SYRIA: "CLEANSING" HOMS
-QUOTE…"It's not about freedom and democracy right now…Right now it's just about staying alive" - Rebel in Homs.
-REBELS BEATEN?…After nearly a month-long siege - we are getting several reports at this hour that Syrian rebels are retreating from the battered district of Baba Amr in Homs. It's not clear whether they have been beaten back by Syrian ground forces who entered Homs yesterday - or if this is "a tactical retreat", as one rebel official says, because of worsening humanitarian conditions. A statement by the "Baba Amr rebels brigade" says the decision was made to spare some 4,000 civilian residents who insisted on staying in their homes. And Nasser ATTA reports that the head of the free Syrian army, confirms that forces have puLled back. The Syrian government had vowed Wednesday to "cleanse" Baba Amr from "gunmen." Communication with the area has been largely cut off - YouTube videos from Homs have practically dried up - and people are struggling to get in or out. We have connected with some residents via Skype. It was one resident who gave us that quote late yesterday: "It's not about freedom and democracy right now…Right now it's just about staying alive."
-REBELS' "MILITARY BUREAU"…Syria's main opposition group said today it has formed a "military bureau" to organize and unify against Assad's regime. The Syrian National Council has called for weapons for rebels in the past, but the announcement was the first time the country's main opposition group said it was seeking to organize the fighters.
-U.S. AMBASSADOR TO CAPITOL HILL…U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at 10am/ET today. Ford was active - and visible - in the streets of Syria during an earlier (and safer) phase of the uprising and crackdown.
AFGHANISTAN: TWO MORE AMERICANS KILLED
-THE KILLER WAS A TEACHER…It's happened again. An Afghan man has killed two ISAF service members, both Americans, in southern Afghanistan. From Nick SCHIFRIN: "The person who did the shooting was a literacy teacher. These teachers are paid by ISAF but brought in by the Afghan army and police to teach soldiers and officers how to read and write. The teacher opened fire using an Afghan soldier's weapon, according to the local district commissioner. It's unclear if the teacher stole the soldier's weapon or if the two were working together. The teacher and the soldier were both killed when troops fired at them after the initial shooting." Nick adds that for the U.S. "there is now virtually no political space to support the Afghan Army." In a bit of good news, a handful of advisers have returned to work in Afghan ministries - with heightened "force protection." That probably means restricted hours and armed bodyguards (even though the advisers themselves are armed).
-OBAMA ON HIS APOLOGY…Meanwhile, as reported on World News and Nightline night, President Obama told Bob WOODRUFF that his apology to President Karzai for the Koran burnings had "calmed things down." But the President also admitted, "we're not out of the woods yet."
CRIPPLED CRUISER ARRIVES - WITH ANGRY PASSENGERS
As one American passenger tells ABC News: "Never again." Not with the Costa company, anyway. Jeffrey KOFMAN reports it was a sweltering 95 degrees with 85 percent humidity in the Seychelles today as passengers disembarked the crippled Costa Allegra. That's better than the 110 degrees in the cruise ship's cabins, which had no lights, air conditioning and - as a passenger said, "poor sewage." Passengers describe the alarm, the order to abandon ship, and the lowering of lifeboats - as Kofman notes, "They really thought they were going to have to get into them." Passengers said Costa did well after order was restored - but their description of the crew disorganization as the abandon-ship order was sounded has some parallels with the Costa Concordia story. Some passengers are being flown out; others want a free week being offered by the company.
IRAN, ISRAEL + THE U.S.
-OBAMA & NETANYAHU…Another good take on the delicate diplomatic dance (yesterday compared by an Israeli official to "porcupines having sex") between the U.S. and Israel over Iran's nuclear program. This from USA Today: President Obama's relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been complicated by misunderstandings, diplomatic miscues and occasional differences of opinion…As Netanyahu heads to Washington this weekend, the relationship might be approaching its most delicate moment. Obama is trying to persuade Netanyahu that it's in Israel's interest to resist, at least in the immediate future, launching a direct strike against Iran's nuclear program. The president will have a chance to press Netanyahu face to face when the two meet Monday at the White House, the same day Netanyahu is scheduled to speak to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Obama will address AIPAC on Sunday.
