MURDER – ON THE QUEEN’S ESTATE?
Yes — we know — it sounds like an Agatha Christie title. Murder — at the Queen’s estate? A “gruesome secret”, Duncan Larcombe told us this morning, after British police said they’re treating the discovery of human remains as a possible murder case. The remains were found on the sprawling Sandringham estate, a rural area where the royal family retreats for the holiday season. This from the police: “Detectives from Norfolk Constabulary have confirmed they have launched a murder investigation following the discovery of human remains in an area of woodland in Anmer, near King’s Lynn. The remains of a female were found by a member of the public who reported the incident to police shortly after 4pm on Sunday 1 January. The area has been sealed off and a detailed search is currently being carried out. Examinations of the scene are being conducted by forensic experts in pathology and anthropology and should be completed today. A post-mortem is due to take this place this afternoon (Tuesday 3 January).” Royal watchers say they doubt the royal family will be questioned in the case – but there are a slew of questions: Who did this? Who was the victim? How long was the body there? And why did it take a dog-walking visitor to find it?
AFGHAN WAR (1): TALKING TO THE TALIBAN
Are the U.S. and the Taliban working on a prisoner swap? Or – as the White House’s enemies might frame it — is the U.S. negotiating with terrorists? The Afghan Taliban said today they’ve reached a deal with the Gulf state of Qatar to open an office there – in what could be the first step toward peace talks to end more than a decade of war. Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said the liaison office will conduct negotiations with the international community. “Right now, having a strong presence in Afghanistan, we still want to have a political office for negotiations,” said Mujahid. “In this regard, we have started preliminary talks and we have reached a preliminary understanding with relevant sides, including the government of Qatar, to have a political office for negotiations with the international community.” Mujahid’s emailed statement also said the Taliban has “requested for the exchange of prisoners from Guantanamo.” He was referring to a Taliban demand that the U.S. military release about five Afghan prisoners believed to be affiliated with the Taliban from the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The Taliban are holding Bowe Bergdahl, a 25-year-old U.S. Army sergeant from Hailey, Idaho, who is the only U.S. soldier held by the insurgents. He was taken prisoner June 30, 2009, in Afghanistan. As Nick SCHIFRIN and others have reported, Washington has a channel open for talks with Taliban representatives. The AP reports that “Trust-building measures” under discussion involve setting up a Taliban headquarters office and the release of the Afghan prisoners from Guantanamo. Nick SCHIFRIN’s take here…
AFGHAN WAR (2): U.S. TROOP DEATHS DOWN IN 2011
U.S. military deaths in the Afghanistan War declined in 2011, the first drop in four years, amid a string of battlefield successes against Taliban insurgents by U.S. and other coalition forces. “We are very optimistic that the new trends will hold,” German Brig. Gen. Carsten Jacobson, the top coalition spokesman, said Monday in a telephone interview. The number of U.S. military deaths in Afghanistan totaled 405 last year, down 18% from 2010, according to Pentagon reports compiled by USA TODAY. Overall allied deaths , including U.S. forces, totaled 545 in 2011, down from 699 in 2010. The coalition death toll had been rising since 2005. A surge of more than 30,000 U.S. service members beginning in 2010 helped drive insurgents from their strongholds in the southern province of Helmand and in Kandahar, which is the Taliban’s spiritual homeland.
GOOD 2012 START FOR STOCKS
The Dow is up more than 200 points — following a spike in Asian and European stocks earlier in the day. Markets were buoyed as commodities advanced with signs of increased manufacturing output around the world. More here…
IRAN (1): THREATENING THE U.S.
Alex MARQUARDT reports the Iranian army chief threatened military action if the U.S. sends an aircraft carrier back to the Persian Gulf. Meanwhile, the BBC reports France says it is convinced Iran is developing nuclear weapons and wants the European Union to follow the US in imposing “stricter sanctions”.
IRAN (2): CURRENCY TAKES A HIT
Iran’s ailing currency took a steep slide Monday, losing 12 percent against foreign currencies after President Obama on Saturday signed a bill that places the Islamic republic’s central bank under unilateral sanctions. The currency, which economists say was held artificially high for years against the dollar and the euro, has lost about 35 percent of its value since September. The slide Monday came as Iran tested a domestically produced cruise missile during continuing naval drills near the strategic Strait of Hormuz, sending a message to the West that the country would not tolerate increased sanctions against its profitable oil industry. But in Tehran, people said they were bleeding money.
Armed clashes erupted in the center of Tripoli on Tuesday, with unknown gunmen trading anti-aircraft and heavymachinegun fire, an AFP reporter said. The fighting broke out at a building used as intelligence headquarters bythe former regime of slain dictator Moammar Gadhafi, which was surrounded by former rebel fighters who toppled him last year. There was no immediate clarity on the identities of the combatants.
EGYPTIANS HEAD TO POLLS, AS MUBARAK HEADS TO COURT
Alex MARQUARDT reports Egyptians lined up in front of polling centers in nine provinces to cast their ballots in the third round of the country’s first parliamentary elections. Meanwhile, In the Mubarak trial, the prosecution begins making its case today. There are increasing fears among the opposition that he will not be found guilty; the Al Ahram newspaper reports that the public prosecutor says Mubarak and his co-defendants are “not responsible” for the 850 protesters killed.
ISRAELIS AND PALESTINIANS: FIRST TALKS IN MORE THAN A YEAR
Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are meeting in Jordan today, for the first time in 15 months. Negotiations stalled in late 2010 after Israel refused to freeze Jewish settlement building in the West Bank. The Israeli Housing Ministry and Israel Lands Administration published three new tenders for construction of 300 housing units beyond the Green Line in Jerusalem, just hours before Israeli and Palestinian envoys were due to meet. The 300 new homes announced on Tuesday are part of 500 housing units that the Housing Ministry has already announced two weeks ago, with 47 units due to be built in Pisgat Ze’ev, and 247 apartments to be built in Har Homa. Approximately130 of those units will serve a retirement home. One NGO – Ir Amim – responded thus: “By releasing the tender at this time, Israel is slapping the face of [Jordan's] King Abdullah and the entire international community, morbidly injuring the already low chances of peace talks to be renewed.”
PROGRESS, SAUDI STYLE?
Simon MCGREGOR-WOOD calls attention to the new law in Saudi Arabia – which allows women to work in Saudi Arabia’s lingerie stores. With women now helping customers – under the new law men are banned.
FUKUSHIMA – NEW WORRY?
From Akiko FUJITA: Some troubling news out of the Fukushima plant, following the M 6.8 quake on New Year’s Day. TEPCO says the water level in reactor 4 dropped drastically, as a result of the shaking. The good news is, it didn’t affect the cooling of the spent nuclear fuel pool – at least, according to TEPCO.
WORLD’S FIRST HYBRID SHARK DISCOVERED IN AUSTRALIA — AND THE HYBRID MAKES IT STRONGER
Scientists say they’ve discovered the world’s first hybrid shark (a cross between the common blacktip shark and the Australian blacktip shark; related but genetically distinct species). 57 of the hybrids have been found so far, but this kind of a hybridization between sharks in the wild has never occurred before. Scientists say the interbreeding between the two shark species is a sign the animals are adapting to climate change. They warn that this kind of mating could make the sharks stronger.