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Amazon Founder Strikes Deal To Build U.S. Rocket Engines

Washington (AFP) — The aerospace company Blue Origin has struck a deal to build a U.S.-made rocket engine that aims to eliminate reliance on Russian engines for American satellite launches.

Blue Origin owner Jeff Bezos, who founded Amazon.com and also owns the Washington Post, announced the deal to jointly fund a new BE-4 rocket engine with United Launch Alliance in the US capital on Wednesday.

ULA is a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

“ULA has put a satellite into orbit almost every month for the past eight years –- they’re the most reliable launch provider in history and their record of success is astonishing,” Bezos said.

“With the new ULA partnership, we’re accelerating commercial development of the next great U.S.-made rocket engine.”

The deal allows for a four-year development process, with full-scale testing in 2016 and first flight in 2019, Blue Origin said in a statement.

The BE-4 would not replace the Russian-made RD-180 rocket engine that ULA uses to power its Atlas V rocket.

Rather, two BE-4s would be used to power both Blue Origin’s and ULA’s “next generation launch systems,” it said.

The companies declined to say how much they were spending to develop and build the new rocket engine, which has already been three years in the making.

Another Internet entrepreneur and aerospace magnate, Elon Musk who runs SpaceX, has complained about US reliance on Russian-built engines for rocket launches.

In April, SpaceX also filed a legal challenge to the U.S. Air Force’s award of a major contract to ULA, saying it unfairly excluded other companies from competing for a share of national security satellite launches.

AFP Photo/Win Mcnamee

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New N. Korean Rocket Launch Site Near Completion: Think-Tank

Seoul (AFP) — North Korea will be able to test longer-range rockets at its new launch site before the end of this year, a U.S. think-tank has said.

A major construction program has been under way at the North’s Sohae Satellite Launching Station since mid-2013, focused on upgrading facilities to handle larger, longer-range rockets with heavier payloads.

Satellite images taken this month indicate that several significant construction projects there are nearing completion despite heavy rain this summer, the U.S.-Korea institute at Johns Hopkins University said in a post dated Thursday.

“The effort under way since late last year — to upgrade the gantry tower and launch pad — that will enable the North Koreans to test space launch vehicles with greater ranges and carry larger payloads than the Unha rocket fired in 2012 should be finished by fall,” it said.

“As a result, the North will be able to conduct new launches from this site before the end of the year should it decide to do so.”

There is little doubt that North Korea has an active ballistic missile development program, but it remains unclear how much progress it has made.

Development of a working ICBM that could reach the continental United States would bring the North’s regular nuclear strike warnings to a whole new level.

Last month, the same U.S. think-tank said North Korea might be wrapping up engine trials on an intercontinental ballistic missile, citing satellite images.

“If the engine tests are concluded, the next stage in development of the KN-08 road-mobile ICBM may be full-scale flight tests of the missile”, it said.

It stressed, however, that it was unclear just how successful the tests had been.

The KN-08 was first unveiled at a military parade in April 2012, but many analysts dismissed the models on show as mock-ups.

In December the same year, Pyongyang demonstrated its rocket capabilities by sending a satellite into orbit on a multi-stage launch vehicle.

But it has yet to conduct a test that would show it has mastered the re-entry technology required for an effective ICBM.

AFP Photo

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Israel Hits Gaza, Quits Cairo Talks After Rocket Fire

By Mai Yaghi

Gaza City (Palestinian Territories) (AFP) — Israel hauled its negotiators back from talks in Cairo and warplanes hit Gaza Tuesday after Palestinian rockets smashed into the south as the two sides were observing a 24-hour truce.

Nine days of relative quiet in the skies over Gaza came to an abrupt halt on Tuesday afternoon when three rockets struck southern Israel just hours before the truce was to expire at midnight local time.

