River, which runs through the town, burst its banks. Hundreds of houses remain under water. Another town and several villages in the northwestern area, which is close to the Danube, were also hit by floods.

"It was terrible, terrible. The water kept coming and coming. My home is under water. Luckily I have an aunt who lives in the higher parts of the town. I think we will be at least 30 people in that house tonight," Valia Mircheva, a farmer from Mizia, told BTV television.

The rains have ceased, and weather forecasters say they do not expect heavy rain in the next few days.

Floods this summer have killed more than 15 people in Balkan countries Bulgaria and Romania.

Three people drowned in southwestern Romania and another was missing after heavy floods last week, which hit over 250 villages and triggered the evacuation of over 2,000 people.

Around 11 Bulgarians died after a flood wave ripped through the Black Sea city of Varna in June.

In late May, Balkan countries Serbia, Bosnia and Croatia were hit by the heaviest rainfall since records began 120 years ago.

(Reporting By Tsvetelia Tsolova, additional reporting by Radu Marinas in Bucharest; editing by Jane Baird)

Flash flood kills four at local festival in northern Italy

A violent downpour caused a flash flood late on Saturday that swept up dozens attending a local summer festival in northern Italy, killing four men and injuring about 20 others, rescuers and officials said.

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About 100 people had gathered near the banks of a stream in the foothills of the Alps near the town of Refrontolo for the annual gathering when a thunderstorm hit, sending a wall of water and mud into the festival, the fire department said.

"Nobody had ever seen anything like it. There were 2 meters of water. People grabbed onto trees to save themselves," Mirco Lorenzon, a local civil protection official, said in an interview broadcast by SkyTG24 on Sunday.

The storm caused about 50 mudslides and much property damage in the area, Lorenzon said. Pictures and videos posted online showed cars that had been swept away in the flood lying upside-down in the stream or stranded sideways against trees.

"There was an hour-and-a-half of rain so heavy that you couldn't see anything," said Luca Zaia, governor of the Veneto region, during a visit to the site of the disaster on Sunday.

"Within the hour, I will sign papers declaring a state of emergency for the area," Zaia said in a television interview.

Deadly floods and mudslides are not uncommon in Italy. Last November storms in Sardinia caused floods that killed 18 people.

(Reporting by Steve Scherer; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Farming reforms offer hope for Iran's water crisis

As a child, Mohammad Rahmanpour spent his summers swimming in Lake Orumieh in northwestern Iran - then the largest in the Middle East. In less than two decades, the saltwater lake has almost disappeared, leaving behind a hole in the ground.

"My friends and I would go on the top of trees in our neighborhood. We could see the lake clearly from that point," said the 32 year-old farmer who grows wheat and beets.

"Now, there is no water left and our whole ecosystem is messed up," he told Reuters by telephone from his home, which once stood one km (half a mile) from the lakeshore.

Water shortages have long been a problem for countries across the Middle East, where a high birth rate, rising consumption and poor management has strained already scarce resources. But Iran has fared among the worst.

The country of 76 million has survived an eight-year war with Iraq, U.S. sanctions imposed over its disputed nuclear program and violence on its borders. But experts say the main threat it faces today is dwindling water resources that have prompted some cities to consider rationing.

"Water scarcity poses the most severe human security challenge in Iran today," said Gary Lewis, United Nations Resident Coordinator for Iran.

Excessive damming of rivers, bad irrigation practices, drought and climate change have all contributed to Iran's water crisis. On top of this, low water prices encourage wasteful consumption while some farmers and organizations have been accused on stealing precious supplies for their own purposes.

Such factors have combined to drain Lake Orumieh, a UNESCO biosphere reserve that was home to about 200 bird species and 40 kinds of reptile. A few decades ago the lake measured 140 km by 55 km (90 by 35 miles) but now only five percent of its water remains.

"How it happened so fast is an ecological disaster of monumental proportions," said Lewis.

Over the past few months, 12 major cities including Tehran and Shiraz have threatened to implement water rationing should residents fail to cut their use. The Ministry of Energy has called on people to reduce consumption by 20 to 30 percent, but this has fallen on deaf ears.

