WASHINGTON — The U.S. State Department is reneging on a pledge to contribute $45 million in food aid, health services and other relief it promised to deliver to Palestinian refugees by early January, adding to cutbacks announced earlier this week, according to people familiar with the matter.


In a letter dated Dec. 17, State Department Comptroller Eric Hembree told the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, or UNRWA, that it would pay the money in response to a West Bank and Gaza Emergency Appeal “by or before early January 2018,” said the people, who asked not to be identified discussing internal State Department matters.


But that money has now been frozen as part of U.S. demands for changes in UNRWA. President Donald Trump questioned the value of sending such aid after Palestinian leaders said they would reject any U.S. role in mediating peace talks with Israel after Trump announced plans to move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.


After much delay, the administration agreed this week to pay $60 million to the group to cover salaries and other administrative costs, while withholding an additional $65 million normally paid all at once.


But the $60 million that was provided can’t be used for any other purpose. The $45 million now being withheld leaves UNRWA in the lurch because it had already purchased food aid and other supplies after it received the Dec. 17 pledge letter from the State Department.


—Bloomberg News


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Saudi Arabia tells judge there’s no evidence it aided 9/11 plot


NEW YORK — Saudi Arabia asked a U.S. judge to throw out lawsuits claiming it helped al-Qaida carry out the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, arguing the victims haven’t provided any evidence to back their cases.


Michael Kellogg, a lawyer for the Kingdom, said reports from the 9/11 Commission, FBI, CIA and 9/11 Review Commission found no proof Saudi Arabia backed the attacks.


“Conclusions, speculation, hearsay are not enough,” Kellogg told U.S. District Judge George Daniels at a hearing in Manhattan Thursday.


The victims’ lawyers claim Saudi Arabia channeled money through its charities to the terrorist group. Congress in 2015 passed a law, the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, JASTA, which for the first time permitted lawsuits against the Saudis over the attacks. The nation was previously covered by sovereign immunity, a legal doctrine protecting nations against most lawsuits.


The allegations are sufficient to go forward under JASTA and the victims should be permitted to seek evidence from Saudi Arabia, their lawyers said.


JASTA was passed over a veto by President Barack Obama, who feared subjecting Saudi Arabia to legal claims threatened to strain relations between the two countries.


—Bloomberg News


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Approval of US leadership under Trump tumbles globally in poll


LONDON — An annual Gallup poll of international support for U.S. leadership, conducted after President Donald Trump’s election and published Thursday, shows a sharp fall in approval since 2016.


Gallup found that U.S. approval ratings fell by 10 percentage points or more in 65 of the 134 countries surveyed in March to November last year. America’s image improved in just 17 countries, and by more than 10 percentage points in three — Belarus, Israel and Macedonia. Worldwide, more people now say they disapprove of U.S. leadership (43 percent), than of China’s or Russia’s (30 percent and 36 percent respectively).


—Bloomberg News


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52 people killed in central Kazakhstan bus fire


MOSCOW — More than 50 people have been killed in a fire in a bus in central Kazakhstan, the country’s Emergencies Ministry said Thursday.


Of the 57 people on board the bus, which was travelling between the cities of Samara and Shymkent, only five made it out alive, a spokesman for the ministry said.


The remaining 52 passengers died at the scene in the Aktobe region of Kazakhstan, he said, adding that the five survivors were receiving medical treatment in hospitals.


The bus was en route from Uzbekistan to Russia. According to preliminary information, all of the deceased were Uzbek nationals, state news agency Kazinform reported.


Those who survived were three Kazakhs and two Uzbeks, the news agency reported. Two of those Kazakhs were the vehicle’s drivers.


Authorities believe the fire was probably caused by a short circuit, Russian state media reported.


The bus’s operator did not have a license for conducting passenger transport services, and the vehicle’s safety certification had expired two years ago, Russian state news agency RIA Novosti reported, citing Kazakh authorities.


A side door on the double-decker bus was blocked, preventing passengers from escaping, RIA Novosti reported.


Authorities have opened a criminal case on a charge of road safety or vehicle operation violations leading to the death of multiple people.


—dpa


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