SYRIA: TOP U.N. OFFICIAL VISITS, AS REGIME MOPS UP AFTER THE CARNAGE
-INSIDE HOMS…It’s a surreal scene: Syrian government troops and workers sweeping the streets of Homs, basically sweeping away signs of the bloody crackdown. Of course certain things cannot be swept away: from the air you can see a battle-scarred landscape over the battered Baba Amr landscape; and thousands of women and children have fled Homs for the Lebanese border. As Alex MARQUARDT reports, UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos is visiting Homs today – granted access after three months of trying, and only after the regime had reclaimed control over the city. Amos said she had come to “urge all sides to allow unhindered access for humanitarian relief workers so they can evacuate the wounded and deliver essential supplies.” The ICRC and Syrian Red Crescent are still waiting for access to Baba Amr – where the Syrian authorities are doing most of that cleanup work.
-AID, AND FRESH CARNAGE…Syrian official media report that the Syrian Arab Red Crescent Organization resumed aid deliveries to people in Homs on Tuesday – but activists say regime forces are still carrying out attacks there. Reuters quotes an activist who says seven men from one family were stabbed to death – and the BBC reports activists saying an extended family of 16 people, including a one-year-old child, was massacred in their home with knives on Tuesday, killed by security forces.
-U.S. + SYRIA…The Senate Armed Services Committee holds a hearing today on the situation in Syria: Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey will testify. And the House Foreign Affairs Committee hold a hearing to strengthen sanctions against Syria.
-BLOODY DAY FOR BRITAIN…Six British soldiers are missing and presumed killed after an armored vehicle was caught in an explosion in Afghanistan, the U.K. Ministry of Defence said today. The group was on a mounted patrol when their Warrior Armoured Fighting Vehicle was struck. The BBC reports this would mark the biggest single loss of British soldiers in one incident since a Nimrod crash killed 14 service personnel in 2006.
-”TIDE HAS TURNED”?…That’s the contention of one U.S. officer in southwestern Afghanistan — once the heartland of the Taliban insurgency. USA Today reports on signs that militants there have been weakened and local Afghan forces are growing in strength. “The tide has turned,” said Marine Maj. Gen. John Toolan, commander of Regional Command Southwest, which includes the once-volatile Helmand province. “That insurgency is no longer able to intimidate the local nationals to the point where they’re fearful of siding with the government of Afghanistan,” Toolan told USA Today in a phone interview. The number of U.S. troops in the southwestern region is expected to decline to about 10,000 by October, down from nearly 20,000 at the end of last year, Toolan said. There are about 18,000 U.S. troops in the Helmand area now. A final decision on the drawdown has not been reached.
IRAN, ISRAEL + TALK OF WAR
-BIBI + THE U.S….As Alex MARQUARDT reports, the postmortems of Benjamin Netanyahu’s trip to Washington are in high gear. Haaretz reports that Netanyahu has concluded that any casualties from an Iranian retaliation against Israel are worth the goal of preventing an Iranian nuclear capability; and multiple reports suggest Bibi succeeded in narrowing the so-called “time-line/red-line gap with Washington. Maariv quotes an Israeli official saying, “After the meeting, it can be said that though the two leaders did not reach an exact understanding, this gap has started to close — and this is the visit’s greatest achievement.” Another potential achievement: Obama’s reported directive to Defense Secretary Panetta to work with counterpart Ehud Barak on Israel’s request for advanced refueling aircraft and GBU-28 bunker busters, obviously both important elements in a potential Israeli strike.
-BIBI’S “GIFT” TO OBAMA…MARQUARDT and Jake TAPPER – on an unusual present for the President.
-TOP UK SPY ON IRAN…MI6 chief Sir John Sawers spoke to more than 20 ministers Tuesday about the latest top-secret intelligence on the Iranian threat, and the growing expectation that Israel is poised to launch a pre-emptive strike against the regime. The highly unusual briefing is thought to have raised questions about Israel’s military capacity to destroy Iranian nuclear sites, which are buried deep underground. The MI6 chief is also understood to have warned about the potential threat to Britain from a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.
-IRAN + THE INTERNET…Iran’s supreme leader has ordered the creation of an Internet oversight agency that includes top military and political figures in the country’s boldest attempt to control the web. Wednesday’s announcement on the state media follows a series of high-profile crackdowns on cyberspace including efforts to block opposition sites and setting up special teams for what Iran calls its “soft war” against the West and allies. Iran has blamed Israel for a computer virus discovered in 2010 that targeted uranium enrichment equipment. The order by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gave no specifics on the new group. But it includes powerful figures in the security establishment such as the intelligence minister and the commander of the Revolutionary Guard.
LIBYA: FEARS OF A BREAKUP
The head of Libya’s National Transition Council said today they are ready to use force to keep the country united, a day after a semi-autonomous region was declared in the oil-rich east. “We are not prepared to divide Libya,” said Mustafa Abdul Jalil. “They should know that there are infiltrators and remnants of Qaddafi’s regime trying to exploit them now and we are ready to deter them, even with force.” Jalil joined the ranks of other leaders blaming foreign meddlers, calling on Libyans to be aware “that some people are dragging the country back down into a deep pit.”
