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Prayers in Japan...Ukraine rebels fighting on...Leading indicators up

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TOKYO (AP) — Prayers are being offered at Tokyo's largest mosque for two Japanese hostages threatened with beheading by Islamic militants who have demanded a $200 million ransom for their release. Militants affiliated with the Islamic State group have posted an online warning that the "countdown has begun" for the extremists to kill 47-year-old Kenji Goto and 42-year-old Haruna Yukawa. The extremists gave Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (shin-zoh ah-bay) 72 hours to pay the ransom, and the deadline has expired.

DONETSK, Ukraine (AP) — A separatist leader in eastern Ukraine says rebels will not join further peace talks and plan to continue fighting for territory. Alexander Zakharchenko says the rebels are advancing in five directions as they try to push back Ukrainian government forces to the limits of the eastern Donetsk region. NATO says it's seeing signs a major offensive is coming.

BEIRUT (AP) — Activists say a Syrian government airstrike in a suburb of the capital has killed at least 32 people and wounded many others. An activist based near Damascus says the air raid occurred after Friday prayers, striking an area near a popular market. Syria's crisis began with an uprising against President Bashar Assad, then turned into a civil war. So far, 220,000 people have been killed.

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Conference Board says its index of leading indicators has posted its fourth straight solid gain. The index rose 0.5 percent in December, and Conference Board economists say the numbers suggest the economy is gaining momentum. Stocks have been slipped this morning after yesterday's big gains.

WASHINGTON (AP) — The number of Americans buying homes rose in December, but total sales for the year slipped as first-time buyers struggled to find houses. The National Association of Realtors says sales of existing homes rose 2.4 percent last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.04 million. Only 29 percent of sales went to first-time buyers, compared to a historic average of 40 percent. Over the course of the year, sales fell 3.1 percent.

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