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Ex-US president on mercy mission

Former US president Jimmy Carter is preparing to leave for North Korea to try to gain the freedom of an American imprisoned for illegally entering the communist nation, US officials said.

North Korea agreed to release Aijalon Mahli Gomes if Mr Carter came to bring him home, a senior US official said.

Mr Gomes, of Boston, who was arrested on January 25 after entering North Korea, was sentenced in April to eight years in prison and fined 700,000 US dollars (£XXX).

Mr Carter was expected to spend a single night in North Korea and return with Mr Gomes on Thursday, a second US official said.

As was the case when former president Bill Clinton went to North Korea last summer to win the release of two detained American reporters, no US officials will travel with Mr Carter, the senior official said.

The senior US official stressed Mr Carter was not representing the US government.

A State Department official said the US remains focused on securing Mr Gomes' release. "If and when such a mission takes place, it will be private and for a humanitarian purpose," the State Department official said.

Separately, South Korea said the North is deploying troops, artillery and tanks near Pyongyang ahead of key national events later this year.

The defence ministry said in a report that North Korea has been moving a large number troops, artillery, tanks and armoured vehicles near Pyongyang since July 12.

It said the deployment was presumably related to a key Workers' Party meeting in September and the 65th anniversary of the party's foundation in October. A defence ministry official said the deployment is likely aimed at preparing for a military parade in Pyongyang to mark the national events.

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