IRAN & THE NUCLEAR PROGRAM
-AHMADINEJAD AT REACTOR…Iran says it has begun loading domestically made nuclear fuel rods into its Tehran research reactor, a defiant move in response to toughening Western sanctions. The official IRNA news agency said President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad inserted the first Iranian-made nuclear fuel rod into the reactor in north Tehran. State TV broadcast Wednesday's ceremony live, showing nuclear experts briefing Ahmadinejad on the process. Iran touted the development as an incremental step in the country's efforts to master the complete nuclear fuel cycle, despite Western penalties and U.N. sanctions. As Christiane AMANPOUR notes, this isn't directly related to the weapons program - today's announcement is more likely a move to show his people (and the world) that they can proceed despite sanctions. The Iranian broadcast included pictures inside the reactor and references to the nuclear scientists who have been killed in those recent attacks.
-OIL EXPORTS CUT…Today's developments come as Iran said it has cut oil exports to six European countries - the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, France, Greece and Portugal - in response to European Union sanctions.
THAI BOMBS UPDATE
Randy KREIDER reports: The homemade "sticky" bombs discovered in a Bangkok house after those blasts Tuesday were similar to devices used against Israeli Embassy targets in India and Georgia, Israeli and Thai officials said Wednesday. Thai officials are now saying that the Iranians were planning to target Israeli officials in Bangkok. They also said two of the men were detained, and a third suspect who fled the destroyed house escaped to Malaysia Tuesday night.
-ASSAD SETS REFERENDUM…As many Syrian cities burn, the country's state-run news agency says President Bashar al-Assad has set February 26 for a national referendum on a new draft constitution. The document was handed to Assad last week by members of the drafting committee. The new draft reportedly leaves out a clause that says the ruling Baath Party is the "leader of the nation and society."
-OIL PIPELINE HIT… Dramatic footage from Homs today - after an oil pipeline in the central city of Homs has been hit, causing a huge fire. The government blames saboteurs - the opposition Local Coordination Committees say the pipeline was hit Wednesday morning in the neighborhood of Baba Amr, which has been shelled by regime troops for the past 12 days. Video by Homs activists broadcast on social networking sites shows thick black smoke billowing from what appears to be a residential area.
-CRACKDOWN SPREADS, BATTLES RAGE…Alex MARQUARDT reports from Syria's border with Turkey that the regime's crackdown is spreading from Homs to other cities. "Everyone we talk to says the situation has changed in the last 48 hours. Crackdown looming in Idlib, shelling started. Tanks moved to the north, blocking exit routes. Divisions moving up from Homs. A very well-connected smuggler here says he has stopped crossing…Syrian forces are now in towns along the border. 3 Free Syrian Army troops were killed last night crossing border, ambushed at 2am. Lots of fear…" Marquardt has spoken to Syrian families who have fled and to soldiers who have defected - "all of whom are begging for international support."
XI IN AMERICA
-HOW THE CHINESE SEE IT…From Gloria RIVIERA in Beijing: Xi dominates front page coverage here (but Jeremy Lin has the lock on Sina Weibo, China's Twitter). Several organizations (including the Xinhua news agency and CCTV) ran a headline with this take: "Obama: US welcomes peaceful rise of China". Articles are accompanied by extensive photo spreads portraying Xi as the global statesman. If the intention is a soft opening for the country's next leader, the message is that Xi is Mr. Obama's equal. Not much on specific issues: Nowhere on the front page of China Daily, for example, do the words "trade", "military", "nuclear", "Asia-Pacific" or "human rights" appear. Coverage does touch on Taiwan and Tibet - noting that Xi highlighted these as issues the US should deal with in a way so as "to avoid repeated disturbances in bilateral ties". China Daily skips news analysis to run a front-page story on the decrepit state of U.S. infrastructure. It reports at length on China's ability to assist the U.S. in repairing and developing the "crumbling U.S. infrastructure system".
-CHINA BLOCKED U.S. RIGHTS OFFICIAL?…From the Washington Post: Chinese officials denied a visa to a top State Department envoy and refused to meet with her to discuss issues of religious freedom days before this week's high-profile visit to Washington by China's vice president, according to rights advocates and others. Suzan Johnson Cook, the U.S. ambassador at large for international religious freedom, was scheduled to travel to China on Feb. 8, according to several rights advocates who were invited to brief her ahead of the visit. But as the date drew near, Chinese leaders refused to grant her meetings with government officials. They then cited her lack of scheduled meetings as a reason for denying her visa application.
