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More than a year after a government crackdown, 279 Muslim fundamentalists in Tunisia yesterday awaited the start of their trial on charges of plotting to install an Islamic state. The trial, the largest against such fundamentalists in North Africa in years, will be closely watched in other Arab states facing growing religious movements. UNITED STATES

Jobless claims for the week ending June 27 dropped 4,000 to 416,000, the government reported yesterday. The four-week average used by analysts to study trends, however, rose by 1,750 to 415,750 - the highest level since the period ending April 11.... Consumers paid off more debt than they took on for the fourth straight month in May, as total outstanding credit fell by $2.41 billion, the government said Wednesday.... Continental Airlines Wednesday announced fare cuts, threatening industry-planned fare in creases slated for today that would make up for spring losses.... Congress yesterday sent President Bush a higher-education bill aimed at making college more affordable. The bill extends the life of federal higher education programs and authorizes spending of $115 billion over five years. Income ceilings would be raised for Pell Grants - a family of four could now earn $42,000, up from $30,000. To make loans available to more families, the bill would drop a family's equity in their home or farm and college savings accounts from the calculation of assets now used to determine eligibility for federally subsidized loans. An additional program of unsubsidized loans will be established for families whose income levels are too high to qualify for subsidized funds. Bush is expected to sign it.

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