-CHARGING SGT. BALES…Luis MARTINEZ reports that Criminal charges against Sgt. Robert Bales in the deaths of 17 Afghan civilians are expected today. Bales will continue to be held at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, but it’s expected that the proceedings will be held at his home base of Fort Lewis in Washington. We’ve also learned that Bales was allowed to call his wife Carilyn on Wednesday. The couple is said to have spoken for 10 minutes about family matters and were advised not to speak about the case. It was the couple’s first conversation since the shootings. The AP reports an incident in 2008 where Bales, heavily drunk, was accused of assault after an altercation with a woman and her boyfriend at a bowling alley. He was not charged. This comes after reports of another incident in 2002, where he was arrested for a drunken assault of a security guard. US officials have said Bales had been drinking the night of the shooting spree. Some soldiers have told ABC News that Bales was a “mean drunk.”
-RELATIVES OF THE VICTIMS…As charges against Bales are readied, the WSJournal interviews several of the villagers who lost relatives in the massacre. They say that the arrival of American troops in the Panjway district has only provoked more Taliban attacks – promoting villagers to flee. The only ones who remain were those who couldn’t afford to move their families. The villagers repeated claims first reported by the AP that U.S. troops had threatened village elders after a roadside bomb hit a U.S. vehicle in the days before the massacre, saying the village would pay a price if the attacks occurred again. And as they told ABC News in the aftermath of the killings, they continue to believe more than one soldier was involved. One father who spoke to the Journal lost 11 members of his family.
POPE BENEDICT HEADS FOR MEXICO, CUBA
Pope Benedict is headed for his landmark trip to Latin America - his first visits to Mexico and Cuba. Having taken 16 of his 22 trips to Europe, this one is “the pope’s debt payment to Latin America,” Mexican cardinal Juan Sandoval told the Informador newspaper in an interview. The pontiff used a cane for the first time in public as he crossed the runway to board his plane. He’s due to land in Leon, Mexico at 6:30pm ET. Cuba is sure to be the more interesting leg of this trip; no Pope has visited Cuba since John Paul II in 1998. Many Vatican-watchers and people in the two countries have noted that Benedict has tough shoes to fill – after the hugely popular visits his predecessor made to Mexico and Cuba more than a decade ago. In Cuba, Benedict may meet Fidel Castro; he will certainly meet Fidel’s brother and the country’s current leader Raul Castro. As the NYTimes writes, the Catholic Church in Cuba is experiencing some pains. The church’s profile has risen sharply in recent years – and it has played a role in the release of political prisoners, but the church is also struggling to attract more worshipers, and faces criticism that it has grown too close with Cuba’s leader.
-REBELLION IN TROUBLE?…It would be a first in the year-long cascade of uprisings and crackdowns that have characterized the so-called “Arab Spring”: a rebellion basically falling apart. We’re not there yet – but the Washington Post reports the Syrian rebels have acknowledged for the first time that their rebel movement – at least the armed element - is faltering in the face of a concerted government offensive. Since the highly publicized rout of Free Syrian Army fighters from the Baba Amr neighborhood of Homs three weeks ago, rebels have been on the run in other parts of the country, staging retreats across a swath of territory from Idlib in the north to the eastern city of Deir al-Zour. Fighters now are withdrawing at the first signs of government offensives. They plan to focus instead on guerrilla tactics, such as roadside bombings and ambushes, but even those efforts are facing difficulties as the supply of ammunition dries up.
-BORDER CLASHES…Rare video has emerged from clashes this morning of a helicopter engaged in a firefight over the city of A’zaz. Fighting there has left at least three soldiers dead this morning.
-CRACKDOWN ON ASMA ASSAD…As reported here yesterday, EU foreign ministers are set to impose a travel ban and asset freeze today on President Assad’s wife Asma. However, the BBC’s Jon Williams reports the ban will not block Asma from traveling to the UK since she is a British citizen. Four other members of the Assad family and eight government ministers were also targeted in today’s latest round of sanctions.
U.S. TO RESUME AID TO EGYPT
As Dana HUGHES reports, Secretary of State Clinton is announcing plans to allow $1.3 billion of aid to go to the Egyptian military. The military assistance will go forward despite Egypt’s failure to meet certain pro-democracy conditions.
FRENCH TERROR: PATH TO RAMPAGE
The death of Mohamed Merah, the suspected French killer who met his end Thursday in a barrage of special-forces gunfire, left officials piecing together how he became the alleged homegrown terrorist behind the most violent attacks on French soil in almost two decades. The WSJournal reports that a more complete picture is emerging of Mr. Merah, who police say conducted seven point-blank killings in and around Toulouse over the previous 11 days. In recent years, the French citizen of Algerian descent appeared to be looking for a place to belong—seeking twice, without success, to join the French armed services. He had also, according to his own account, sought to belong to al Qaeda. As he was pinned inside a Toulouse apartment by special forces, he told a police negotiator he had trained with al Qaeda in Afghanistan and in the Pakistani militant stronghold of Waziristan.
