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Friday, May 30, 2003

Powerful countries will try to heal rifts WASHINGTON — Even after pledges of reconciliation, this year's economic summit of some of the world's most powerful countries promises to be one of the most unusual.

The Iraq war exposed a big rift among trans-Atlantic allies. And while leaders say they will seek agreement on boosting a sluggish global economy, fighting AIDS and promoting Middle East peace, President Bush's decision to leave early will be a sharp reminder of remaining differences.

France, Germany, Russia and Canada — the four Group of Eight summit countries that opposed the war — have all sought in recent days to heal the divisions. Their leaders insist they are looking forward to a productive three days of talks in Evian, a French alpine spa.

In an interview with foreign journalists, Bush said the summit provided an opportunity for him to talk with leaders "whether they are in agreement with the United States or have differences."

New rules designed to kill federal jobs WASHINGTON — About 850,000 government jobs will be opened to private companies under new rules Thursday that encourage competition to replace federal workers who perform tasks such as giving weather reports to private pilots, fixing computers and taking money and tickets at national parks.

Democrats and labor unions see the Bush administration changes as union-busting and political favoritism, and they pointed to problems at NASA as a red flag.

The procurement rules are among many revisions the administration is undertaking that do not require congressional approval. Officials are rewriting rules that determine which workers are entitled to overtime pay. They also are acting to allow religious groups that receive government funds to discriminate in hiring based on religion.

Nearly half of the 1.8 million civilian government work force performs tasks that duplicate work in the private sector, the administration says. President Bush wants to let companies bid to provide that work, with at least 15 percent opened to competition by Oct. 31.

Study: Heavy smokers develop poor memories WASHINGTON — Another study suggests smoking is bad for your brain: Researchers tracking the health of almost 2,000 British adults found heavy smokers had poorer memories in middle age.

People in the British study are in their 50s, far too young to know if the memory decline will translate into dementia when they're elderly.

But testing so far suggests that heavy smokers who survive smoking's bigger threats — lung cancer and heart disease — into old age may be at risk of serious cognitive decline, the researchers report Thursday in the American Journal of Public Health.

Other research already has labeled smoking a risk factor for dementia. One cause of dementia is restricted blood flow in the brain, and smoking is linked to narrowed arteries and silent mini-strokes that choke that blood supply.

Heavy smoking — more than 20 cigarettes a day — was associated with faster declines in verbal memory and visual speed, although the declines were small, concluded researchers from University College London.

Student loan interest rates to hit record low WASHINGTON — Interest rates on college student loans will drop to their lowest levels ever this summer, the Education Department said.

The rates will fall from 4.06 to 3.42 percent on July 1, the lowest since the program began in 1965, the department announced Wednesday. The new rate applies to annually adjusted loans issued beginning in 1988.

For students still in school, in their six-month grace period after graduation or in deferment, the rate will be even lower: 2.82 percent. The Parent Loan for Undergraduate Students will be reset at a new rate of 4.22 percent.

"Record low loan interest rates may make the difference for many students considering whether to pursue post-secondary education," Education Secretary Rod Paige said in a written statement.

Banks ordered to freeze assets of Arabic charity WASHINGTON — The Bush administration on Thursday ordered U.S. banks to freeze the financial assets of an Arabic charity suspected of funneling money to the militant Islamic group Hamas.

The action against Al-Aqsa Foundation was taken by the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control, and comes on the same day the British government ordered financial institutions there to freeze the group's assets.

The foundation has offices in Europe and other countries, but its does not have branches in the United States, Treasury officials said.

The Treasury Department designated the foundation a specially designated global terrorist entity, meaning any financial assets belonging to the group in the United States are blocked and dealings with the group are banned.

"By designating the Al-Aqsa Foundation, we have deprived the Hamas terrorist organization of a vital source of funding and have shut off yet another pipeline of money financing terror," Treasury Secretary John Snow said.

Treasury officials did not provide an estimate of how much money was diverted from the foundation to Hamas, but they believed it was a significant amount.

The action is the latest by the administration against terrorist financiers and is part of the U.S. fight against terrorism.

Although the United States is taking action against the foundation for allegedly helping to bankroll Hamas, the government has suspicions the foundation may be linked to other groups that have supported terrorism.

"We think there are elements of this operation linked to al-Qaida," said Juan Zarate, the Treasury's deputy assistant secretary of terrorist financing and financial crimes.

The Treasury said the foundation has offices in countries, including Belgium, Sweden, Pakistan, South Africa and Yemen. The foundation's headquarters were in Aachen, Germany, but that location has been shut down, Zarate said.

Swedish authorities are investigating the foundation but have not frozen the group's assets, governmental officials there said Thursday.

It was not immediately known whether the foundation has any assets in the United States. The process of checking bank accounts usually takes around a week.

Roughly $137 million in assets belonging to al-Qaida and other terrorist groups, have been blocked worldwide since the Sept. 11 , 2001, terror attacks.