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UN Received Reassurance that Kidnapped Peacekeepers Are 'Safe and in Good Health'

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(GOLAN HEIGHTS, Syria) -- The United Nations said on Friday that it had received assurances that the 44 peacekeepers kidnapped from their positions on Thursday are safe and in good health.

According to a statement from the U.N. spokesperson, the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force has not had direct contact with the peacekeepers. They were informed, however, that the intention behind the holding of the peacekeepers was to remove them from an active battlefield for their own protection.

The UNDOF has been in contact with the other groups of peacekeepers who are being confined to their current positions and confirm that they have not been harmed.

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Sanctions Imposed on Six Companies Accused of Supporting Proliferation of Iran WMDs

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- President Obama and his administration imposed new sanctions on six companies, including four based in Iran on Friday, citing their having engaged in activities that support Iranian weapons of mass destruction.

A statement from Caitlin Hayden, National Security Council spokesperson, noted that the companies and individuals sanctioned on Friday have supported terrorism or aided Iran's evasion of existing sanctions. The U.S. and its P5 1 partners will continue to work towards a solution, Hayden said, to ensure the Iranian nuclear program is "exclusively peaceful."

Among the companies sanctioned was the Organization of Defensive Innovation and Research, which was started by Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, considered the father of Iran's nuclear research program. He has been on the United Nations sanctions list for about six years. The company was created in 2011, and was not subject to sanctions until Friday.

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State Department Issues Updated Travel Warning for Ukraine

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- The U.S. State Department issued an updated travel warning on Ukraine on Friday, citing the latest clashes between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian military.

The memo from the State Department warns U.S. citizens that travel to eastern Ukraine is dangerous and that all travel to the area should be deferred. The warning covers both Crimea, which was annexed by Russia earlier this year, as well as the area near the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Americans who opt to remain in those regions are urged to keep a low profile and avoid large crowds and gatherings. because the situation in Ukraine is unpredictable, Americans should be prepared to remain indoors and sheltered for extended periods of time if clashes occur in their region.

Additionally, the State Department notes that U.S. government personnel have had their travel to the regions in question restricted, making it more difficult to respond to emergencies involving U.S. citizens.

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Four More Airstrikes Conducted by US Military Near Mosul Dam

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(MOSUL, Iraq) -- U.S. fighter and attack aircraft were involved in four more airstrikes in the area of the Mosul Dam, the U.S. Central Command said on Friday.

The latest strikes bring the total since Aug. 8 to 110 within Iraq. The most recent strikes destroyed four armed vehicles and three support vehicles, while severely damaging another armed vehicle, all controlled by militants with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

As with other strikes conducted in Iraq in recent weeks, the U.S. military says it has acted to support Iraqi security forces and Kurdish defense forces, as well as in the interest of protecting key infrastructure and U.S. interests in the region.

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Britain Raises Terror Threat Level to 'Severe'

Bethany Clarke - WPA Pool/Getty Images(LONDON) -- The British government Friday raised the threat level for international terrorism to “severe,” indicating a terrorist attack is “highly likely” but based on intelligence not necessarily “imminent.”

U.K. Home Secretary Theresa May released a statement Friday saying the increased threat is “related to events in Syria and Iraq where terrorist groups are planning attacks against the West, and that some of those attacks are likely to involve fighters who have travelled from the U.K.”

British Prime Minister David Cameron said it was the first time in three years the threat has been raised to such a level in the U.K.

“What we’re facing in Iraq now with ISIL is a greater and deeper threat to our security than we have known before,” Cameron said in an address to the nation, noting that the terrorist group, also known as ISIS for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, has recruited hundreds of British citizens to its ranks.

Western security officials have been concerned for months that ISIS recruits with Western passports could travel to Syria and Iraq and then return home with deadly skills to wreak havoc.

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3 Million Refugees Have Fled Syria, UN Agency Says

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- More than 3 million people have sought refuge from the fighting in Syria, the United Nations’ refugee agency announced Friday.

That means the Syrian crisis, which has persisted since a civilian uprising began in 2011, is the biggest refugee operation in the UNHCR’s 64-year history, the agency said.

Antonio Guterres, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, said the international effort to help Syrian refugees was insufficient to meet their growing needs and number.

“The world is failing to meet the needs of [Syrian] refugees and the countries hosting them,” Guterres said, adding that, while the response to the crisis has been generous, “the bitter truth is that it falls far short of what’s needed.”

In addition to the 3 million people who have sought shelter in neighboring countries, including Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, another 6.5 million refugees have been displaced within Syria, the agency said, adding that half of those people were children. The UNHCR concluded that almost half of the Syrian civilian population has had to leave its homes.

Not only are the refugees fleeing violence, but because they frequently bounce from village to village before finally leaving their home country, they arrive in neighboring countries in increasingly “shocking states[s],” according to a UNHCR statement.

