SYRIA: “IS THIS WHAT THE UN IS WAITING FOR?”
-HOMS’ WORST DAY?…The Syrian military continued its bombardment of the restive city of Homs for a fifth straight day. Syrian opposition groups say at least 50 people have been killed this morning in Homs, including 18 premature babies at a local hospital that was hit by a mortar. Al Jazeera interviewed a number of activists on the ground who described the isolation and horror of Homs today. Danny Abdul Dayem, a Syrian activist has recorded another video appeal from the Baba Amr district of Homs. Speaking beside the body of a dead infant in a field hospital he said: “This child lost his brains. A bomb landed in his house. Is this what the UN is waiting for?” At least 150 people are believed to have died in Syria in the last 48 hours. Today Reuters spoke to an activist who said, “We counted 47 killed since midnight,” Mohammad Hassan said by satellite phone.
-ASSAD “COMMITTED” TO STOPPING THE VIOLENCE…Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is “completely committed” to stopping fighting in the country, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said after Tuesday’s meetings in Damascus. Assad has pledged to stop the violence before (including to ABC’s Barbara WALTERS) but he has also said the “violence” is primarily the work of insurgents and foreign-backed fighters. So a brutal crackdown on a restive city (I.e., Homs) may fit his definition of “stopping the fighting.”
-U.S. WEIGHS OPTIONS…Today’s bombardment comes one day after the Obama administration said that it would not support giving weapons to the Syrian opposition — for now, at least — despite calls from some congressional leaders to do so. Washington said its current focus is to organize a “contact group” to build stronger ties with the Syrian opposition and pressure Assad with tightened economic sanctions.
AIRBUS SAFETY CHECKS
Aircraft maker Airbus is to check the wings of all A380 superjumbo planes currently in service. The company has said that the cracks are not an immediate threat to safety and that repairs will be carried out if damage is found. Jim AVILA notes: This is the huge 2-decker plane….Largest in world. This follows Qantas grounding its 380 after 36 cracks were found on its wings following severe turbulence. 2 other planes had been grounded after cracks – Qantas says the cracks were caused by manufacture defect not rough air – but some must be asking today: Is it too big to fly?
LIBYA: WHERE ARE THE MISSILES?
Lama HASAN and Brian ROSS were early to this story last summer – and now comes a report that many of those missiles are still missing. From USA Today: Inspectors searching for those shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles amassed by Moammar Gadhafi and prized by terrorists can’t account for thousands of them. “The frank answer is we don’t know and probably never will,” said Andrew Shapiro, an Assistant Secretary of State. Inspectors have accounted for about 5,000 of the portable missiles and components. Gadhafi’s regime stockpiled about 20,000 portable missiles during his four decades in power. It is not clear how many remained at the time Tripoli fell to anti-Gadhafi rebels. Many were probably destroyed by NATO airstrikes, and others remain in the hands of militias who fought Gadhafi’s regime. That makes it difficult to estimate how many remain at large. “I think it’s potentially thousands,” said Rachel Stohl, an analyst at the Stimson Center, a think tank. “Nobody knows.” The missiles, called man-portable air defense systems, are ideal for terrorists because they are easily concealed and can hit commercial airliners.
U.S. SLASHING STAFF IN BAGHDAD EMBASSY
The New York Times reports the State Department is preparing to slash the enormous diplomatic presence it had planned for Iraq, by nearly half. Luis MARTINEZ flags State Department reaction from spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, who calls the Times’ report “exaggerated,” and says she hadn’t heard that 50 percent number. Nuland says there will be a review focused on the 16,000 contractors providing services to the nearly 2,000 US diplomats currently in Iraq.
CIA DIGS IN AS AMERICANS WITHDRAW
The CIA is expected to maintain a large clandestine presence in Iraq and Afghanistan long after the departure of conventional U.S. troops as part of a plan by the Obama administration to rely on a combination of spies and Special Operations forces to protect U.S. interests in the two longtime war zones, U.S. officials tell the Washington Post.
NEW EGYPT: MORE DISTRUSTFUL THAN THE OLD?
After last year’s popular revolt toppled Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak, U.S. democracy-building groups thought they would gain acceptance from a government that had long viewed them with suspicion. Instead, the opposite is happening. The Wall Street Journal and Washington Post both have articles today about the continuing influence of the old guard. Experts say that in some cases these groups have faced a level of harassment from the new rulers that outstrips what they experienced under Mubarak.
KEY PAKISTAN-NATO MEETING
The Pakistani army is slated to meet with NATO and Afghan forces today in an effort to improve coordination along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, a sign of thawing relations after American airstrikes accidentally killed 24 Pakistani soldiers late last year. This comes as at least 10 people were killed in an apparent U.S. drone attack in Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal region. Pakistani security officials said the missile strikes Wednesday targeted a compound believed to belong to anti-government fighters in the northwest region near the Afghan border.
RUSSIANS REACH “LOST” ANTARCTIC LAKE
Russian researchers say they have reached Antarctica’s largest icebound freshwater lake hidden for million of years under miles of ice. Russia’s Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute said in Wednesday’s statement that its team reached Lake Vostok on Sunday. See Ned POTTER’s piece here.
KATE TO GO SOLO FOR FIRST TIME
The Duchess of Cambridge will carry out her first solo public engagement tonight – a visit to a major art exhibition being staged by one of her organisations. Kate will tour the Lucian Freud show at the National Portrait Gallery, London, which opens to the public tomorrow. The royal, who has a degree in the history of art, became the gallery’s patron last month. Next Tuesday Kate will travel to Liverpool in support of Alder Hey Children’s Hospital and the charity Action on Addiction, of which she is also patron.
UGANDA’S ANTI-GAY BILL IS BACK
One of the most reviled pieces of legislation in Africa is back. Bazi KANANI reports: A bill to increase penalties on homosexuals has been reintroduced in Uganda’s parliament. The Anti-Homosexuality Bill that would make the death sentence mandatory for “repeat offenders” was shelved last year after an international outcry threats from Western donors to withdraw aid. Its supporters revised the bill to drop the proposed death penalty and instead require life in prison. The bill would also make it a crime to fail to report a known gay person to authorities.
LION ON THE LOOSE IN NAIROBI
KANANI again: Residents living near Nairobi National Park have been warned to watch out for a possible lion on the loose. Kenya Wildlife Service rangers are searching for the King of the Jungle. So far traps set to catch it have only captured hyenas. It is not uncommon for wildlife to get to close to humans at the world’s only wildlife reserve set within city limits. Just last month, two lions wandered into a residential area near the park. Angry residents attacked and killed the lions which they claimed had been terrorizing them for months.
TOO MANY VACATION DAYS? SPAIN LOOKS TO CHANGE THAT
The Wall Street Journal reports that as Europe teeters, the Spanish Government is taking new measures to increase productivity. First item on the agenda: make it impossible for people to combine their weekends with holidays and vacation days. Many Spanish workers end up taking upwards of 50 days off per year – which accounts for an estimated hundreds of millions of euros in lost production.
SHARK DEATHS HIT DECADE HIGH
The Telegraph reports that seventy-five attacks occurred worldwide in 2011, but the number of fatalities doubled compared with 2010. The average global fatality rate for the last decade was just under 7 per cent, and it rose to 16 per cent last year. Excluding the United States, which had 29 shark attacks but no deaths, the international fatality rate averaged 25 per cent in 2011.