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Death toll rises to 18 as flash flood hits valley

BRISBANE, Australia (AP) -- Rescuers raced today to reach people trapped on roofs after a flash flood sent a massive wall of water through a valley in Australia's waterlogged east, killing at least eight people, leaving 72 missing and tossing cars like toys, officials said.

The sudden surge near the town of Toowoomba after a storm Monday lifted Australia's 2-week-old flood crisis in Queensland state to a new level and brought the overall death toll to 18. Until then, the flooding had unfolded slowly as swollen rivers burst their banks and inundated towns while moving downstream toward the ocean.

As emergency services officers plucked more than 40 people from houses isolated overnight by the torrent that hit the Lockyer Valley on Monday, thunderstorms and more driving rain hampered efforts to send helicopters to help an unknown number of other people still in danger today.

Anna Bligh, premier of Queensland, said that four children were killed and that there were "grave concerns" for at least 11 of the missing.

Queensland has been in the grip of its worst flooding for more than two weeks.

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China starts trade talks with loan of 2 pandas

LONDON (AP) -- Call it panda politics.

China's deputy premier kicked off talks with senior British officials Monday by arriving with a gift that would charm the stodgiest trade negotiator -- two giant pandas on loan.

Vice Premier Li Keqiang met with Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg in London to sign commercial deals worth at least $4 billion -- but the business dealings were overshadowed by the panda deal.

Li oversaw an agreement to bring a breeding pair of pandas to Edinburgh Zoo on a 10-year loan. Seven-year-old male Yangguang and female Tian Tian -- which translate as "Sunshine" and "Sweetie" -- are expected to arrive within about a year from China's Wulong Panda Research Institute.

"Pandas are a Chinese national treasure," said Liu Xiaoming, the Chinese ambassador to Britain. "This historical agreement will represent an important symbol of our friendship and will bring our two peoples closer together."

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Pope wants Pakistan to ease blasphemy laws

VATICAN CITY (AP) -- Pope Benedict XVI has urged Pakistan to reverse its blasphemy laws, saying Monday that they were a pretext for violence against non-Muslims, and demanded that all governments do more so Christians can practice their faith without fear.

Benedict issued one of his most pointed appeals yet for religious freedom in a speech to ambassadors accredited to the Vatican, saying that it was a human right that must be protected in law and in practice.

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