SYRIA: U.N. VOTE, CRIES FOR HELP
-THE VOTE…The U.N. General Assembly votes this afternoon on an Arab League plan to end the violence in Syria, and will call for a special UN envoy to press for peace – if not regime change – after a nearly year-long uprising and series of crackdowns. US officials expect the General Assembly to pass the resolution “overwhelmingly” with more than 100 countries voting in favor. The language of the resolution is very similar to one voted down by Russia and China in the Security Council two weeks ago. One big change: no language calling for U.N. peacekeepers to go to Syria.
-DEFECTORS + REFUGEES…Soldiers who once served the Assad and regime tell Alex MARQUARDT they were ordered to fire on their own people – and that the government’s mantra that this is a battle against “terrorists” isn’t true. Those soldiers are now joining the ranks of rebel fighters determined to bring down the Assad government. Marquardt also spoke with families who fled the violence – including one woman who gave birth along the border to a boy who is now seven months old. The families say they are desperate to return home – but won’t go back without some international guarantee for their safety.
-THE CRACKDOWN SPREADS…Fighting broke out in Deraa today – cradle of the uprising and a city MARQUARDT visited two months ago. There were exchanges of fire between the Assad regime’s forces and the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The sound of explosions and machinegun fire echoed through the city’s al-Balad, al-Mahatta and al-Sad districts as government troops attacked rebels, Reuters reports – and the rebels responded by firing at army roadblocks and buildings housing security police and militiamen, according to residents and activists. It appears that the goal of the regime’s forces is to clear out FSA elements that have gained control of parts of the city. “We have been hearing of a military build-up around Deraa for two weeks,” Hussam Izzedine, a member of the Syrian human rights organisation Swasiah, told Reuters from Deraa. “Deraa has been regaining its role in the uprising. Demonstrations have resumed and the Free Syrian Army has been providing security for protests in some parts of the city,” he added.
-AL QAEDA IN SYRIA?…It’s long been the argument from Assad: We are fighting terrorism in Syria. Now come reports that Sunni extremists, including fighters linked to Al Qaeda’s franchise in neighboring Iraq, are likely responsible for two big recent bombings in the Syrian capital as well as attacks on Friday in Aleppo, the country’s largest city. As the violence in Syria escalates, analysts and U.S. officials tell the NYTimes that Al Qaeda is seeking to exploit the turmoil and reinvigorate its regional ambitions after being sidelined in the initial popular uprisings of the Arab Spring a year ago.
-TALKING TO THE TALIBAN…The U.S. and Afghan governments have begun secret three-way talks with the Taliban, Afghan President Hamid Karzai told The Wall Street Journal, disclosing an important breakthrough in efforts to end the 10-year war. Mr. Karzai, whose government had protested being left out of recent talks between Washington and the insurgents, added he believes most Taliban are “definitively” interested in a peace settlement. ”There have been contacts between the U.S. government and the Taliban, there have been contacts between the Afghan government and the Taliban, and there have been some contacts that we have made, all of us together, including the Taliban,” Mr. Karzai said in the interview Wednesday in his office at the Arg Palace in Kabul. Karzai has arrived in Pakistan for talks on how Islamabad can facilitate peace negotiations with the Afghan Taliban. Nick SCHIFRIN reports over the next two days that Karzai and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will be in Islamabad: first for an Af-Pak bilateral that will focus on reconciliation, and then a trilateral that will focus on trade.
-PAKISTAN’S BORDER REMAINS CLOSED TO NATO…The U.S. Embassy says Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan remains closed to NATO despite comments by a senior Pakistani official that seemed to indicate the coalition would be allowed to transport some food items.
IRAN EMBELLISHING NUCLEAR GAINS – ISRAELI OFFICIAL
Israel’s Defense Minister says Iran’s latest claim of dramatic advancements in its nuclear program is exaggerated but that Tehran’s nuclear pursuits remain a threat. Ehud Barak told Israel Radio Thursday that the Iranians are “presenting a situation as better than what it really is.”
HONDURAS PRISON DISASTER: MANY INMATES HAD NEVER BEEN CHARGED
The prisoners whose scorched bodies were carried out Thursday morning from a charred Honduran prison had been locked inside an overcrowded penitentiary where most inmates had never been charged, let alone convicted, according to an internal Honduran government report obtained by The Associated Press. More than half of the 856 inmates of the Comayagua farm prison north of the Central American country’s capital were either awaiting trial or being held as suspected gang members.
