-INSIDE HOMS: “UNTIL WE DIE”…The city of Homs is in its fourth day of a military crackdown. Live pictures streamed from Homs this morning showed shelling and gunfire, as activists reported that Syrian Army tanks were seen at dawn. The BBC ran new, strong sound this morning from residents and activists in Homs; they describe the bloodshed, the horror and the ongoing shelling. The Independent also published chilling quotes from phone conversations with activists in Homs: “The army that is supposed to protect us is killing us. You cannot walk in the streets, you cannot go out. At the same time if you stay they will bomb and demolish your house.” The BBC’s Paul Wood continues to report from the city – only sporadically today. If you missed it – here’s his powerful piece done Monday.
-DIPLOMATIC EXITS; RUSSIA MAKES PUSH; CHINA TO SEND ENVOY?…Yesterday the U.S. closed its embassy in Damascus; today France and Italy have recalled their ambassadors. Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov arrived in Syria for talks with Assad. State TV showed huge pro-Assad crowds in Damascus – with people waving Russian and Syrian flags. And China – the other Security Council power to veto Saturday’s U.N. resolution – says it is considering sending envoys to Damascus to discuss ways to end the violence in Syria.
-ASSAD’S WIFE: STANDING BY HER MAN…Asma Assad has spoken for the first time since the uprising began last March, in a carefully-worded message to the London Times. In an e-mail sent via an intermediary, Asma Assad appears to offer full support to her husband, but also claims to be encouraging dialogue and comforting the bereaved. The message was greeted with anger and incredulity by Syrian experts and opposition activists. They accused her of an “ostrich attitude”, “intolerable hypocrisy” and being delusional. The e-mail from Mrs. Assad’s office stated: “The President is the President of Syria, not a faction of Syrians, and the First Lady supports him in that role.” It continued: “The First Lady’s very busy agenda is still focused on supporting the various charities she has long been involved with and rural development as well as supporting the President as needed. These days she is equally involved in bridging gaps and encouraging dialogue. She listens to and comforts the families of the victims of the violence.” Mrs. Assad, 36, approved the text after an article in The Times last week asked what such an intelligent, educated woman, raised in liberal Britain and with a long record of good works, must think of the slaughter, torture and imprisonment of thousands of protesters by her husband’s security forces.
-HOW ASSAD PREPPED FOR ABC NEWS…The Israeli daily Haaretz obtained e-mails between members of Assad’s team as it prepared for the Barbara Walters interview. Press aide Sheherezad Jaafari wrote: “It is hugely important and worth mentioning that ‘mistakes’ have been done in the beginning of the crises because we did not have a well-organized ‘police force.’ American psyche can be easily manipulated when they hear that there are ‘mistakes’ done and now we are ‘fixing it.’”. Haaretz got the email traffic from the hacking group Anonymous.
TENSION IN TEHRAN
-QUESTIONS FOR AHMADINEJAD…Iran’s parliament has summoned President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for questioning over a long list of accusations, including allegations that he mismanaged the nation’s economy. It’s the first summons of its kind for an Iranian president since 1979. It follows a petition by a parliamentary committee and is part of a power struggle ahead of March parliamentary elections.
-IRAN’S MIDDLE CLASS ON EDGE…The New York Times notes further evidence that sanctions against Iran are biting. Notably, the last round of sanctions on Iran’s Central Bank has made it all but impossible to transfer money abroad, hurting affluent businessmen but especially the middle class. One middle class businessman from north Tehran notes the brewing resentment: “They criticize Ahmadinejad and even the supreme leader by name now; it’s not like before.”
SAUDI WOMEN SUE FOR RIGHT TO DRIVE
The Wall Street Journal reports that a court in Saudi Arabia has agreed to hear the first lawsuits brought by Saudi women challenging the kingdom’s de facto ban on women driving. Since mid-2011, the limited push to win women the right to drive has been one of the few signs of progress in a country largely bypassed by the Arab Spring activist movements of the past year.
-CHINA’S GROWTH AT RISK?…A sharp downturn in Europe could cut China’s economic growth rate nearly in half, the International Monetary Fund says, adding to warnings about a possible severe global slowdown this year. The IMF is forecasting 8.2% growth this year for China but said that could be reduced by up to four percentage points if Europe’s crisis causes large declines in credit and output.