“There are worrying signs too that the journey out of Syria is becoming tougher, with many people forced to pay bribes at armed checkpoints proliferating along the borders,” the statement said.

Long-term medical conditions, steep food and commodity prices and unemployment are also problems that Syrians are plagued with once they escape the areas of greatest danger, the UNHCR added.

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Whiskey Particles Stored on ISS Headed for Earth

NASA(NEW YORK) -- A Scottish distillery that enlisted the help of astronauts to develop whiskey particles on the International Space Station is now preparing for touchdown.

Ardbeg, a whiskey distillery in Scotland, partnered with a Houston-based space research company to launch some micro-compounds of their liquor into outer space in 2011.

According to the distillery's website, 20 vials of the unmatured whiskey particles were sent along with pieces of charred oak that they were treated with when they arrived at the International Space Station. The vials only contained microbes that will later be used to brew whiskey, rather than the liquor itself.

"This is indeed a research program to help us understand terpenes, which are the building blocks for flavorings, paints and yes, whiskey -- so to us, this is a very solid research project for a consumer-based company," Jeffrey Manber, the CEO of Houston-based company NanoRocks, told ABC News. "NASA approved the project since terpenes have never been grown in zero-gravity conditions."

If a difference is noted between the vials kept in zero gravity as compared to those in "control" vials in Scotland, the implications could lead well out of the liquor cabinet.

"The absence of gravity may well create a new generation of consumer products and help us understand materials, biologicals and products that are right here on Earth," Manber said.

Once the out-of-this-world particles return to Earth -- they are expected to land in Kazakhstan on Sept. 12 -- the vials will be shipped to Texas, where they will be compared to similar vials made in Scotland in 2011 to test what effect gravity had on the maturation process.

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Fort Hood Gunman Wants to Join ISIS

Bell County Sheriff's Office via Getty Images(NEW YORK) -- Nidal Hasan, the Army psychiatrist who killed 13 people in a 2009 Fort Hood shooting, wrote a letter expressing interest in becoming a citizen of the Islamic State, his attorney told ABC News.

Hasan, a former major, wrote a two-page letter to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS.

Hasan, a Muslim-American whose Palestinian-immigrant parents raised him in Virginia, has described himself as a “mujahedeen,” or Muslim holy warrior in carrying out his attack.

Hasan, 43, was sentenced to death after the Texas shooting and is on the military’s death row at the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

News of Hasan’s letter comes days after Minnesota native Douglas McAuthur McCain, 33, was said to have died while fighting with the brutal al Qaeda breakaway organization.

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Panda Fakes Pregnancy for Pampered Life?

File photo. (iStock/Thinkstock)(CHENGDU, China) -- A real-life soap opera appears to have played out at a panda research center in China where zookeepers claim a panda may have faked her pregnancy in order to live a more pampered life.

Zookeepers at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding say Ai Hin, a 6-year-old giant panda, first showed signs of pregnancy in July, but then returned to normal at the end of this month, after just a two-month observation.

Chengdu officials say “phantom pregnancies” -- caused by progestational hormone changes -- are not uncommon for pandas, but that some “clever” pandas keep playing the pregnancy card long after.

“After showing prenatal signs, the 'mothers-to-be' are moved into single rooms with air conditioning and around-the-clock care. They also receive more buns, fruits and bamboo, so some clever pandas have used this to their advantage to improve their quality of life," panda expert Wu Kongju told state news agency Xinhua.

The false pregnancy caused the Chengdu Base to call off its planned live broadcast of Ai Hin giving birth.

The director of animal programs at the Memphis Zoo says that zookeepers must prepare pandas for birth at the first sign of pregnancy, even if it is hard to tell if they are actually pregnant.

“Pandas and other bears don't make it real easy to tell whether or not they are pregnant,” Matt Thompson told ABC News. “But we treat her as though she's pregnant whether she's pseudo pregnant or actually pregnant.”

“We just want to be ready in either case,” he said.

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Papua New Guinea's Tavurvur Volcano Erupts; Locals Evacuate, Flights Disrupted

iStock/Thinkstock(CANBERRA, Australia) -- Papua New Guinea's Tavurvur volcano spewed smoke and volcanic ash into the air Friday, with residents in the South Pacific nation evacuated and flights disrupted.

Communities near the volcano were evacuated, while residents of the town of Rabaul were advised to remain indoors to avoid falling ash, according to a statement from Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Australia’s Darwin Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre issued an advisory due to the eruption. Authorities there are making sure that air travel in the region is safe. Qantas flights in the area are taking special care to avoid the volcanic cloud.

Tavurvur most recently erupted last year.

Friday's activity – which occurred on the eastern tip of the country’s New Britain island – offered tourists amazing views of the volcanic activity.