Water usage increased 10 percent in cities such as Tehran between May and the start of summer in June, the state news agency IRNA quoted city officials as saying.

A PIONEER SEEKS HELP

The cause of the crisis is not in residential use; agriculture accounts for about 90 percent of water consumption, with much of it being used inefficiently.

Iran takes pride in being founder of a sophisticated irrigation system during the first millennium BC. Tunnels called qanats carry water from aquifers in the hills to the fields below, and remain in use today.

"If you linked all of these intricate tunnels, it would stretch around the earth nearly eight times," said Lewis.

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But outside the tunnels, much irrigation water is lost to evaporation, leakage and theft, while farmers persist in using chemical fertilisers which require use of much more water than organic fertilisers.

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Government figures show that only a third of agricultural water use is efficient, say U.N. officials. This inefficient management stretches across Iran and other countries in the region, including neighboring Iraq and Afghanistan where wars make it difficult to tackle environmental issues.

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Major rivers in the cities of Isfahan and Shiraz, and on Iran's border with Afghanistan, have dried up. The depletion of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Iraq has contributed to other environmental problems such as dust and sand storms.

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Historically, the seasonal Sistan wind in eastern Iran and western Afghanistan would cause 120 days of sand and dust storms each year. But due to the drying conditions, their frequency has increased to 220 days, say U.N. experts, leading to respiratory and eye problems among residents.

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SOLUTIONS

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President Hassan Rouhani has identified water as a national security issue, but experts say some solutions offered by government officials may be too costly.

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"Transferring water from the Caspian Sea to Lake Orumieh doesn't really make sense," said Ali Nazaridoust of United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

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With government policies mired in bureaucracy, the U.N. has offered to help. In 2012, the world body launched a pilot program to work with farmers near Lake Orumieh.

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Farmers learned how to make compost, switched to organic-based fertilisers and attended weekly classes on water management which led to a 35 percent drop in consumption.

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The new techniques have also allowed farmers to reduce costs and increase variety of crops from just wheat and beets to add maize, squash, onions and tomatoes.

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"It wasn't difficult," said Rahmanpour, who participated in the pilot program, but he added that some of the farmers had trouble believing the change would make any difference.

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"They thought the U.N. was just talk. But, we tested them out and they help our land and provide benefits for our soil," he said. Improved soil conditions will help to prevent salt particles from the dried out basin being blown to adjacent crop lands, slowly degrading the quality of farmers' soil.

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The U.N. has since expanded the program to 41 other villages with about 13,000 farmers benefiting from it. In May, the Japanese government donated $1 million to save Lake Orumieh.

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"God willing, not just my children, but I will see Lake Orumieh filled again," said Rahmanpour.

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(Editing by Sami Aboudi, David Stamp and Peter Graff)

More than 400,000 Indians face risk of flooding after Nepal landslide

More than 400,000 people in eastern India face the risk of flooding after a landslide that killed at least nine people in neighboring Nepal, an Indian government official said on Sunday, as thousands were being evacuated.

The landslide triggered by heavy rains has left scores of people missing and has created a mud dam blocking the Sunkoshi river, which runs into India's Bihar state as the Kosi river.

The fear is that as Nepal tries to blast its way through the landslide to clear it, it will unleash a torrent of water across densely populated Bihar.

Around 425,000 people could be affected by the floods and authorities have already evacuated 44,000 across seven districts of Bihar, said Ashok Kumar, an officer at the state's disaster management unit.

"We are shifting people from the area where the water is expected to reach," Kumar said. He added that 117 relief camps have been set up in the region so far.

In some places the authorities have had to force people to leave their homes, said S.S. Guleria, deputy inspector general at the National Disaster Response Force.

"Many are unwilling to leave their homes, but we are trying to evacuate them by force, keeping in view the impending troubles," Guleria said.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is in Kathmandu to speed up negotiations on a power trade pact, has expressed concern over the situation in Bihar and said all possible assistance should be made available.