-XI & THE HEARTLAND…From the AP: The last time China's soon-to-be leader visited Iowa, he slept in a bedroom with green shag carpeting and Star Trek character cutouts on the walls. He ate eggs with a spoon because his host forgot the chopsticks. But as the AP reports, apparently Xi Jinping (shee jeen ping) remembered the 1985 stay fondly because he insisted on returning this week to Muscatine, a small farming community he toured to learn about crop and livestock practices. Back then, he was a young Communist Party leader seeking ideas to help his agriculture-rich region of northern China. Now the nation's vice president, he made certain to add Muscatine to his jam-packed itinerary so he could reunite with the same Americans who showed him around the region's hog and cattle operations and its abundant corn and soybean fields. "I'm flabbergasted that he would take time out of his busy schedule and come back to Muscatine," said Eleanor Dvorchak, whose family hosted him for two nights.
CHINA HAS A LIN PROBLEM
Sure, there's Jeremy Lin Fever in Asia. But is the Knicks new superstar a problematic poster child for the Chinese government? "Linsanity" has taken hold in China where his "jerseys have sold out, even including the counterfeit ones", according to The New York Times. The paper traces Lin's ancestral home to Jiaxing, a city on the northeastern outskirts of Hangzhou where Lin's maternal grandmother grew up. Lin's following on Weibo, China's Twitter-like microblog, has exploded to more than a million fans. But official Chinese media have been notably quiet. Gloria RIVIERA notes there are signs that his Taiwanese background and devout Christianity sit uncomfortably with government censors. On Wednesday morning, the sports channel of CCTV ran a taped Champions League football match instead of a live broadcast of Lin steering the Knicks to victory. Chinese fans have been asking why CCTV has not shown his games. Online forums are awash with speculation that the Taiwanese flags waved by some of his fans are the impediment. China considers Taiwan a breakaway province and rejects any displays of Taiwanese independence. As Gloria puts it, "Lin is an interesting story here for two reasons beyond his talent on the court: his ancestry and his faith." NYTimes: "Lin is commonly described as Taiwanese-American because his parents grew up in Taiwan before moving to the states, where Lin was born. But mainland China is already starting to claim him as his own, part of an incessant rivalry across the Taiwan Strait." Also on Weibo are several comparisons not to Yao Ming but Tim Tebow for their shared Christian faith. "You are the miracle, you are the God, Jesus is with you!" wrote one today. Christians suffer from religious prosecution here, but Lin is giving them a new reason to praise God.
HONDURAS: HORROR IN A PRISON
Matt GUTMAN reports: Authorities say fire has swept through a prison in Honduras, killing at least 300 inmates and burning many more. Comayagua fire department spokesman Josue Garcia said he saw "hellish" scenes while trying to put out the fire. Garcia said many prisoners were trapped because the guard who had the keys to their cells could not be located.
Bloomberg reports French President Nicolas Sarkozy is set to unveil today his plan to seek a second term, betting Europe's debt crisis will bolster his bid. Sarkozy, 57, has promised to be a "captain in the storm," joining with Germany's Angela Merkel to find an exit from the economic slump caused by the European financial crisis that began more than two years ago in Greece. Meanwhile, Germany saw exports slow down as the debt crisis hit its European neighbors and their demand for German goods. In France there was surprise growth at the end of last year, with the economy expanding by 0.2% in the fourth quarter BBC reports.
IRAQ WAR VETS: WHO COMES TO WHITE HOUSE DINNER?
From USA Today: Over the course of a few days this month, the Pentagon hand-picked 64 troops as stand-ins for the 1.5 million Americans who fought in Iraq to attend a formal White House dinner Feb. 29 officially honoring service and sacrifice in the nine-year war. There were broad-stroke demands by the White House that left senior enlisted officers with each service scrambling on short notice to find just the right soldier, sailor, Airman, Marine or Coast Guardsmen, according to interviews with military leaders Tuesday. First and foremost, every state, territory and the District of Columbia had to be represented. Ethnic, racial and gender diversity was crucial, and every service and every rank had to be included. "The whole kit and caboodle," said Marine Sgt. Maj. Brian Battaglia, senior enlisted adviser to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and highest ranking enlisted officer in the military. "What we wanted inside that (East) Room is America," Battaglia said of the White House location where the dinner will be held. One group, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, which represents 200,000 former servicemembers, has said that a more fitting tribute to Iraq veterans would be a ticker tape parade in New York City.
