Briefly: Saudis say SARS-type virus is no threat to pilgrims

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RIYADH — Saudi Arabia’s health minister says a new respiratory virus related to SARS that has infected two people does not pose a threat to the more than 1 million Muslims set to embark on the annual Hajj pilgrimage in the kingdom.

Abdullah al-Rabeeah said Monday that the virus has been contained.

The germ is a coronavirus, from a family of viruses that cause the common cold as well as SARS, the severe acute respiratory syndrome that killed some 800 people, mostly in Asia, in a 2003 epidemic.

Global health officials suspect two victims from the Middle East may have caught it from animals.

The World Health Organization issued a global alert asking doctors to be on guard for any potential cases of the new virus, which also causes kidney failure.

IRAN

Ahmadinejad vows no retreat on nukes despite sanctions

TEHRAN — Iran will not back down on its nuclear program despite the problems caused by Western sanctions, including a dramatic slide in the value of its currency, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Tuesday.

“We are not a people to retreat on the nuclear issue,” he said at a news conference in Tehran. “If somebody thinks they can pressure Iran, they are certainly wrong and they must correct their behavior.”

He made the comments amid an accelerated slide in Iran’s currency, which has lost more than 80 percent of its value compared with a year ago, with 17 percent of its value shed on Monday alone.

The currency, the rial, slipped another 4 percent Tuesday to close at 36,100 to the dollar, according to exchange-tracking websites.

Mr. Ahmadinejad said the plunge is part of an economic “war” waged by the West on the Islamic republic and “a psychological war on the exchange market.”

Iran, he said, has sufficient foreign currency reserves.

Those reserves were estimated at about $100 billion at the end of last year, thanks to surging oil exports.

But the U.S. Treasury, which is monitoring the sanctions, says Iran’s foreign earnings have been cut by $5 billion a month under the Western economic measures.

SYRIA

Video shows American journalist being held

BEIRUT — An American freelance journalist who has been missing in Syria since mid-August has been shown in a video clip posted online, blindfolded and saying “Oh, Jesus” in a frightened voice in the custody of armed men.

The video, which came to light Monday, was the first sign of Austin Tice’s condition since he disappeared more than seven weeks ago.

Mr. Tice, a 31-year-old former Marine, had been reporting on Syria’s civil war for The Washington Post, McClatchy Newspapers and others.

The Tice family confirmed to several media outlets that their son appears in the video.

In the video, Mr. Tice tries to recite the Muslim declaration of faith, or shahada, but then switches to English and says, “Oh Jesus. Oh Jesus,” and rests his head on a captor’s arm.

The Associated Press could not independently confirm the origin or the content of the video clip. Although the footage shows a group of captors dressed like Islamic extremists and shouting “God is Great,” the clip lacks the customary appearance of jihadist videos.

IRAQ

$14M deal signed for U.S. upgrades to key Gulf port

BAGHDAD — Iraq on Tuesday signed a $14 million deal with a U.S. consortium to modernize a major port in the country’s southern province of Basra in a move aimed at developing key infrastructure neglected during years of war and sanctions.

Under the 10-year agreement with a consortium led by North America Western Asia Holdings, the companies will invest in a heavy-lift crane and container-handling capabilities, and build a modern container yard in one of the 14 berths in the Maqal Port on Shatt al-Arab waterway, the company said in a statement.

The consortium also will dredge Shatt al-Arab, which is unable to welcome deep-water vessels because of years of neglect, to 9 yards to make it a “deep water” port, the statement added.

The 93-year-old port is one of four in Basra on the Persian Gulf for commercial goods.

From wire dispatches and staff reports

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