The home ministry said in a statement that while the amount of water that had flowed downstream so far was not alarming, the flow could increase suddenly at any time.

Indian government officials said on Saturday that water levels were already above the danger mark.

SLIM SURVIVAL CHANCE

Nepal police spokesman, Ganesh K.C. said 150 people were still missing after the landslide that struck Sindhupalchowk district early on Saturday. Around 40 people were rescued, but the chances of finding more survivors were fading.

Gopal Prasad Parajuli, governor of Nepal's Sindhupalchowk, said further small earth slips had been recorded after the massive landslide, hampering rescue and search operations.

Army technicians were preparing to set off another controlled blast to drain more water off of the mud dam on Sunday. They carried out two such blasts on Saturday.

"We are very cautiously and slowly doing that to avoid sudden and big flow of water," army spokesman Jagadish Pokharel said.

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The Kosi river has been a problem for both India and Nepal after it broke its banks in 2008 and changed its course, submerging swathes of land, affecting more than 2 million people in Bihar and killing more than 500.

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Monsoon rains are crucial for farm-dependent India and Nepal, but scores of people die every year in landslides and floods caused by heavy downpours.

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Heavy rains in June last year inundated towns and villages and killed thousands in the Indian state of Uttarakhand and dozens more in the neighboring district of Darchula in west Nepal.

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(Writing by Malini Menon; additional reporting by Thomson Reuters Foundation correspondent in PATNA; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani and Hugh Lawson)

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Some 400,000 in Ohio without drinking water, tests show lower toxin levels

Health authorities tested water for toxins in Toledo, Ohio, on Sunday as some 400,000 people remained without safe drinking water for a second day following the discovery of high toxin levels from algae on Lake Erie.

Toledo Mayor D. Michael Collins said some sampling showed decreased toxin levels but results from further tests would not be known until later in the day. The city is waiting on water samples being analyzed at Environmental Protection Agency labs in Cincinnati.

"All I can tell you is that everything is trending in a very positive direction," Collins told reporters, but he added that he could not predict when water would be safe to drink.

About 500,000 people get water from the contaminated source but about 100,000 residents of some communities have backup water supply systems, said city of Toledo spokeswoman Lisa Ward.

Toledo Public Utilities Director Edward Moore said a plan is in place to swiftly flush the system of contaminated water once the water supply is deemed safe. Residents will be advised how long to run water in their homes to clear pipes of contaminated water.

Health officials sent samples to several laboratories after finding Lake Erie, which provides the bulk of the area's drinking water, may have been affected by a "harmful algal bloom," Ohio Environmental Protection Agency spokeswoman Heidi Griesmer said.

Ohio Governor John Kasich declared a state of emergency on Saturday for the state's fourth-largest city and surrounding counties. The city and other agencies have established sites where bottled water is being distributed free to the public.

"Everybody needs to stay cool and calm," Kasich told a news conference on Sunday. "We’re going to learn from this and make improvements."

SEEKING SAFE WATER 

Many residents drove to other states in search of fresh water as stores rapidly sold out of bottled water.

Jeff Hauter of Toledo drove to a Walmart in suburban Detroit where he bought 18 gallons and four cases of water. He said he ran into others from the Toledo area loading up their vehicles.

Algal blooms in Lake Erie are fairly common, typically in the summer, state emergency operations spokesman Chris Abbruzzese said. Potentially dangerous algal blooms, or rapid increases in algae levels, are caused by high amounts of nitrogen and phosphorous.

Those nutrients can come from runoff of excessively fertilized fields and lawns or from malfunctioning septic systems or livestock pens, city officials said.

Drinking the contaminated water can affect the liver and cause diarrhea, nausea, numbness or dizziness, officials said. Boiling will not destroy the toxins.

The water should not be used for drinking, making infant formula or ice, brushing teeth or preparing food, the governor's office said. It also should not be given to pets, but hand washing is safe and adults can shower in it, officials said.

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In response to the Toledo crisis, Chicago began additional precautionary testing on Lake Michigan water, a city spokeswoman said.