UGANDA: GOVERNMENT OFFICIAL SHUTS DOWN GAY RIGHTS CONFERENCE
From Bazi KANANI: A cabinet minister in Uganda is defending his move to abruptly shut down a workshop for gay rights activists at a hotel in Entebbe on Monday. Gay rights groups and a local newspaper report Minister for Ethics and Integrity Simon Lokodo also tried to have the organizer arrested, but she escaped. Lokodo told the BBC this morning he closed the conference because it is illegal. "We do not accept homosexuality in Uganda, so go back home," he was quoted as saying to workshop participants in Uganda's Daily Monitor. This comes just days after a controversial anti-gay was reintroduced, and then retabled, in Uganda's parliament. The bill's sponsor said he is not giving up on his plan to require a life sentence for gays considered "repeat offenders."
SOMALIA: MAJOR OFFENSIVE ON AL SHABAB
KANANI again: Heavy fighting is reported outside Mogadishu as African Union forces move toward the nearby town of Afgoye, a key Al Shabab stronghold. Analysts say if AU troops seize Afgoye it will be a significant loss for the Shabab. Yesterday, the African Union reported some successes in the advance toward to Afgoye. They battled the militants to seize a hill that oversees the southern roads to Mogadishu's airport and a building on the road to Afgoye.
MAJOR CYCLONE MOVING OVER MADAGASCAR
NASA images show the enormous size of Cyclone Giovanna as it passes over the world's fourth largest island. It made landfall early Tuesday with winds of up to 120 miles per hour. Video posted online shows some of the aftermath: downed trees and power lines, tin roofs shredded. At least two people are reported dead and it is expected thousands of homes were destroyed. The extent of the damage is not yet known because the roads are impassable and phone lines have been cut to the eastern villages most affected. Madagascar-considered one of the most important conservation priorities by the World Wildlife Federation-is home to many unique species of plants and animals. It is a popular destination for tourists but not during this time of year when it is prone to heavy rain and cyclones.
JAPAN PLANNED TSUNAMI RISK REVIEW
The AP reports TEPCO promised a full assessment of the risk of a large disaster at the Fukushima plant - four days before the tsunami hit last year. But that review wasn't scheduled for another 7 months. Documents detailing TEPCO's plan said a tsunami as high as 33 feet might hit the plant (much higher than the 20 foot surge it was designed to withstand). The actual tsunami that hit March 11th, was 45 feet. While it's easy to criticize TEPCO in hindsight, this latest report does raise serious questions about the slow pace of decision making in Japan. Experts had warned about the possibility of a large disaster for nearly 2 years, but TEPCO didn't act right away. The AP report is even more troubling, in light of recent news that the government has approved the stress tests for the Oi reactors in western Japan. That essentially paves the way for the reactors to restart later this year, despite calls for additional tests from other experts. There's a sense that the lessons of Fukushima have already been forgotten….
ENTIRE VILLAGE IN INDIA MOVES - TO PROTECT TIGERS
An entire village has been relocated in the northern Indian state of Rajasthan to protect tigers, officials say. More than 350 people from 82 families in Umri village, in the Sariska tiger reserve, moved to a new location. The number of tigers in Sariska had dwindled to zero before growing to five over the last three years. There are 11 villages with a population of nearly 2,500 people located in the heart of the tiger reserve which need to be relocated to improve the habitat, Rajasthan's chief conservator of forests, PS Somasekhar, told the BBC.
SONY'S "SMART SOCKETS"
From Akiko FUJITA in Tokyo: Sony has unveiled new electric wall sockets that can track power consumption by appliance or user. The "smart sockets" demonstrated in Tokyo, use a chip to determine the user's identity. Basically, your electric plug would hold the chip and the outlet would act as the reader…so you can control who uses electricity at restaurants/cafes (i.e. limit it to those people who spend 5 hours at Starbucks, on their laptops). Businesses would be able to charge based on that information. Sony also wants to install the technology in homes, to track the amount of energy consumed by each household on a larger power grid. The company has no firm date for when the technology will be released.