Israel immediately ordered a military response, with warplanes striking targets across the battered Gaza Strip, although there were no immediate reports of casualties, Palestinian security sources and witnesses told AFP.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the rockets fired at Beersheva, which is home to around 200,000 Israelis.

An Israeli official confirmed the negotiating team had been ordered back from Cairo where Egypt has been pushing for a decisive end to the Gaza bloodshed, which has killed more than 2,000 Palestinians and 67 on the Israeli side.

“The Cairo process was based on the premise of a total ceasefire,” he told AFP.

“If Hamas fires rockets the Cairo process has no basis.”

Israel has repeatedly said it would not negotiate under fire and on Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned there would be “a very strong response” should there be any resumption of fire.

Hamas dismissed his remarks as having “no weight.”

“Yet again, terrorists breach the ceasefire and renew fire at Israeli civilians from Hamas ruled Gaza Strip,” said army spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner, confirming attacks on targets across the coastal enclave.

“We cease, they fire.”

– ‘Sabotaging the talks’ –

In Gaza, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri denied the Islamist movement had fired rockets over the border, accusing Israel of trying to sabotage the truce talks.

“We don’t have any information about firing rockets from Gaza. The Israeli raids are intended to sabotage the negotiations in Cairo,” he told AFP.

The talks in Cairo center on an Egyptian proposal that meets some of the Palestinian demands, such as easing Israel’s eight-year blockade on Gaza, but defer debate on other thorny issues until later.

The aim is to broker a long-term arrangement to halt more than a month of bloody fighting, although both sides have largely silenced their guns since August 11 thanks to a series of temporary truces.

Talks at the headquarters of Egyptian intelligence resumed around 0800 GMT, a Palestinian official told AFP.

Although the back-to-back truce agreements have brought relief to millions on both sides of the border, the drawn-out waiting and the fear of a resumption of fighting was beginning to test people’s patience.

“No one here has any hope,” said Riyad Abul Sultan, a father of 10 with thick curly hair, smoking as he sat on a flimsy mattress at a UN school in Gaza.

“Maybe they’ll finish the war for two hours, maybe Israel will start bombing again.”

– Deadlock over ports –

The Palestinians say agreement over a long-term arrangement in Gaza has been delayed by Israeli foot-dragging over key issues such as a port and an airport.

“The negotiations failed on Monday evening because the Israelis refused to include a port or an airport in the agreement,” a Palestinian source close to the talks told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“The Egyptians then added a clause allowing for the postponement of talks on this issue in order to avoid Israel raising the issue of (disarming Gaza from) rockets and missiles,” he said.

Israel has repeatedly demanded that Gaza be demilitarized although the subject is not overly mentioned in the Egyptian proposal as seen by AFP.

Islamic Jihad on Tuesday accused Israel of “intransigence” while Hamas’s Abu Zuhri said the Jewish state was “playing for time” at the talks.

Hamas had repeatedly warned it would not extend the temporary ceasefire again, pressing for immediate gains that would allow it to claim concessions from Israel after the devastating four-week war, which began on July 8.

– Hamas shift –

But a senior official within the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) said the Islamist movement appeared to have changed its position following a meeting at the weekend between exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal and senior Palestinian official Saeb Erakat.

“It looks like Hamas and Islamic Jihad will agree to the Egyptian paper,” he told AFP.

The Egyptian proposal calls for both sides to immediately cease fire, and includes provisions relating to opening the borders to allow for free movement of people, goods, and construction materials, as well as a clause on regulating the financial crisis within the enclave.

But crucially, it postpones discussions on the thorniest issues, such as a port and airport in Gaza, for another month “after calm and stability returns,” along with talks over exchanging the remains of two Israeli soldiers for the release of Palestinian prisoners.