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(Reporting by George Tanber in Toledo, Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles, Kevin Murphy in Kansas City and Mary Wisniewski in Chicago; Writing by Curtis Skinner and Kevin Murphy; Editing by Jane Baird, Tom Heneghan and Mohammad Zargham)

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At least 367 dead after quake hits southwest China

A magnitude 6.3 earthquake struck southwestern China on Sunday, killing at least 367 people and leaving 1,881 injured in a remote area of Yunnan province, and causing thousands of buildings, including a school, to collapse.

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The U.S. Geological Survey said the quake registered at a shallow depth of less than 1 mile (1.6 km). Chinese state media said it was felt most strongly in Yunnan as well as in the neighboring provinces of Guizhou and Sichuan.

The official Xinhua news agency said the epicenter was in Longtoushan town in Yunnan's mountainous Ludian county.

Communications have been seriously affected and rescuers have begun arriving on the scene, the report said.

Pictures posted online by state media showed troops stretchering people away and cars damaged by fallen bricks.

Many people rushed out of buildings onto the street after the quake hit, electricity supplies were cut and at least one school collapsed, Xinhua added, with more than 12,000 houses having collapsed and 30,000 sustaining damage.

Ludian resident Ma Liya told Xinhua the streets were like a "battlefield after bombardment".

The government is sending 2,000 tents, 3,000 folding beds, 3,000 quilts and 3,000 coats to the disaster zone, where heavy rain forecast for the coming days will add to the misery, the report said.

Ludian is home to some 265,900 people, Xinhua added.

This region of China is frequently struck by quakes, with one killing more than 1,400 in the same part of Yunnan in 1974.

A quake in Sichuan in 2008 killed almost 70,000 people.

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Matt Driskill and Hugh Lawson)



At least 34 killed in stampede at Guinea beach concert

At least 34 people, including several children, were killed in a stampede at a beachside rap concert celebrating the end of Ramadan in Guinea's capital Conakry, medical sources said on Wednesday.

Hundreds of people gathered at the Donka hospital in predominantly Muslim Guinea's capital to visit the injured and identify the dead.

A Reuters reporter saw the bodies of three children among the dead, while witnesses put the number at around 10.

"There are currently 34 bodies in the morgue. The list of injured keeps growing," a medical source told Reuters, requesting anonymity. "The oldest among them can't be more than 20. There are young girls among them," he said.

The presidency declared a week of mourning. The head of a government agency for entertainment was removed from his post following the incident overnight, the presidency added.

Witnesses said the event was attended by up to 10,000 people, mostly children and young people, who came to see popular local rap groups 'Banlieuzart' and 'Instinct Killers'.

Adama Bah, a promoter who attended the event in the Ratoma neighborhood, said it was overcrowded and that he saw only about a dozen police officers on the site.

"When I saw that crowd, with all the people jostling, some children choking, I understood that there would be a tragedy and I told the organizers, who weren't listening to me," said Bah.

The event's promoter Abdoulaye Mbaye did not respond to several attempts to contact him by telephone.

A senior police source said that Mbaye was called into the station on Wednesday alongside two other people involved in the event.

In January, six youths were killed on another beach in Conakry when a bridge collapsed during New Year's celebrations. Conakry's beaches are small compared to other regional capitals like Dakar and Freetown and entrances and exits are often narrow.

The stampede came at a time when health workers are stretched by an outbreak of Ebola. The deadly tropical virus was first detected in the poor, mineral-rich West African country in February and has since spread to Liberia and Sierra Leone, killing more than 670 people, according to the World Health Organization.

(Writing by Emma Farge; Editing by Janet Lawrence and Hugh Lawson)

5 Seconds of Summer debut album tops Billboard 200 chart

Australian pop rock group 5 Seconds of Summer scored one of the year's biggest debuts on the weekly Billboard 200 chart on Wednesday, cementing its status as the latest boy band to conquer the United States.

5 Seconds of Summer's debut self-titled album sold 259,000 copies in its first week, according to figures from Nielsen SoundScan. It became the third most-streamed album on music platform Spotify, with more than 4.4 million streams last week according to the platform.