From the AP and Dana HUGHES: Drought, floods and a lack of fresh water may cause global instability and conflict in the coming decades, as developing countries scramble to meet demand from exploding populations while dealing with the effects of climate change, U.S. intelligence agencies said Thursday. An assessment reflecting the joint judgment of federal intelligence agencies says the risk of water issues causing wars will jump beyond 2022, particularly in South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa. It says floods, scarce and poor quality water, combined with poverty, social tension, poor leadership and weak governments will contribute to instability that could lead the failure of numerous states. Those elements “will likely increase the risk of instability and state failure, exacerbate regional tensions and distract countries from working with the United States on important policy objectives.” Clinton, who unveiled a new U.S. Water Partnership that aims to share American water management expertise with the rest of the world, called the findings “sobering.” “These threats are real and they do raise serious security concerns,” she said.
RUSSIAN BANKER GUNNED DOWN IN LONDON
From Kirit RADIA in Moscow: An odd story given where it took place…German Gorbunstov, the former owner of several banks in Russia and Moldova, is in critical condition after being shot by an unknown assailant wielding a machine gun near his London home earlier this week. His lawyer thinks it could be retaliation for his role in a 2009 investigation into the attempted murder of another Russian banker.
MALIA’S SPRING BREAK IN MEXICO
We paid attention because of the 7.4 temblor that rocked southern Mexico Monday – but now the NYTimes details more of Malia Obama’s spring break trip to Mexico. Malia and her classmates are said to have volunteered at an orphanage in Oaxaca, and visited archaeological sites and village famous for producing pottery and wood carvings. They also dined in a restaurant where the owner tells the Times Malia ordered cheese quesadillas – in Spanish.
CHINA: RACE TO RESCUE MINERS
Chinese rescue workers are battling to free 17 miners trapped in the northeastern part of China. An explosion on Thursday killed 5 workers and injured a sixth. Family members are on their way to the scene. The 17 trapped workers are reportedly gathered together on an underground platform. Mine accidents are common in China, which has long been criticized for widespread corruption and inefficiency throughout the industry. The latest figures show that 2,433 people died in mining accidents in 2010 alone; a rate of more than six workers per day. The number could be higher due to underreporting. Last week 13 miners died in eastern China and in February 15 miners were killed when a tramcar derailed in a coal mine in central China. Reports on this latest accident are that the mine was supposed to have been shut down for safety violations. The owner “ran away” after the accident according to local officials. China is the world’s top consumer of coal. During the cold winter months the mines operate at full capacity.
AUSTRALIA: FISHERMAN SURVIVES THREE DAYS STALKED BY CROC
From Gloria RIVIERA: What was meant to be a relaxing weekend fishing trip quickly turned into a fight for his life as Terry Donovan, 65, fended off a pack of saltwater crocodiles. Donovan didn’t expect to see any but did and grew worried when the small fisherman’s hut he was in became flooded. He sought refuge on a pool table inside the hut, but the water kept going up and up. “And I thought, ‘Well, the next step is the roof, I’m out of here’,” said Donovan. Failure to answer his satellite phone prompted a rescue crew to come searching for him. Donovan was eventually spotted by a passing helicopter. Officials were then alerted and a local fishermen quickly came to his rescue. Australia’s tropical north is infested with this type of croc. They are known to kill an average of two people per year.
WATCH AS A MOUNTAIN TOP IS BLOWN OFF
Gina SUNSERI offers this opportunity: A mountain top in Chile will be leveled for the new Magellan Telescope today (Noon eastern time) and the images will be streamed live. This from Texas A & M: View the detonation of a mountain peak March 23, 2012, to begin site preparation for the construction of the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) in Chile. Live streaming video coverage is provided courtesy of the U.S. Embassy. Login as a “guest” to view at https://statedept.connectsolutions.com/chile Dr. Darren DePoy, Texas A&M’s liaison for the project, says: “Due to their extensive mining industry, Chileans are experts at blowing up large amounts of rock, which is a great thing for science! The goal is to chop the top off the mountain to reach stable and solid bedrock on which the enormous telescope can rest. The foundation must be secure, since the entire 1,000-ton telescope has to be able to point at any place in the sky to the precision equivalent of the width of a human hair. The amount of rock to be removed would nearly fill Kyle Field, Texas A&M’s football stadium.”