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CUBA

Payment gap has businesses in limbo

HAVANA | Many of Cuba’s foreign business partners still have money stuck in state-run banks and do not know when they will get it, 18 months after the accounts were frozen by the cash-strapped Cuban government.

The issue is one of several pressing financial problems that are straining Cuba’s business ties, in a climate darkened by the government’s unwillingness to disclose key information about its economic condition.

Hit by the international financial crisis, U.S. scrutiny of its finances, damaging hurricanes and chronic inefficiencies, the communist-run nation failed to make some debt payments on schedule beginning in 2008, then froze up to $1 billion in the accounts of 600 foreign suppliers by the start of 2009.

It also delayed payments to some joint-venture partners and did not honor some commercial paper that came due thereafter.

State-run banks have offered to pay back the frozen accounts at 2 percent annual interest over five years, but sources said progress has been slow.

SUDAN

‘Arms’ said to be mining explosives

KHARTOUM | Sudanese officials said Wednesday that a cargo ship seized by Cyprus suspected of trying to deliver weapons to Sudan in contravention of a U.N. embargo has explosives onboard for a gold-mining firm.

“The boat contains explosives destined for Port Sudan, for mining firm Ariab, which needs them to work a gold mine,” said Abdel Baqi al-Gilani, Sudan’s minister responsible for mining.

On Tuesday, Cyprus said it it placed the cargo ship Santiago, anchored off the southern city of Limassol, under police guard with a suspected military cargo that would contravene a 2004 U.N. embargo on arms sales and deliveries to Sudan.

BRAZIL

Search on for 600 missing in floods

RIO DE JANEIRO | Rescuers searched Wednesday for 600 people declared missing after torrential floods ripped through cities in northeastern Brazil. The death toll rose to 44 after three bodies were found overnight.

The easing of rains gave soldiers and other rescuers the chance to reach some isolated towns by boat and helicopter. Heavy machinery was used to remove destroyed homes, while search dogs scoured areas where survivors or more bodies might be found, according to the civil defense department of Alagoas state.

A fire department spokeswoman in Maceio, the capital of Alagoas, said there were no reports of survivors found - but also nothing yet to indicate the missing were dead.

FRANCE

Council of Europe hits veil bans

STRASBOURG | The Council of Europe human rights watchdog said on Wednesday it opposed an all-out ban on full-face veils, under consideration by some European states, but also urged Muslims to reject customs that deny women equal rights.

The council’s Parliamentary Assembly unanimously passed a resolution saying all-out bans on full veils in public would deny a basic right to women who wanted to cover their faces.

It qualified that right by saying veils, also known as burqas and niqabs, could be banned when public security or professional obligations required women to show their faces.

France, Belgium and Spain are considering a ban on full-face veils in public and may outlaw them later this year. The council’s resolution has no legal weight against national laws.

CANADA

Magnitude 5.0 quake rattles buildings

TORONTO | A magnitude 5.0 earthquake struck at the Ontario-Quebec border region of Canada on Wednesday, shaking homes and businesses from Toronto to the states of New York and Michigan, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

There were no immediate reports of injuries or damage.

The midday quake was was also felt in Vermont.

JAMAICA

Reputed drug kingpin arrested

KINGSTON | Hunted by security forces across Jamaica, reputed drug baron Christopher “Dudus” Coke sought out a preacher’s advice and tried to turn himself in to U.S. marshals. He was caught by police at a highway checkpoint before he could get there.

Now, Jamaica’s top police officer is appealing for cool heads, urging Mr. Coke’s gangland supporters to allow the law to take its course following his arrest Tuesday. Last month, fighting between security forces and gunmen loyal to the man dubbed by U.S. authorities as one of the world’s most dangerous drug lords killed 76 people.

The 42-year-old Mr. Coke, who faces trial in New York on drug-trafficking and gun-running charges, is said to fear suffering the same fate as his father, a gang leader who died in a prison fire in 1992 while awaiting extradition to the U.S. on drug charges.

Mr. Coke is expected to make his first court appearance within 48 hours, Information Minister Daryl Vaz said Wednesday.

MONACO

Prince to marry former Olympian

PARIS | Prince Albert of Monaco is engaged to marry Charlene Wittstock, a former Olympic swimmer for South Africa, a union that will give this wealthy Mediterranean principality its first crown princess since American Grace Kelly died in 1982.

The palace announced the engagement of “His Serene Highness,” 52, and Miss Wittstock, 32, who also worked as a schoolteacher before moving to Monaco.

The statement Wednesday did not indicate a planned wedding date, but put to rest months of speculation that the two longtime companions would tie the knot.

From wire dispatches and staff reports

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