For 2014, the album's first-week sales trailed only Coldplay's "Ghost Stories," which debuted with 383,000 copies in May and Eric Church's "The Outsiders," which opened with 288,000 in February.

5 Seconds of Summer, formed by Luke Hemmings, Calum Hood, Ashton Irwin and Michael Clifford, built a following as an opening act for British boy band One Direction over the past year. This year, its popularity grew with the single "She's So Perfect," which is on the debut album.

Disney's "Frozen" climbed three spots to No. 2 with sales of 37,000 in its 35th week on the chart, while last week's chart-topper, parody singer "Weird Al" Yankovich's "Mandatory Fun," dropped to No. 3 this week, selling 33,000 copies.

Only two other new entries made the top 10 of the Billboard 200 chart this week. Rapper Common's "Nobody's Smiling" came in at No. 6 and metal band Crown the Empire clocked in at No. 7 with "The Resistance: Rise of the Runaways."

For the week ending July 27, overall album sales totaled 4.3 million units, down 9 percent from the comparable week in 2013, Billboard said. So far this year, album sales have reached 137.8 million, down 15 percent from a year earlier.

(Reporting by Piya Sinha-Roy; Editing by Mary Milliken and David Gregorio)


Book Talk: Paull's 'The Bees' looks at life inside the hive

Three years ago playwright Laline Paull began to notice bees in her garden in Sussex, southeast England. Her interest was inspired by the death of a beekeeping friend.

“Angie had breast cancer, and she wasn’t going to make it. I was awed at her graciousness in the face of her terror and when she died, in order to keep that feeling of how wonderful she was, I started reading about bees. She was gone but the bees were not gone.”

The more Paull read the more inspired she was.

“Everything I read made me think 'Wow, they do that? They fly how far? It takes how many bees their whole lives to make a teaspoon of honey?'”

The result is her debut novel, "The Bees", a story of intense drama within a hive, framed by a biological integrity that intrigues and informs.

Through the protagonist Flora we learn of the hive mind, the blissful scent of mother love, nectar gathering, and encroaching sickness. The pampered drones (male bees) are sketched with expert humor as the females ‘worship to his maleness’, before disaster strikes.

Paull studied English at Oxford, screenwriting in Los Angeles and theater in London. She is a member of BAFTA and the Writer’s Guild of America. She spoke to Reuters about "The Bees":

Q: Do you keep bees yourself?

A: No. I would like to one day.

Q: How much authenticity is there in the social organization of the beehive?

A: The all-female society was fascinating: The queen is the mother of all. The mother-love scent is real. If the queen is ailing, the bees will make new queen cells around the edge as if they are hiding them. Then the first princess out will pipe out a war cry, she will seek the others and kill them in a fight to the death. It's brutal nature, 'red in tooth and claw'.

The drones (male bees) are so comic in an affectionate way. Well, a lot of women feel that about a lot of men. I thought that would be poignant. That is what the human animal is like: You don't realize that it's all going to come to an end.

Q: Were your intended readers adults?

A: I just wanted to write a good story, I was fascinated by the drama of bee life, the violence, the beauty and the poetry that I saw there.

Q: Is there a deeper message – about preserving bees?

A: As I went more deeply into the research I was confronted by the plight of bees as pollinators and the use of pesticides. It's a strong drama underpinned by the truth, and every time I was wondering which way to go in the narrative I went back to the real biology of the hive. Colony collapse disorder is endemic now, in parts of China people are pollinating by hand.

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Q: Have you been surprised by the success of your book?

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A: Yes. So thrilled it seems to have struck a chord. I'm getting tweets from 10-year-olds and people in their 80s, and even beekeepers saying how much they enjoyed it. That's really high praise.

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Q: You have a background in screenwriting, and theater – why fiction for this story?

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A: Fiction is always where I was headed. The bar is so high, but a good book is such a wonderful thing, so pure between you and the reader.

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Q: Can you see it being made into a film?

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A: I don't know. It would have to be somebody pretty visionary to avoid the trap of making it cutesy: Please God no love story between Flora and the drones. I almost don’t dare to think of it.

