IRAN (1): PERMISSION NEEDED TO PASS THROUGH STRAIT OF HORMUZ
The tension ratchets - again - from Tehran, just as the new U.S. sanctions appear to bite. Alex MARQUARDT reports on Iran's warning that foreign warships will need the Iranian Navy's permission to pass through the Strait of Hormuz. "If the military vessels and warships of any country want to pass via the Strait of Hormuz without coordination and permission of Iran's Navy forces, they should be stopped by the Iranian Armed Forces," said a spokesman. The plan will be presented to parliament next week.
IRAN (2): EXPERTS SAY NUCLEAR FUEL ROD NOT A THREAT
Bloomberg reports that Iran's development of a nuclear fuel rod for medical research isn't a milestone in a quest for atomic weapons. Although Iran's announcement sends a signal that the country may have the ability to develop fuel for research uses without external help, such units need uranium that's less concentrated than what's needed to make weapons, energy experts said. "This has some diplomatic significance and virtually no military significance," James Acton, a senior associate in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, told Bloomberg.
SYRIAN REGIME MISLEADING ARAB MONITORS?
Al Jazeera reports this morning that Syrian activists are accusing President Bashar Assad's regime of misleading Arab League observers who are monitoring the government's compliance with a plan to end the country's bloodshed. They say authorities are changing neighborhood signs to confuse the monitors, taking them to areas loyal to the regime and painting army vehicles to look like those of the police - in order to claim the army has pulled out of flashpoint regions. Also today, The Free Syrian Army is threatening to step up its attacks in light of the Arab League monitors' failure to stop the violence. "If we feel they are still not serious in a few days, or at most within a week, we will take a decision which will surprise the regime and the whole world," Col. Riad al As-ad in Turkey told Reuters. The Arab League is preparing to send more observers in, they said yesterday, and are holding an emergency meeting on Sunday (pushed back from Saturday for Orthodox Christmas). 18 Syrian security forces were killed yesterday by deserting soldiers in the southern city of Jassem, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.
EGYPT: U.S. SOFTENS ON MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD
The New York Times reports that with the Muslim Brotherhood leading in voting for Egypt's new Parliament, the Obama administration has started to reverse decades of mistrust and hostility as it seeks to forge closer ties with an organization once viewed as irreconcilably opposed to United States interests. As Alex MARQUARDT notes, today is the final day of voting in the last and final round of voting.
CHINA TAKES AIM AT U.S. NAVY?
China is building a new class of ballistic missiles designed to arc through the stratosphere and explode onto the deck of a U.S. aircraft carrier, potentially forcing U.S. carriers to stay farther away from its shores reports the Wall Street Journal.
EURO-MESS: ROUGH SEAS AHEAD
From Richard DAVIES: This may be a new year, but the toughest challenge for the global economy is still the same: Europe's financial crisis. A tough set of talks will begin tomorrow in Greece. Workers will be asked to take pay cuts and make other concessions. Prime Minister Lucas Papademos will hold negotiations with trade unions. This comes ahead of a visit in mid-January from "the troika", representatives from the IMF, European Commission and European Central Bank. Greece is still negotiating terms of its second bailout. Yesterday government spokesman Pantelis Kapsis warned that Greece could have to leave the euro if it fails to finalize the details of the $169 billion bailout and that more austerity measures may be needed.
CHINESE CONSUMERS: BUYING BIG
Looking for an economic boost? As the global economy struggles to rebound - new statistics suggest that Chinese shoppers are rapidly leaving behind their fake Gucci bags for the real thing. Expensive simply for the sake of expensive is all the rage, writes the LA Times. From Gucci to Rolls-Royce, China is on the verge of becoming the leading market for all luxury goods. They may flaunt their goods - but the LAT reports that Chinese shoppers do just as much shopping for gifts for others as they do for themselves, unlike their Western counterparts. Interestingly, these statistics may even underestimate Chinese spending because the rich do much of their shopping abroad to avoid high taxes. Who's buying? Young adults. Chinese millionaires are about 15 years younger than your average Western millionaire.
CHINA'S TV BAN
China's government said today that broadcasters must cut the number of entertainment shows during prime time by more than two-thirds, culling a format that exposed a widening wealth gap that contradicts the Communist Party's core dogma. The total number of entertainment shows, including dating programs, game shows, talk shows and "emotional stories" airing from 7:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. was cut to 38 as of Jan. 1, from 126 at the end of last year, the official Xinhua News Agency reported late yesterday, citing the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, or SARFT. China announced the plan in October as part of a broader effort by the Communist Party's Central Committee to assert more control of the media and Internet as it grapples with rising social unrest over work conditions and government corruption. Reality TV can undermine the party's line that China is becoming more "harmonious," said Willy Wo-Lap Lam, an adjunct professor of history at Chinese University of Hong Kong.