The volcano has erupted numerous times in recent years, destroying the town of Rabaul in 1994 when it erupted simultaneously with nearby Mount Vulcan.

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Volcanic Eruption in Iceland

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(HOLUHRAUN, Iceland) -- A volcanic eruption in northern Iceland began early Friday morning local time, prompting airspace closure of much of the area.

According to the National Commissioner of the Icelandic Police, the fissure from which the eruption occurred is about 300 meters long. There has not yet been any detection of volcanic ash, and the seismic data seems to indicate that the eruption is effusive, and not explosive.

Still, the Icelandic Air Traffic Control closed down airspace from the earth up to 18,000 feet within the area around the eruption site.

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WHO Offers Update on Ebola Outbreak, Number of Suspected Cases Surpasses 3,000

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(MONROVIA, Liberia) -- The number of probable and confirmed cases of the Ebola virus in West Africa surpassed 3,000, the World Health Organization said on Thursday, with more than 1,550 at least suspected to have died of the disease.

The WHO updated its figures on the spread of Ebola, which looks at the number of probable and confirmed Ebola cases and deaths in Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone. Thus far, 1,752 confirmed cases and 897 confirmed deaths have been linked with Ebola. An additional 1,317 cases and 655 deaths are considered either "probable" or "suspected" to be related to the disease.

The largest part of the Ebola outbreak remains in Sierra Leone and Liberia, though cases have begun to spring up in Nigeria within the last two weeks.

More than 40 percent of the total number of Ebola cases have been identified in the last three weeks.

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Five More Airstrikes Conducted by US Military in Iraq

Purestock/Thinkstock(MOSUL, Iraq) -- The U.S. military conducted another series of airstrikes against targets related to militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria on Thursday, with five more strikes confirmed.

Fighter aircraft conducted the strikes near the Mosul Dam, destroying an ISIS Humvee, a tank, four armored vehicles, and a construction vehicle, and damaging a checkpoint. The aircraft all escaped the area safely.

The U.S. military has been undertaking the strikes with the intent of supporting Iraqi and Kurdish forces that are squaring off with ISIS forces, as well as to protect infrastructure and American interests in the area.

Since strikes began earlier this month, U.S. Central Command says that 106 airstrikes have been conducted across Iraq.

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Canadian, Russian NATO Missions Troll Each Other on Twitter

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(BRUSSELS, Belgium) -- In case the actual war in Ukraine wasn’t enough, there’s also a Twitter battle raging between the Canadian and Russian missions to NATO.

It all started with the Canadian mission's Twitter account, which on Wednesday tweeted a snarky map intended to “help” the Russian soldiers who ended up in Ukraine but reportedly claimed they didn’t know where they were going.


Geography can be tough. Here’s a guide for Russian soldiers who keep getting lost & ‘accidentally’ entering #Ukraine

— Canada at NATO (@CanadaNATO) August 27, 2014

Not to be outdone, the Russian mission quickly returned rhetorical fire, tweeting out its own map showing Crimea as part of Russia.



Helping our Canadian colleagues to catch up with contemporary geography of #Europe @CanadaNATO

— Russians at NATO (@natomission_ru) August 28, 2014


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'Russian Invasion' of Ukraine Prompts Emergency Meeting of UN Security Council

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(KIEV, Ukraine) -- Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko cancelled a trip to Turkey on Thursday, citing the ongoing "Russian invasion," prompting a United Nations Security Council meeting.

Heavy fighting was reported in the southeastern Ukrainian town of Novoazovsk Thursday as pro-Russian rebels allegedly opened up a new military front. Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk called for the U.N. Security Council meeting, noting the "growing military threat from Russia," and claiming that "Putin started a war in Europe."

The U.N. Security Council expressed outrage at the latest actions by Russia. In a statement, the spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that the international community "cannot allow the situation to escalate further, nor can a continuation be allowed of the violence and destruction that the conflict has wrought in eastern Ukraine."

The U.S. ambassador for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe released a harsh statement on Thursday as well, calling the crisis "man-made" and blaming the Kremlin for showing "disregard for international law."

Sens. John McCain, R-Arizona, and Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, called the latest tensions a "military invasion" in a statement. Calling the latest actions anything else, they said, "is to inhabit President Putin's Orwellian universe."

"This is a moment to speak and act with clarity," the senators said, "a sovereign nation in the heart of Europe is being invaded by its larger neighbor. This runs completely contrary to the civilized world that America and our partners have sought to build since World War II."

Also on Thursday, President Obama spoke with German Chancellor Angela Merkel to discuss the situation in Ukraine. According to a readout of the call, the two agreed that Russia is to blame for the latest violence. They also agreed that the U.S. and the European Union must consider additional sanctions while working towards a diplomatic solution.

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