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Q: If you had to liken "The Bees" to another book, what would it be?

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A: That's a dangerous question. I love Aldous Huxley, I love George Orwell - that sense of alienation and somebody struggling to make sense of the world.

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Q: Will you continue with this nature theme in your next book?

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A: Yes. I've always been interested in the natural world and it gave me huge pleasure as a child. I could be absorbed for hours by sticklebacks in a jar; that sounds like such a bucolic pleasure now. Being able to immerse myself in research about the natural world is such a joy. Nature is amazing.

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(Editing by Michael Roddy and Hugh Lawson)

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Elusive Van Morrison headlines 50th Cambridge Folk Festival

When Cambridge City Council decided to hold a music festival in the historic English university town back in 1964, few expected it to be going strong 50 years later.

But this year the Cambridge Folk Festival is celebrating its golden anniversary in style with headliner Van Morrison - who had to be courted for years before he agreed to attend - as well as Roseanne Cash and Sinead O'Connor.

There also will be time for folksy pursuits like rapper dancing, which is a dance using a short sword, and yarnbombing - the graffiti version of knitting.

It's this eclectic approach that keeps people coming back year after year to the festival, which runs from July 31 to Aug 3. And although it has evolved and expanded since the 1960s, it is still held at the compact Cherry Hinton Hall site just outside town.

"We have withstood the pressure to expand the festival or move it to a larger site because we appreciate the intimacy of the performance is what people really like – the site and the size of the marquees have been integral to our success," said Eddie Barcan, who has run the festival since 1993.

This year Barcan is particularly pleased to have booked the 68-year-old Morrison, who has never played the festival before, despite repeated invitations. "I've tried many times in the past," Barcan said. "You just keep chipping away."

Barcan took up the baton after the death of local firefighter Ken Woollard, who would organize the early festivals from a public phone box outside Cambridge Fire Station. In his first year he booked The Watersons, Peggy Seeger and a young Paul Simon, who was a late addition to the bill.

The festival quickly developed a reputation for offering everything from traditional British, Irish and American folk music to cajun, zydeco, klezmer, roots and blues.

In later years it has attracted more popular artists, while maintaining a good track record for spotting talent early.

Folk stalwarts Richard Thompson, plus Eliza and Martin Carthy, who are part of the Waterson clan, will also be performing. The Newcastle Kingsmen Sword Dancers will entertain the crowd with some old school rapper dancing.

To celebrate the golden anniversary, 70-year-old John Holder, who has sketched artists from the side of the stage down the years, has created a special limited edition poster.

A compilation album featuring 50 of the best live tracks recorded at the event is also planned and festival-goers have been encouraged to knit a granny square for a giant woolly banner to be assembled on site.

GOOD TRADITION

In February the festival's contribution to folk music was recognized with a BBC Radio 2 Good Tradition Award, collected by Barcan and Joan Woollard, Ken's widow, at a ceremony in the Royal Albert Hall.

"There was a lovely, warm reaction on the night," Barcan said. "I didn't expect it to be so well-received by the audience – it was a very proud moment."

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Still run by the council, the festival is regarded fondly because it strives to provide the best amenities and biggest names without gouging fans.

_1">

But this could be the last year the festival appears in its current guise. The council is looking to establish a charitable trust to run it.

_2">

Reflecting on his long tenure at the helm, Barcan says some of his fondest memories date from 2002, despite heavy rain. "The year Joe Strummer played we had terrible weather, probably the worst mud I've ever seen at the site," he said.

_3">

Barcan recalls the ex-Clash vocalist creating an "amicable chaos" around him: "He spent a lot of the day hanging out with the site crew, misdirecting delivery drivers".

_4">

Rain or shine, organizers are determined this year will be one to remember, with some surprise performances planned before Morrison closes out the festival on Sunday night.

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(Reporting by Claire Milhench; Editing by Michael Roddy and Larry King)

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Pioneer of cinema vérité director Robert L. Drew dies at 90

Award-winning American filmmaker Robert L. Drew, a pioneer of the cinema vérité documentary style, died on Wednesday in Sharon, Connecticut at the age of 90, his family said.