QUEEN ESTATE MURDER MYSTERY
Today we've learned that the disappearances of two young women are among cases being examined by detectives investigating the discovery of that body on the Queen's estate. Norfolk Police detectives expect analysis of samples taken from the body to provide a DNA profile of the victim by this evening. They are examining missing persons reports for potential links - which has been identified as that of a young adult woman, aged between 15 and 23 - which had been at the site for between one and four months. Detective Chief Inspector Jes Fry admitted he did not know the identity of the victim - and mentioned possible links to the disappearances of Alisa Dmitrijeva, 17, from Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, and Vitalija Baliutaviciene, 29, from Peterborough, who both vanished last August. Norfolk Police said both cases were "lines of inquiry" being pursued.
AMERICA'S DEADLIEST SNIPER?
Chris Kyle, 37, was a member of Seal Team Three in Iraq - and now he's written a book called "American Sniper", in which he says he blew away the previous US record of 109 kills, set by an Army rifleman during the Vietnam War. Kyle recalls how his first kill from long range was a woman approaching a group of US Marines with a grenade in her hand. When ordered, he opened fire, killing the woman before she could attack his comrades. Over four tours in Iraq, he built a ferocious reputation. To the insurgents who hid from his deadly scope, he was known as 'Al-Shaitan Ramad', or the "Devil of Ramadi". They reportedly offered a $20,000 (£12,800) reward to anyone who could kill or capture him. Fellow Navy Seals referred to him simply as "The Legend". Mr Kyle's most famous shot came outside the Shia district of Sadr City in Baghdad in 2008. From over a mile away he spotted an insurgent pointing a rocket launcher at an approaching Army convoy. He fired at a distance of 2,100 yards. "God blew that bullet and hit him," Mr Kyle told the New York Post.
RUSSIAN SPACE PROBE - FALLING TO EARTH
Russian officials now say fragments of a failed space probe are expected to fall to Earth on Jan. 15. The unmanned Phobos-Ground probe was launched Nov. 9 on what was supposed to have been a 2 1/2-year mission to the Mars moon of Phobos to take soil samples and fly them back to Earth. But it became stuck in Earth's orbit and attempts to send commands that could propel it toward the Mars moon were unsuccessful. A precise date was given Wednesday by a spokesman for the air and space defense troops, who said any fragments that do not burn up in the atmosphere are expected to fall to Earth on Jan. 15. No word on where.
RECORD NATURAL DISASTER LOSSES IN 2011
The AP reports that a leading reinsurer says devastating earthquakes in Japan and New Zealand made 2011 the insurance industry's costliest yet in natural disaster losses. Munich Re said in an annual report Wednesday that insured losses last year totaled $105 billion - exceeding the previous record of $101 billion set in 2005, when losses were swollen by claims from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.
"RIOT OF LIFE": WILD DISCOVERIES ON OCEAN FLOOR
The Washington Post reports oceanographers exploring remote deep-sea hot springs north of Antarctica have discovered what they say is a "riot of life" in a biological zone no one knew existed. The exploration uncovered thousands upon thousands of a species of crab never seen before, as well as new barnacle, anemone, snail and starfish species. Meanwhile, the BBC reports UK scientists have found a new crab species on the ocean floor South of Georgia that they have dubbed "The Hoff" because of its hairy chest.
THE FUGITIVE WHO COULDN'T TURN HIMSELF IN
Weird story from Akiko FUJITA in Tokyo: Until New Year's Eve, Makoto Hirata was one of Japan's most wanted fugitives. His face plastered across every train station, Hirata had been on the run for 17 years - wanted in connection with the kidnapping and killing of a former member of the Aum Supreme Truth doomsday cult, the group behind the 1995 sarin gas attack, Japan's largest domestic terror case. He was also widely seen as a key accomplice to cult leader Shoko Asahara, who masterminded the attack on Tokyo train stations, which killed a dozen people. Yet, when Hirata finally decided to surrender Saturday, he had to nearly beg police to arrest him. Japanese media report the fugitive tried, unsuccessfully, for 3 hours to convince authorities he was the man in the wanted poster. The Asahi Shimbun reports Hirata first went to a Tokyo area police station around 9pm - specifically because he knew the investigative unit for the cult was based there. He couldn't find the reception desk, so he called a hotline for the National Police Agency - 10 times. No answer. Hirata then called the emergency number, asking where he should turn himself in, though he didn't identify himself. The fugitive took the train to the Tokyo police headquarters, but was turned away by the officer on guard, who thought Hirata was pulling a prank. The officer, weary of Hirata, pointed him towards another nearby police station without checking his ID. Hirata's 3 hour quest to surrender - finally came to an end just before the new year, at 11:50pm.
HOW THE ROMANS PAID FOR PLEASURE
A Roman coin that was probably used by a lustful legionary has washed up on the banks of the Thames. Made from bronze and smaller than a ten pence piece, the coin depicts a man and a woman engaged in an intimate act. Historians believe it is the first example of a Roman brothel token to be found in this country. Read more…