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   BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian activists say President Bashar Assad's forces are pressing on with a military offensive in the rebel-held eastern Damascus suburbs where the opposition says a chemical weapons attack killed over 100 people.

   The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says it had no word on casualties in Thursday's bombing of eastern Ghouta.

   The government has denied as "absolutely baseless" allegations it used chemical weapons in artillery barrages there on Wednesday.

   The U.S., Britain and France have demanded that a team of U.N. experts already in the country be granted immediate access to investigate the site.

   Opposition figures and activists have reported widely varying death tolls, from 136 to as high as 1,300. But even the most conservative tally would make it the deadliest alleged chemical attack in Syria's civil war.

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   SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea on Thursday accepted South Korea's request that this week's talks on reuniting families separated by war be held at a border village, Seoul officials said, the latest in a series of conciliatory gestures Pyongyang has recently taken.

   North Korea appears to be increasingly open to reducing the tensions marked by a North Korean nuclear test, war threats and annual military drills by Seoul and Washington. The Koreas agreed last week to move toward reopening a jointly run factory park closed since April, and North Korea's criticism of U.S.-South Korean training exercises this week was milder in tone than its statements on past drills.

   North Korea agreed to hold talks on Friday on the southern side of the border village of Panmunjom as South Korea proposed, South Korean Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Hyung-suk told reporters Thursday, according to his office. Pyongyang had earlier proposed meeting at Diamond Mountain, a scenic site in North Korea.

   North Korea also proposed another set of talks between late August and early September on resuming lucrative jointly run tours to Diamond Mountain, according to the ministry. South Korea proposed holding talks on the mountain tours on Sept. 25 in response to North Korea's earlier proposal to meet on Thursday.

   "North Korea once again showed it would continue the mood of dialogue .... with South Korea," said Lim Eul Chul, a professor at South Korea's Kyungnam University. "North Korea is believed to have determined that reunions of separated families would be helpful for a resumption of Diamond Mountain tours."

   The mountain tours had provided a legitimate source of hard currency to North Korea before they were suspended after a 2008 shooting death of a South Korean tourist in the resort.

   The president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Peter Maurer, is visiting the two Koreas to discuss the family reunion and other humanitarian issues. Maurer arrived in Pyongyang for a four-day trip and is to travel on to Seoul on Sunday after a visit to China.

   The ICRC has had a permanent presence in North Korea for about 10 years. Maurer is the group's first president to make a combined visit to both countries on the Korean peninsula in 21 years, it said in a statement.

   Family reunions were a key inter-Korean cooperation project during a period of thawed relations between 2000 and 2010, but they have not been held for three years. About 22,000 Koreans were able to meet in that time. The families were separated by the 1950-53 Korean War, when there were huge movements of refugees between North and South Korea.

   But analysts say the North often follows provocations and threats with a charm offensive meant to win aid. A similar proposal on the reunions in July fizzled.

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GRANTS PASS, Ore. (AP) - Running out of money to fight wildfires at the peak of the season, the U.S. Forest Service is diverting $600 million from timber, recreation and other areas to fill the gap.

The nation's top wildfire-fighting agency was down to $50 million after spending $967 million so far this year, Forest Service spokesman Larry Chambers said Wednesday in an email.

Wildfire spending by other federal agencies takes the total to $1.2 billion.

Chambers says the $50 million the Forest Service has left is typically enough to pay for just a few days of fighting fires when the nation is at its top wildfire preparedness level, which went into effect Tuesday.

There are 51 large uncontained fires burning across the nation, making it tough to meet demands for fire crews and equipment.

Read more...

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