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Drew, who made more than 100 films on social issues, politics and the arts during a career that spanned more than five decades, died peacefully surrounded by children and friends.

"He had been declining for some time and it was not completely unexpected," his son, Thatcher Drew, said.

Drew, a former correspondent and editor at Life Magazine and a fighter pilot during World War Two, helped to develop cinema vérité, a direct type of observational or fly on the wall filming to capture reality.

He also founded the documentary film company Drew Associates in the early 1960s. Many of his films were shown on television and screened at international film festivals.

"He believed in the pure form of cinema vérité. It was a strict code that allowed no directing of subjects, no set up shots and no on-camera narrator or correspondent," his son explained.

Along with his innovative directing techniques, Drew also developed lightweight cameras. His film "Primary," which followed John F. Kenney and Hubert Humphrey during the 1960 Wisconsin presidential primary, was the first in which a sync-sound motion picture camera was used.

His most well-know films include "The Chair," about a criminal who finds redemption, and "Faces of November," a short about Kennedy's funeral following his assassination in 1963, which won a prize at the Venice Film Festival.

Drew also won an Emmy in 1969 for the ballet documentary "Man Who Dances." His last film, 2005's "From Two Men and a War," in which he recounted his war experiences and friendship with war correspondent Ernie Pyle, was shown at the Tribeca Film Festival.

"He was deeply involved in every aspect of his craft and was obsessed with it till the end," his son said.

Two of Drew's films are in the Library of Congress' National Film Registry.

Drew is survived by three children and three grandchildren. His wife, Anne, a partner in their filmmaking, died in 2012.

(Reportiing by Patricia Reaney,; Mary Milliken; editing by Andrew Hay)

Night at the museum: U.S. adults embrace art, science sleepovers

Kids have been sleeping overnight in museums across the country for years, dozing off among live sharks and dinosaur bones. Now adults are getting to join the fun.

The American Museum of Natural History is hosting its first adults-only sleepover this week, with a champagne reception, live jazz and a three-course dinner. Guests will spend the night in sleeping bags beneath the iconic 94-foot-long blue whale suspended in the cavernous Milstein Hall of Ocean Life.

The event sold out in three hours, organizers said.

Adults-only overnights are rather rare, yet experts say they can be an excellent and innovative way for U.S. museums to attract new supporters.

"Every museum is looking for a new way to engage different demographics," said Paul Johnson, a fund-raising consultant.

"It's a way to engage people, get people in the door who may not otherwise come," he said. "It's about cultivating future audiences and future donors."

Scores of museums offer overnights for children, popularized by the children's tales "From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler" about runaways hiding in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the book and movie "Night at the Museum," about a watchman who discovers exhibits come to life after visitors leave.

Children taking part in overnight programs can solve crimes at the Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh, explore caves at the Cincinnati Museum Center, watch sharks at the Aquarium of the Bay in San Francisco and snooze inside a submarine at the Wisconsin Maritime Museum.

At the Museum of Natural History, some 62,000 children have participated in overnight events since they began in 2006, said Brad Harris, senior director of visitor services.

About 175 people are scheduled to attend the adult event.

"Obviously we hit on something people want to do," Harris said.

DREAMING OF ART

At New York's Rubin Museum of Art, adults can attend a "Dream-Over," sleeping under works of art and having their dreams interpreted when they awake.

New Yorker Carolyn Robbins attended a recent "Dream-Over" at the Rubin, which houses collections from Himalayan Asia, and said it left her wanting more.

"I would actually be interested in doing it at other museums because it's an incredible opportunity," she said. "There's a lot that happens when you're asleep. You gain knowledge in a different way than when you are awake."

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And a museum with a crowd is incomparable, she said.

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"Being there when it's quiet and dimly lit is a completely different experience," she said.

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That's what happens at the Georgia Aquarium, where adult sleepovers provide the chance to commune with residents that are more active at night, said Kelli Edwards, assistant manager of interpretive programs.