-THE BUNKER…Israel has unveiled its most advanced public underground bomb shelter. The shelter, four stories underground and with space for 1,600 people, is usually a parking lot. It is also part of Tel Aviv's elaborate civil defense infrastructure. City officials have been beefing up shelters and emergency services in recent months at a time of rising tensions with Iran and militant groups in the Gaza Strip.
NORTH KOREA ENVOY TO VISIT U.S.
After the breakthrough deal with North Korea involving its agreement to stop uranium enrichment and nuclear and long-range missile tests, Pyongyang's top nuclear negotiator, Ri Yong Ho, is heading to New York next week. Two people with close knowledge of Ri's itinerary tell The Associated Press that the North Korean envoy will attend a security forum at Syracuse University in New York. They spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the negotiations.
U.S.-SOUTH KOREA MILITARY EXERCISES
The U.S. and South Korea will continue military training exercises today.
THE CHALLENGE TO PUTIN
From Kirit RADIA in Moscow: While Vladimir Putin will almost certainly win Sunday's election, the opposition is vowing to keep up the pressure. Last night a group of youth leaders attempted to distribute a handful of tents to be used to continue protests. A number of them were detained for a few hours and the tents were seized. Officials worry about an "Orange Revolution"-style encampment in Moscow, similar to the protests in Ukraine in 2004. Opposition leaders have applied for permits to protest the day after Sunday's election, but the mayor's office has yet to respond. Meanwhile, a series of videos has surfaced showing fraud in this Sunday's election. The problem is the videos are dated March 4, and Kremlin supporters say this is evidence that the opposition is preparing these videos in advance and faking the fraud just to prove their point. The opposition says they're actually made by Putin supporters in order to discredit them.
?EUROZONE UNEMPLOYMENT RATE HIGHEST SINCE EURO WAS ESTABLISHED
Numbers out today show the Eurozone unemployment rate hit 10.7 percent in January, the highest since the euro was established in 1999. The Wall Street Journal reports this triple blow for the Eurozone economy underlines the difficulties policy makers face in restoring growth. Speaking of those policy makers, the European leaders and finance ministers will meet today and tomorrow in Brussels to finalize the second Greek bailout and discuss measure to promote long-term growth.
THE QUALITY OF YOUR SLEEP IMPROVES WITH YOUR AGE?
A study out today finds sleep quality improves with age. The BBC has already published its take on the study and highlights that while being depressed or having health problems contributed to poor sleep quality, researchers were able to compensate for this and find a distinct pattern that the lowest number of complaints came from people over 70.
SOUTH AFRICA: CONTROVERSIAL POLITICIAN VOWS TO FIGHT ON
From Bazi KANANI: A day after the ruling ANC party expelled the 30-year-old president of its historically influential youth league, a defiant Julius Malema promised he's not done yet. "I will die with my boots on. I will die for what I believe in," he told SABC radio this morning. South Africans are following the political drama closely. Many believed Malema would one day become president and how much political influence he will continue to wield is still unknown. Malema has two weeks to appeal his expulsion for "sowing divisions and bringing the party into disrepute." Malema has gained a following by casting himself as a champion of poor blacks in South Africa, pushing for nationalization of the mines and white-owned farm land. He is also accused of making millions of dollars from government contracts in his home province.
BAR JOKE GETS MAN ARRESTED IN ZIMBABWE
KANANI again: Three friends walk into a bar… then one of them is forced to leave after making a joke about Zimbabwe's elderly president. AFP reports police arrested the man while he was drinking with friends watching live coverage of Robert Mugabe's extravagant 88th birthday celebration. He joked about whether Mugabe was strong enough to blow up the balloons for his party. Now, he's charged for "insulting and undermining the authority of the president." Police loyal to Mugabe often arrest those critical of the autocratic leader who has ruled for more than three decades since the country gained independence.
ROYAL SHOPPING SPREE
The Queen and the Duchess of Cambridge went out for a little shopping today at Fortnum & Mason's in London; Camilla Duchess of Cornwall also accompanied them.