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Home Prices Still Falling, But the Pace Is Slowing

Home sales have begun to stabilize as sharply reduced prices lured buyers back into the market in July, according to a pair of reports issued this week. And prices, once plummeting at a breakneck pace, fell in June at a more moderate clip.

But prices will have to keep falling, economists said Tuesday, before the housing market can make a full recovery. Much of the buying last month stemmed from fire sales of foreclosed homes. And prices are expected to keep sagging under the weight of an enormous backlog of unsold homes.

For now, “it’s still a buyer’s market, and likely to be so for a while,” said Stuart Hoffman, chief economist of PNC Bank. “Homebuyers are holding all the aces.”

A report on Tuesday showed that in the 12 months through June, American home values dropped 15.9 percent, the biggest annual decline on record.

All 20 cities measured in the report, the Case-Shiller index, reported annual declines in June, with seven cities showing price drops of more than 20 percent. A separate 10-city price index, which began in 1988, was off 17 percent, its worst annual reading ever.

Rice Criticizes Surge in Settlement Construction

Peace Now, the Israeli advocacy group, said in a report released Tuesday that in the last year Israel had nearly doubled its settlement construction in the occupied West Bank, in violation of its obligations under an American-backed peace plan.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in Jerusalem on a short visit to help Israeli and Palestinian leaders in their negotiations, said when asked about the report that she had told Israeli officials that such building did not advance the cause of peace.

“What we need now are steps that enhance confidence between the parties, and anything that undermines confidence between the parties ought to be avoided,” she said with the Israeli foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, at her side.

Livni said that settlement building should not influence the negotiations because the goal should be “not to let any kind of noises that relate to the situation on the ground these days enter the negotiation room.”

Earlier, Rice had made clear that neither Israelis nor Palestinians had fully lived up to their obligations. Israel is supposed to end all settlement building and remove illegal settlement outposts, while the Palestinians are supposed to dismantle terrorist infrastructures.

Negotiators had hoped for a full two-state peace framework between the Palestinian Authority and Israel to be completed by the end of President Bush’s term. Lately, though, they have cautioned that such an aim may be out of reach although the talks, they say, are making progress.

Nearly 600 Were Arrested in Factory Raid, Officials Say

Federal officials on Tuesday revised upward to 595 the number of suspected illegal immigrants arrested in a raid on a Laurel, Miss., factory this week, making it the largest immigration crackdown on a U.S. workplace in recent years.

On Monday, the day of the raid, officials said that at least 350 people had been arrested.

Officials said that 475 of the immigrants were immediately taken by bus to a detention center in the remote northern Louisiana town of Jena, and would face deportation. At least eight appeared in federal court in Hattiesburg, Miss., on Tuesday, where they faced criminal charges of aggravated identity theft, which usually means stealing a Social Security number or using a false address.

Of the 595 arrested, 106 were temporarily released for what Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials called “humanitarian” reasons — because of illness, or the need to care for children — though they still face deportation. Nine unaccompanied 17-year-olds were taken into custody by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement.

The relatively low number of criminal cases could represent a shift in government policy, several immigration experts said, particularly in view of the hundreds who were prosecuted and sent to jail after a similar raid at a meatpacking plant at Postville, Iowa, in May.

U.S. Airstrikes Killed 90 Civilians, Including 60 Children, U.N. Finds

A U.N. human rights team has found “convincing evidence” that 90 civilians — among them 60 children — were killed in airstrikes on a village in western Afghanistan’s Herat province on Friday, according to the U.N. mission in Kabul.

If the assertion proves to be correct, this would almost certainly be the deadliest case of civilian casualties caused by any U.S. military operation in Afghanistan since 2001.

The U.N. statement adds pressure to the U.S. military, which maintains that only that 25 militants and 5 civilians were killed in the airstrikes, but has ordered an investigation after Afghan officials reported the higher civilian death toll.

The U.N. team visited the scene and interviewed survivors and local officials and elders, getting a name, age and gender of each person reported killed. The team reported that 15 people had been wounded in the airstrikes.

The numbers closely match those given by a government commission sent from Kabul to investigate the bombing, which put the total dead at up to 95.

Mohammad Iqbal Safi, the head of the parliamentary defense committee and a member of the government commission, said the 60 children were between 3 months old and 16 years old, all killed as they slept. “It was a heartbreaking scene,” he said.