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The giant Pacific octopus is nocturnal and gets busy, as do the whale sharks, she said. The four beluga whales are more prone to come to the windows they share with visitors and blow ring bubbles, she said.

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The overnights are not money makers, museums say. The $108 price at the Rubin covers planning, security and overtime, the museum said. The $375 event at the Museum of Natural History is not out of line with a meal, music and a hotel stay in New York City.

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The Georgia Aquarium charges $99.95 For an overnight.

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"The reason behind it is exposure," Edwards said. "Our mission is to be the most engaging experience, not focused on money but on the guests' experience."

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(Editing by Jill Serjeant and Bill Trott)

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Elusive Van Morrison headlines 50th Cambridge Folk Festival

When Cambridge City Council decided to hold a music festival in the historic English university town back in 1964, few expected it to be going strong 50 years later.

But this year the Cambridge Folk Festival is celebrating its golden anniversary in style with headliner Van Morrison - who had to be courted for years before he agreed to attend - as well as Roseanne Cash and Sinead O'Connor.

There also will be time for folksy pursuits like rapper dancing, which is a dance using a short sword, and yarnbombing - the graffiti version of knitting.

It's this eclectic approach that keeps people coming back year after year to the festival, which runs from July 31 to Aug 3. And although it has evolved and expanded since the 1960s, it is still held at the compact Cherry Hinton Hall site just outside town.

"We have withstood the pressure to expand the festival or move it to a larger site because we appreciate the intimacy of the performance is what people really like – the site and the size of the marquees have been integral to our success," said Eddie Barcan, who has run the festival since 1993.

This year Barcan is particularly pleased to have booked the 68-year-old Morrison, who has never played the festival before, despite repeated invitations. "I've tried many times in the past," Barcan said. "You just keep chipping away."

Barcan took up the baton after the death of local firefighter Ken Woollard, who would organise the early festivals from a public phone box outside Cambridge Fire Station. In his first year he booked The Watersons, Peggy Seeger and a young Paul Simon, who was a late addition to the bill.

The festival quickly developed a reputation for offering everything from traditional British, Irish and American folk music to cajun, zydeco, klezmer, roots and blues.

In later years it has attracted more popular artists, while maintaining a good track record for spotting talent early.

Folk stalwarts Richard Thompson, plus Eliza and Martin Carthy, who are part of the Waterson clan, will also be performing. The Newcastle Kingsmen Sword Dancers will entertain the crowd with some old school rapper dancing.

To celebrate the golden anniversary, 70-year-old John Holder, who has sketched artists from the side of the stage down the years, has created a special limited edition poster.

A compilation album featuring 50 of the best live tracks recorded at the event is also planned and festival-goers have been encouraged to knit a granny square for a giant woolly banner to be assembled on site.

GOOD TRADITION

In February the festival's contribution to folk music was recognised with a BBC Radio 2 Good Tradition Award, collected by Barcan and Joan Woollard, Ken's widow, at a ceremony in the Royal Albert Hall.

"There was a lovely, warm reaction on the night," Barcan said. "I didn't expect it to be so well-received by the audience – it was a very proud moment."

_0">

Still run by the council, the festival is regarded fondly because it strives to provide the best amenities and biggest names without gouging fans.

_1">

But this could be the last year the festival appears in its current guise. The council is looking to establish a charitable trust to run it.

_2">

Reflecting on his long tenure at the helm, Barcan says some of his fondest memories date from 2002, despite heavy rain. "The year Joe Strummer played we had terrible weather, probably the worst mud I've ever seen at the site," he said.

_3">

Barcan recalls the ex-Clash vocalist creating an "amicable chaos" around him: "He spent a lot of the day hanging out with the site crew, misdirecting delivery drivers".

_4">

Rain or shine, organisers are determined this year will be one to remember, with some surprise performances planned before Morrison closes out the festival on Sunday night.

_5">

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(This refiled version of the story removes extraneous word to identifying slug, not text change).

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(Reporting by Claire Milhench; Editing by Michael Roddy and Larry King)

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