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New Israeli Housing Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said yesterday he ordered a freeze on signing of contracts for building in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. The new government hopes this will help Israel win $10 billion in loan guarantees from the US, which views the settlements as a peace obstacle. EUROPE

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Romanian President Ion Iliescu said yesterday he had signed new electoral laws that clear the way for planned parliamentary and presidential elections to go ahead on Sept. 27. Romanian media had speculated that Iliescu, a veteran Communist, would reject the laws to give the party backing his candidacy more time to organize. ECONOMY AND BUSINESS

The Labor Department reported yesterday that the number of Americans filing first-time claims for unemployment benefits dropped in the week ending July 4 from 416,000 to 401,000 - the lowest level in nine months. The sharper-than-expected drop offers some hope that the labor market has begun to improve.... The Commerce Department reported yesterday that housing starts fell 3.2 percent in June. Still, analysts expect improvement as falling mortgage rates spur demand. LATIN AMERICA

The Guatemalan government and leftist rebels have agreed to meet in a full session of peace negotiations for the first time in nine months, the mediator in the talks said Wednesday. The meeting is to be held in the first week of August, and will aim to finish an agreement on human rights, the main sticking point since the last round of talks.

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