ROMNEY’S EDITORIAL ON CHINA
Mitt Romney takes to the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal today to speak out on China. Of course Mr. Romney is dissatisfied with the President’s current diplomacy and describes how “we must change course.” Romney claims that on the first day of his presidency he would designate a currency manipulator and take counteraction against “China’s cheating.”
GLOBAL WARMING PLAN
From the Washington Post: With global efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions stalled, the United States and five other countries are starting a new program to cut other pollutants — including methane, soot and hydrofluorocarbons — that contribute to global warming. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is set to announce the five-year initiative Thursday morning. Canada, Sweden, Mexico, Ghana and Bangladesh are also participating. The plan will be administered by the United Nations Environment Program, with a $12 million contribution from the United States for the first two years. Canada will add $3 million; contributions from the other countries are not known. Carbon dioxide — from burning fossil fuels — plays the largest role in pushing up global temperatures, climate scientists say. But methane, soot and hydrofluorocarbons also contribute to global warming. Combined, those three pollutants are believed to account for 30 to 40 percent of the nearly one degree Celsius rise in global temperatures since the beginning of the 20th century. If adopted globally, measures to reduce soot and methane emissions could slow global warming by about a half a degree Celsius by 2030, according to research published in January.
ANOTHER FAMINE LOOMING?
From Bazi KANANI in Nairobi: Aid groups say some children arriving at refugee camps outside of war torn border regions of Sudan are dying from starvation, and it will only get worse if the Sudanese government won’t give aid agencies access to those regions. The Famine Early Warning System (FEWS NET) says the states of Blue Nile and South Kordofan will reach level four by March. This is one stage short of level five, or famine. Already more than 100,000 people have fled and are pouring into refugee camps in Ethiopia and South Sudan. Hundreds of thousands more could arrive in the coming months. Reuters Alert Net has a good summary of the situation here:
AL QAEDA’S ‘UNDERWEAR BOMBER’ TO BE SENTENCED
This may be the final day in court for the son of a prominent Nigerian banker who joined Al Qaeda and attempted to blow up that Detroit-bound passenger jet with a bomb hidden in his underwear. The sentencing hearing is this afternoon for Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. The 25-year-old faces a mandatory life sentence. He was unrepentant in October when he pleaded guilty to terrorism charges for the failed Christmas Day 2009 bombing attempt.
JAPANESE WOMEN – TOO SKINNY?
Akiko FUJITA reports from Tokyo: The Health Ministry says the number of Japanese women who are underweight has climbed to the highest level in 30 years. The numbers are so high, they are considering a plan to “fatten” women up again. Government studies found that nearly a third (29%) of women in their 20s were under average weight, and had a BMI index below 18.5% (considered average in Japan). Already the slimmest industrialized nation, young women in Japan are constantly under pressure to lose weight, as are older men and women. Japanese lawmakers actually implemented a maximum waistline size for anyone over the age of 40, in 2008 (33.5 inches for men, 90 centimeters for women). Companies conduct health checkups once a year. Those who fail to meet the waistline requirement are forced to undergo counseling. The goal is to save medical costs, by heading off health risks, in a country where health costs are already rising because of the large elderly population. The obesity rate in Japan is below 5%.
SWISS TO LAUNCH “JANITOR SATELLITE” TO COLLECT SPACE JUNK
Swiss scientists say they plan to launch a “janitor satellite” specially designed to get rid of orbiting debris known as space junk. The $11 million satellite, called CleanSpace One, is being built by the Swiss Space Center. The satellite’s launching would come within three to five years, and that its first tasks would be to retrieve two Swiss satellites that went into orbit in 2009 and 2010, the AP reports.
MORE CELLPHONES THAN HUMANS IN 2012, SAYS CISCO
Mobile devices will outnumber humans this year, according to network firm Cisco’s latest analysis of global mobile data traffic. By 2016 it predicts that there will be 10 billion mobile connected devices around the world. By the same date networks will be carrying 130 Exabyte’s of data each year, equivalent to 33 billion DVDs, the BBC reports.
FAKE PUTIN ARREST VIDEO BECOMES ONLINE HIT
A fake news report depicting Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin behind bars has become an online hit, getting nearly 3 million views in just three days. The digitally altered clip posted on YouTube used news footage of the 2010 trial of former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky to put Putin behind bars instead.