SYRIA: FINAL ASSAULT?
-THE TROOPS MOVE IN…A harrowing situation appears to be unfolding in the already battered city of Homs at this hour. We are getting multiple reports that the much-feared ground assault by regime forces is underway near Baba Amr, the neighborhood of Homs that has seen such heavy shelling over the past few weeks. Syrian Army units - reportedly those under the command of President Assad's brother - are moving in, already engaged in heavy fighting with Free Syrian Army forces. A Syrian official vowed to the AP Baba Amr would be "cleaned" within hours. Power to many areas of the city is said to have been cut. One activist in the city, Mohammad al-Homsi, tells Reuters that infantry was moving towards the al-Bassel football stadium just north Baba Amr, and that "fierce confrontations with automatic rifles and heavy machine-guns are taking place there". And an unnamed Syrian security official tells AFP: "The army has started combing the area building by building and house by house. Now the troops are searching every basement and tunnel for arms and terrorists," he said. These pictures purport to show armored cars being brought into Homs today.
-TRAPPED JOURNALISTS…Three western journalists - one of them wounded - remain in Baba Amr, a day after the dramatic effort to get Sunday Times photojournalist Paul Conroy out. Activists say at least three people were killed in that operation. The group Avaaz (which coordinated the Conroy operation) won't say what efforts are being made to get the other out of Homs. The French Foreign Ministry demanded that the Syrian regime ensure conditions that allow for the "sure and rapid evacuation" of the two French journalists, "notably through an immediate cease-fire in Baba Amr."
-"ADOPT" AN ACTIVIST GROUP…The website pictures show the selection up for adoption: Kobani, Al Hasaka and Barzeh. What might at first appear to be abandoned pets in need of good homes are actually the names of Syrian revolutionary groups asking for help from the West. Through the "Adopt a Revolution" initiative, individuals and civil society groups abroad can "adopt" the activist group of their choice and help it to survive and succeed, USA Today reports.
-THE TOLL…The UN now says more than 7,500 people have died in Syria.
-'HUMANITARIAN' VOTE AT UN?… BBC reports a new resolution is being drawn up at the United Nations to focus on humanitarian aid for Syria, in the hope both China and Russia, which have opposed previous votes, will back it. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said Wednesday that Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi broached the idea of assistance in telephone conversations this week with the head of the Arab League.
U.S.-NORTH KOREA DEAL
While we watch Iran for nuclear news - the U.S. is reporting a major deal with North Korea. We have seen similar agreements before over the years - but here is the AP's take: The United States says North Korea has agreed to suspend uranium enrichment and agree to a moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland also said Wednesday the North has agreed to alllow International Atomic Energy Inspectors to verify and monitor the moratorium on uranium enrichment and confirm disablement of its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon. Her statement says the U.S. will meet with North Korea to finalize details for a proposed package of 240,000 metric tons of food aid.
IRAN, ISRAEL + THE U.S.
-QUOTE OF THE DAY…An easy choice - thanks to Alex MARQUARDT for flagging. "The [Iran] talks with the Americans are like porcupines having sex: slowly and carefully." That's an Israeli official speaking to Haaretz.
-NETANYAHU'S PUSH…In Washington next week, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu will press President Obama to state unequivocally that the United States is preparing for a military operation in the event that Iran crosses certain "red lines," a senior Israeli official told Haaretz. Israel wants the U.S. to move beyond "all options are on the table" to increase pressure on Iran.
-HOW IRAN MIGHT RESPOND…The NYTimes looks at the potential Iranian response to an Israeli attack, concluding (much as we've heard from several analysts) that it would would respond with attacks on Israeli and American targets but that the response would be relatively measured: missile attacks on Israel and terrorist-style attacks on both Israeli and American targets. "That reaction will be calculated and in proportion to its capabilities. Iran will not set the Middle East on fire," said a former Israeli official. "Is 40 missiles on Tel Aviv nice?…No. But it's better than a nuclear Iran."
EGYPT + NGO GROUPS
The three judges in that NGO trial have pulled out because "the court felt uneasiness," a court official told the AP. There is obviously a lot more at play here than the fates of 16 (or 19?) American NGO staffers, as Alex MARQUARDT writes. The whole US-Egypt-Israel relationship is in the balance. Hillary Clinton told a Senate panel yesterday the two sides are "moving toward a resolution."
COSTA CRUISE MESS - AGAIN
Helicopters have been ferrying food, phones and flashlights to the passengers and crew of Costa's latest stricken cruise ship. As the Costa Allegra limps, powerless, toward land, the chief executive of the Seychelles' civil aviation authority says planes are being lined up to fly passengers to Rome. Jeffrey KOFMAN reports that the ship is due in the Seychelles at dawn Thursday - and many passengers are already saying they'd like to stay on the islands after their ordeal. Two customs agents were flown to the ship to pre-clear all aboard so they can get off as soon as they arrive. Meanwhile, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation holds a hearing today, titled 'A Review of Cruise Ship Safety and Lessons Learned from the Costa Concordia Accident' in Washington.
WHITE HOUSE DINNER TO HONOR IRAQ WAR VETERANS
The White House hosts its first ever State Dinner honoring Iraqi Vets tonight. ABC's Bob WOODRUFF has been formally invited to the dinner and will have an interview with the President before the event. The formal dinner, "A Nation's Gratitude," hosted by the President and First Lady, will recognize and honor the men and women who served in Iraq and the families who supported them. According to the White House, 78 service members from across America will be in attendance representing more than a million Americans and their families who made personal sacrifices throughout the war.
INDIA: "MILITANTS" ARRESTED - CARRYING EXPLOSIVES
From Karson YIU: Indian police say they have arrested two men carrying explosives near the main railway station in New Delhi. The "suspected militants" were detained after police received a tip-off from intelligence agencies about their possible arrival and plans to attack high-profile people and installations, the Press Trust of India (PTI) reported. India Home Minister P. Chidambaram almost immediately blamed Laskar-e-Taiba (LeT), the group which India holds responsible for the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks that left 166 people dead.
PUTIN'S "VIRGIN" ADS
Think political ads are out of bounds here? Kirit RADIA reports from Moscow: A new series of Putin campaign ads aims to woo first-time voters, and are filled with sexual innuendo. In one a young woman visits her doctor and says she is nervous about her "first time." The doctor tells her it's ok as long as it is for love. She is then seen leaving the doctor and walking into a polling center to vote for Putin. In another ad another young woman visits a fortune teller who tells her that her "first time" will be for love. The tarot cards she lays out come up with a Putin card. The ending is the same, with the woman entering the polling station and the odd slogan "Putin. The first time - only for love" on the screen.
CHINESE COURT HEARS APPLE APPEAL ON iPAD TRADEMARK
A Chinese court on Wednesday began hearing Apple's appeal of a ruling against its right to use the iPad trademark in China. Apple Inc. is in several legal battles with Proview Electronics Co., which the U.S. company says sold it the rights to the iPad trademark in 10 different countries, including China, in 2009. Apple contends that Proview has refused to honor the agreement and has not indicated any willingness to settle with Proview, a maker of computer monitors and LED lights, The Washington Post reports.
COP ON A SCOOTER SAVES MOTHER & TODDLER
AP has fed this CCTV material shot earlier this month in Beijing. It's shows a young mother holding her toddler perched on a bridge preparing to jump to their death. A passing policemen on a scooter stops and grabs her in the nick of time.