-GREECE CUTTING 15,000 JOBS
Despite new evidence of a deteriorating economy, Greece says it will cut 15,000 state jobs this year as part of new austerity measures it intends to adopt to secure new debt agreements from international lenders. In response, Greek workers walked off the job on Tuesday to protest those and other new austerity measures demanded by the country’s foreign creditors.
WILD EUROPE WEATHER
As if the Greeks didn’t have enough problems… Now a swollen river in Greece has burst its banks, flooding homes and forcing authorities to declare a state of emergency. In Poland, meanwhile, the big freeze that is holding the rest of Europe in its icy grip killed another six people in the last 24 hours, the Interior Ministry said. The temperatures in Poland have plunged as low as minus 26 F since the freeze began.
TRAFFIC TRICK: TAKE A CHOPPER
Alexandra NADEZHDINA reports from Moscow on a way for officials to avoid the rush-hour mess: Moscow City Hall is considering creating several dozen helicopter landing sites for senior officials so that they can avoid the capital’s ever-worsening traffic jams, Russian business daily Vedomosti reported Tuesday. The Ministry’s helicopter service plan envisages ten helicopter landing sites in Moscow and 40 in the broader Moscow Region. The cost of the project is estimated at six billion rubles ($200 million), the daily said. Senior officials in the capital already have special cars fitted with blue flashing lights known as “migalki,” which allow them to use exclusive lanes and ignore traffic rules, to speed up their journeys in Moscow’s acute traffic jams. Their behavior on the roads has come under criticism following a series of fatal accidents caused by driving in contravention of normal traffic rules.
SQUATTERS MOVED IN MOGADISHU
From Bazi KANANI in Nairobi: A major operation is underway in Somalia’s capital to remove the tens of thousands of people using government buildings as makeshift shelters. Local aid agencies estimate more than 50 thousand people living in schools, universities and ministry buildings will need to be re-housed in new camps. The operation comes ahead of the Summit on Somalia later this month, when representatives of more than 50 countries will visit Mogadishu.
FRANCE CRACKS DOWN ON AFRICAN LEADERS’ “ILL-GOTTEN” FORTUNES
The Guardian has an interesting article about the investigation in France of three serving African leaders and their families. Authorities there are looking into whether the families embezzled state funds to acquire their multi-million dollar bank accounts, penthouses and villas, and fleets of luxury cars. The families of Gabon’s leader Ali Bongo, Congo-Brazzaville’s leader Denis Sassou-Nguesso, and Equatorial Guinea’s President Teodoro Obiang are believed to have assets worth $210 million in France. ABC News reported last year the U.S. government is also trying to combat corruption by foreign officials and recover public funds for their proper use under the new Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative. In October, the Department of Justice moved to seize millions of dollars worth of assets from Obiang’s son, including a Malibu mansion and Michael Jackson’s iconic jeweled glove.
‘RESURRECTED’ FAMOUS SINGER TO FACE FRAUD CHARGES
First flagged by Jean FIEVET – and with this update from Bazi KANANI: South African police say the man who caused a big stir when he showed up claiming to be a deceased famous Zulu folk singer is an imposter. He is expected in court today to face fraud charges after police say his fingerprints did not match those of the late Mgqumeni Khumalo. Thousands of Khumalo’s fans flocked to his home on Sunday after they heard he might have returned alive. The man claiming to be him says he didn’t actually die, but was instead the victim of witchcraft. He managed to convince two of Khumalo’s wives and his grandmother, but not everyone. South African media report that at least one of the late singer’s girlfriends wasn’t buying it. Police have been holding him in custody until they could get evidence of his identity.
Great pictures from Taiwan of the annual lantern festival…
“TAKE ON ME”, KOREAN ACCORDION STYLE
As Molly HUNTER writes, “Wonder what A-ha would think of this rendition of ‘Take On Me,’ by young accordion players in Pyongyang, North Korea?”
HAPPY BIRTHDAY, CHARLES DICKENS
Prince Charles is leading ceremonies to mark the novelist’s 200th birthday. The heir to the British throne will lay a wreath Tuesday on the Dickens’ grave in Westminster Abbey’s Poet’s Corner, where actor Ralph Fiennes will give a reading.