-NATO SUPPLY CONVOY HIT…Insurgents ambushed a NATO coalition supply convoy in a mountainous area of western Afghanistan, sparking a three-hour firefight in which an Afghan soldier, five security guards, and 14 attackers were killed, Afghan officials said Thursday. Najibullah Najibi, a spokesman for the Afghan National Army’s western region, said the battle raged Wednesday along a highway regularly used by coalition supply trucks in Bala Buluk district of Farah province. “The fighting was intense and we sent in extra forces,” Najibi said. There were varying estimates of the number of militants killed. Raouf Ahmadi, a spokesman for the Afghan National Police in the west, said more than 30 militants were killed and 10 others were wounded.
-NEW MEASURES TO KEEP AMERICAN TROOPS SAFE…The AP reports on added protections for American forces in Afghanistan to guard against possible attacks by rogue Afghans. Among them: “guardian angels” – troops who watch over their comrades as they sleep, new rules that allow Americans to carry weapons at Afghan ministries and new directives to rearrange office desk to face the door so soldiers can see who is coming in.
-AN AMERICAN GIVES HIS LIFE – TO SAVE A YOUNG GIRL…As flagged by Molly HUNTER and Luis MARTINEZ – and reported on GMA: a tragic story about a heroic soldier who died in Afghanistan after lifting a little girl out of the way of an oncoming MRAP vehicle barreling towards her. Dennis Weichel succeeded, but instead he was the one who ended up getting run over by the vehicle and died of his injuries. Says Lt. Col. Denis Riel, a spokesman for the Rhode Island National Guard: “I have heard nothing but incredible stuff about this kid, selfless beyond our core values that we live up to. As I hear more from family and others, he was the living embodiment of the army’s core values: courageous, selfless, and loyal. All values we expect from our soldiers. We mourn all combat deaths, but this one is a significant loss.” Since his death Weichel has been posthumously promoted to sergeant and received the Bronze Star for his heroism. His remains will arrive in Rhode Island on Saturday, a wake will be held in Providence on Sunday and he’ll be buried on Monday.
NORTH KOREA BEGINS FUELING ROCKET
Lots of indications that the North Koreans are readying for that hugely contentious move: getting a rocket prepped for launch. As Luis MARTINEZ reports, Digital Globe has new satellite imagery of the North Korean launch site at Tongchang-ri. The image allegedly shows “a higher level of activity within the overall facility and significant activity at the launch pad specifically.” The Economic Times reports North Korea has begun fueling a rocket for launch next month. North Korea said earlier this week it will go ahead with the launch, which it calls a peaceful satellite launch, even as the U.S. says it is a disguised missile test.
U.S. & SOUTH KOREAN TROOPS STAGE BEACH LANDING IN MILITARY EXERCISE
The Telegraph reports some 13,000 U.S. sailors and marines, along with 1,000 South Korean sailors and 1,300 marines, took part in a beach invasion practice in Pohang, South Korea today. The US and South Korea have been conducting the annual joint military drill since early March and it is expected to continue until the end of April. The video shows amphibious armored vehicles, fighter jets and explosives.
AT ARAB SUMMIT, MORTARS – AND DIPLOMACY
It’s billed as Baghdad’s big post-war coming out – but despite a citywide curfew, Arab League leaders were welcomed Baghdad-style, as three blasts struck near the former Green Zone, where the summit is taking place. No reports of casualties. Iraq had hoped that hosting the summit would herald its return to the Arab fold after two decades of isolation, but the absence of more than half of the Arab leaders and the ability of militants to launch attacks suggest Iraq may still have some way to go. The emir of Kuwait was the lone head of state to attend from the six U.S.-allied Gulf Arab nations. Syria will top the summit agenda – Syria agreed earlier this week to a joint UN-Arab League plan to end the fighting, but violence has continued. UN Chief Ban Ki-Moon is due to meet with Arab leaders at the summit to determine how the UN can work with the League to put the plan into action.
SYRIA: NEIGHBOR SHOOTING NEIGHBOR
From the NYTimes: Sunni Muslims who have fled Syria described a government crackdown that is more pervasive and sectarian than previously understood, with civilians affiliated with President Bashar al-Assad’s minority religious sect shooting at onetime neighbors – and as the military presses what many Sunnis see as a campaign to force them to flee their homes and villages. The refugees, from in and around Qusayr, a town in the province of the rebellious city of Homs, offered rare witness accounts of the unfolding tumult in western Syria as an intensive bombardment of communities continues. The refugees’ firsthand accounts painted a picture of a section of western Syria that is more thoroughly under siege — and perhaps more widely in revolt — than has previously been depicted.
SECRETARY CLINTON TO SAUDI ARABIA
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton departs this morning for Saudi Arabia. Clinton will meet King Abdullah and Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal Friday, and attend the Gulf Cooperation Council-U.S. Strategic Cooperation Forum. Main topics: Iran and Syria. Later, Clinton travels to Istanbul to attend the second meeting of the “Friends of Syrian People” group.