AFP Photo/Said Khatib

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Seven Hour Truce Ends In Gaza; Israel And Hamas Both Claim Violations

By Laura King and Batsheva Sobelman, Los Angeles Times

GAZA CITY — A seven-hour cease-fire in the Gaza Strip on Monday ended as have previous short-term truces: with the two sides accusing one another of violations. At the same time, a pair of relatively small-scale attacks in Jerusalem — one carried out with a piece of construction equipment — rekindled fears that the Gaza conflict’s repercussions could spread.

The pause in fighting, which began at 10 a.m. local time, did not apply to Rafah, at the strip’s southern tip, which has been the scene of heavy fighting since Friday morning.

Those clashes precipitated the breakdown of the last brief cease-fire, one of several to collapse soon after being declared. Palestinians have used previous lulls in the fighting to stock up on food and water and scour ruined homes for any possessions that can be salvaged, and they did so again Monday.

In the hours just before the hiatus, Palestinian militants fired more rockets into Israel and Israel bombarded the coastal enclave with airstrikes, artillery fire, and shelling from naval vessels offshore. Israel said dozens of rockets were fired from Gaza during the hiatus, and Palestinians said an Israeli airstrike on a seaside refugee camp that killed an 8-year-old girl had taken place after the cease-fire began.

Hamas derided the temporary truce as a ruse meant to divert attention from “Israeli massacres.”

Israel had drawn international condemnation with a strike on Sunday at the gates of a U.N. school in Rafah sheltering displaced Palestinians, which killed at least 10 people. Israel says it struck a target nearby — militants on a motorcycle — and was still checking on what ordnance had fallen next to by the school entrance.

But both the United States and the United Nations issued sharp statements demanding that more care be taken to avoid hurting and killing civilians. The Obama administration called the strike “disgraceful.”

Human Rights Watch charged Monday that Israeli forces in the southern Gaza town of Khuza’a had committed war crimes by firing on and killing civilians between July 23 and 25.

The organization said Israeli forces had provided general warnings to the town’s residents to leave the area prior to July 21. However, it said, Israel had a responsibility to avoid civilian casualties, even if people ignored the warnings.

“Warning families to flee fighting doesn’t make them fair targets just because they’re unable to do so, and deliberately attacking them is a war crime,” said said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

A spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces said he was not aware of the Human Rights Watch charge, and had no immediate response.

Most Israeli ground forces are gone from Gaza, Israeli media reports say, but some remain on the periphery of the strip, continuing to destroy tunnels leading into Israel. More than 30 have been rendered useless, the army says.

Thousands of troops were inside Gaza at the height of the ground offensive, though Israel as a matter of policy did not provide an exact figure.

The Israeli military said a strike before dawn killed a leader of Islamic Jihad, an ally of the militant group Hamas, which dominates the territory. The army identified the dead man as Danyal Mansour, Islamic Jihad’s commander in northern Gaza.

Palestinians said at least six others died in the strike as well.

Hours after the deadly attack on the Shati refugee camp in Gaza City, which injured about two dozen people in addition to killing an 8-year-old girl, the Israeli military had still not identified the intended target. The military said the strike took place “around” 10 a.m. local time, when the truce was beginning, leaving open the possibility that it had been a few moments later.

Anger over bloodshed in Gaza has been growing among Palestinians in east Jerusalem and the West Bank, and Monday saw an attack using a tactic that was familiar more than a decade ago.

Authorities said a Palestinian man apparently stole a piece of heavy machinery from a construction site, then used it to ram vehicles, including a nearly empty bus, in the nearly all-Jewish western part of the city.

One man was reported killed and six others hurt in the attack; the assailant was shot by police and died of his wounds. Police spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld tweeted that the incident was being treated as a terrorist attack.

A short time later, another assailant, this one on a motorcycle, shot and wounded an Israeli soldier, and then fled toward a Palestinian neighborhood in east Jerusalem, officials said. The shooting victim was reported in serious condition.

Special correspondent Batsheva Sobelman reported from Jerusalem, Los Angeles Times staff writer Laura King from Gaza City.

AFP Photo/Gali Tibbon

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