RUSSIA: BACK TO THE STREETS
From Kirit RADIA in Moscow: City Hall has approved a protest for this Saturday at 1p, this time on a main avenue in Moscow, with a permit for up to 50,000 people. Police say they’ll block the entrances if more try to attend. Protest leaders say they’re confident the opposition to Putin isn’t fading. Meanwhile, billionaire New Jersey Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov – and ex-candidate – has called for an investigation into police violence. Prokhorov, who came in third in Sunday’s vote, said he was “appalled at the use of violence” when police arrested people after the March 5 rally. The Russian Foreign Ministry says the police who broke up the protest were “more humane” than cops who broke up recent “Occupy” protests in the US and Europe.
NORWAY KILLER – AND A GERMANY PROBLEM
Prosecutors indicted Anders Behring Breivik today on terror and murder charges for slaying 77 people in a bomb and shooting rampage but said the confessed mass killer likely won’t go to prison for the country’s worst peacetime massacre. Prosecutors said they consider the 33-year-old right-wing extremist psychotic and will seek a sentence of involuntary commitment to psychiatric care instead of imprisonment unless new information about his mental health emerges during the trial set to start in April. Breivik has confessed to the July 22 attacks but denies criminal guilt, portraying the victims as “traitors” for embracing immigration policies he claims will result in an Islamic colonization of Norway. Eight people were killed when a bomb exploded in downtown Oslo and another 69 people died in a shooting spree on Utoya island outside the capital. Meanwhile, as Dada JOVANOVIC reports, One would think it impossible to name a clothes store after a killer, but Thor Steinar, a German clothing brand popular with neo-Nazis, has opened a shop in the German town of Chemnitz called “Brevik”. A town hall spokeswoman said the name was “quite unacceptable” – and that Chemnitz authorities “will plan every further step necessary to shut down this business as quickly as possible”.
SUDAN: “SECOND GENOCIDE OF THE 21ST CENTURY”?
From Bazi KANANI in Nairobi: After a visit to the area, the former top UN humanitarian official in Sudan told reporters what he saw in the Nuba Mountains in the South Kordofan region reminded him of Darfur. “Darfur was the first genocide of the 21st century. And the second genocide of the 21st century may very well be taking place now,” Mukesh Kapila said Tuesday according to the AP. In South Kordofan , the black Nuba people have been forced to flee their villages and fields for shelter in the cavernous mountains because of a relentless and indiscriminate bombing campaign by Sudan’s Arab government. Aid agencies warn of a looming hunger crisis if the violence doesn’t end. Sudan is refusing to let aid workers in, accusing them of supporting Nuba rebel fighters who fought on the side of South Sudan before cessation. Human rights groups accuse Sudan of using starvation as a war tactic.
JAPAN, ONE YEAR LATER
Kudos to Jake WHITMAN and Akiko FUJITA for an extraordinary then-now slide show on Japan’s tsunami-ravaged areas.
U.S. + NORTH KOREA TALK FOOD AID
U.S. envoys met with their North Korean counterparts Wednesday to finalize arrangements for the first U.S. government food aid shipment to the impoverished North in three years, part of an agreement aimed at ending Pyongyang’s nuclear programs. Special envoy Robert King and senior aid official Jon Brause said the talks are intended to ensure proper procedures and safeguards are in place to make sure that nutritional aid for about 1 million North Koreans gets to those who need it most, the Associated Press reports.
FAKE CANCER DRUGS LINKED TO DISTRIBUTORS IN CANADA
The Wall Street Journal reports two Canadian businesses may have shipped fake cancer drugs to U.S. clinics last year. This revelation is sure to raise new concerns about the market in which American patients buy their drugs online from sources abroad to take advantage of cheaper drugs in other countries.
WOMAN IS FIFTH BIRD FLU VICTIM THIS YEAR
A 24-year-old woman has died of bird flu on Indonesia’s Sumatra island, the fifth human death from the virus this year, a health ministry official said Wednesday.
JAPAN PROSECUTORS CHARGE KEY FIGURES IN OLYMPUS SCANDAL
Reuters reports that Tokyo prosecutors on Wednesday charged Olympus Corp and six key figures in the $1.7 billion accounting fraud at the camera and endoscope maker, tightening their case in the investigation of one of Japan’s biggest corporate scandals. Olympus executives could face up to 10 years in prison, or a fine of up to 10 million yen (about $125,000), lawyers have said.
CHINA’S NEW HIT REALITY SHOW “INTERVIEW BEFORE EXECUTION”
The International Herald Tribune reports a new reality show, “Interviews Before Execution,” has become a sensation in Henan Province in central China, with a reported 40 million viewers tuning in Saturday nights to watch the final anguished moments of death-row prisoners and their families. The BBC and PBS are getting in on the phenomenon, too. BBC2 will air a documentary on Monday night about the Chinese program — snarkily being called “The Execution Factor” — and another documentary film, “Dead Men Talking,” is available via PBS International. The Chinese show was approved by the government as a possible deterrent, a way to show the misery that awaits those convicted of capital crimes. It’s also a heads-up to the general citizenry.
PRINCE HARRY’S JAMAICAN JUBILEE TOUR
A day after beating Usain Bolt in a race (not really) during his visit to Kingston, Prince Harry continues his Jamaican diplomatic tour with a stop in Montego Bay. On the agenda today: Military exercises with Jamaicans, sailing, and a tour of the north coast. Then a private party tonight in Montego Bay.