WORLD’S EMERGING POWERS MEET TODAY IN INDIA
Lots of international diplomacy to report today: Leaders of the world’s fastest growing economies – Brazil, Russia, India, China, Russia and South Africa, or BRICS, as they are known – are meeting in New Delhi. When they first met three years ago, they had an ambitious agenda to remake an international monetary system long dominated by the West, but as the NYTimes notes, they have since struggled to find the common ground necessary to act as a unified geopolitical alliance. They’ve discussed creating a development bank to rival the World Bank, but have made no progress. They can’t agree on what candidate to endorse to replace Robert Zoellick as head of the World Bank and are split on issues of national security and terrorism. As one expert who spoke to the Times said, “It’s not a policy bloc at all. It’s really a photo op.”
At that same meeting in India, Tibetans are being detained ahead of today’s arrival of Chinese President Hu Jintao. The Times of India reports police have taken hundreds of Tibetans into custody since one Tibetan burned himself alive on Monday, leaving behind a note, urging the world to stand up for his homeland. They’re expected to be released after Hu leaves New Delhi on Friday.
APPLE CHIEF TO FOXCONN
Following a string of critical reports about its contracting practices in China, Apple’s chief executive, Timothy D. Cook, visited Foxconn Technology’s manufacturing plant for the iPhone earlier this week, media reports said on Thursday. Details about Mr. Cook’s visit to the plant, in the city of Zhengzhou, located in the north-central province of Hebei, were not immediately available. Reuters reported that photographs provided to the news service dated Wednesday showed Mr. Cook smiling and meeting workers in the facility. The plant, located at the Foxconn Zhengzhou Technology Park, employs 120,000 people, Bloomberg News reported. Apple, which contracts with Foxconn to produce iPhones and iPads, has had to confront a series of negative reports this year about labor practices at the technology manufacturing company.
AUSTERITY STRIKES IN SPAIN
A nationwide general strike to protest austerity measures in Spain is underway. The labor reform bill seeks to make it easier for companies to fire and hire employees, as a way to reduce Spain’s 23% unemployment rate, the highest in the euro zone, just above Greece’s. Reuters reports only about 10 percent of domestic flights and 20 percent of European flights are expected to operate today.
NORTH SEA OIL LEAK
As the Times of London writes, oil and gas experts are concerned that escaping gas from a North Sea oil rig could connect with flames still burning and cause an explosion. The French oil company that runs the rig, Total, insists there is enough space between the flames and the gas to avoid a catastrophe and that the flame will fizzle out naturally, but experts aren’t so sure.
BRITISH DRIVERS HOARDING GAS
All the UK papers are leading this morning with reports of fuel shortages as drivers rush out to stock up on gas on fears of a fuel strike. As the Times of London writes, politicians are being accused of triggering a panic after a Downing Street official suggested drivers should consider stocking up on gas in case of a fuel tanker drivers strike. The drivers have voted for strikes, but must give seven days’ notice before a walkout begins.
WORLD’S FIRST GENETICALLY MODIFIED CROPS THAT REPEL INSECTS
A huge advance in the world of genetically-altered crops – and the struggle to feed the planet. The Telegraph reports on a form of wheat is the world’s first genetically modified crop that gets rid of insects by repelling them, rather than killing them. The wheat has been manipulated to give off chemicals which bugs naturally release to warn one another of danger. It’s a big advance because it reduces the chance that pests will develop immunity to it.
EXTREME WEATHER & ARCTIC SEA ICE
What’s causing all the meteorological ups and downs? The NYTimes reports that while there’s still no cut and dry answer for the dramatic extremes in weather recently, scientists have targeted renewed suspicion toward the decline of sea ice in the Arctic, which is believed to be a direct consequence of the human release of greenhouse gases.
TSUNAMI BOAT OWNER SAYS, NO THANKS
Akiko FUJITA reports the owner of the tsunami fishing boat found in Canadian waters last week says he doesn’t want the boat back. According to the Yomiuri, the Japanese coastguard says the boat belonged to a fishing firm in Hokkaido, the northernmost island. The boat was docked in the Aomori Prefecture (north of worst hit areas), when the tsunami struck. The Yomiuri says the owner “never dreamed it would cross the Pacific” but doesn’t want the boat back.
THE ROLLING STONES…AND JAPANESE DRINKS
FUJITA again: Hoping to boost sagging sales among consumers in their 20s, one of Japan’s largest beverage companies has revealed an unusual lineup: The Stones Bar brand. The Suntory drinks, inspired by the Rolling Stones feature the “Rolling Hopp (beer),” the “Rolling Gold (cocktail),” the “Citrus High-ball (whiskey).” The drinks set to be released in June, will coincide with the 50th anniversary of the band. So why use the Rolling Stones to lure young drinkers? Suntory says their survey found that more than 95% of Japanese people in their 20s recognized the iconic “Lips and tongue” logo, and most all of those people said the image was “cool and energetic” – which is just the kind of image Suntory wanted their drinks to project. Suntory is aiming to sell 4 million cases, in the first year of release.