SYRIA: KEY DEFECTION; HOMS VICTIMS SPEAK TO ABC NEWS
-THE DEFECTOR…It’s one of the signs we’ve been watching for: Any suggestion of cracks in the Syrian leadership. Deputy Oil Minister Abdo Hussameddin may not be a household name (even in his own country), but his resignation – announced in a video and posted by activists on YouTube – is a milestone in the nearly year-long uprising. Hussameddin says he is joining the opposition, becoming the first high-ranking Syrian official to abandon the regime. As Alex MARQUARDT reports, the question now becomes – is this the beginning of something? The British ambassador to Damascus said this week that the regime is “like a dam with fissures in it. The pressure is building up and one quite probable scenario is that when it breaks, it will do so very quickly.”
-U.S. TRACKS SYRIAN ELITE’S MONEY…Searching for any sign of splintering in Syria’s ruling class, the United States has tracked what it suspects is the transfer of millions of dollars in foreign accounts by elites with ties to President Bashar al-Assad, The Washington Post reports. But U.S. intelligence officials say they cannot estimate the total amount and are still trying to assess what the transfers mean: Is Assad’s inner circle starting to fray, or are wealthy Syrians simply hedging their bets?
-THE WOUNDED FROM HOMS…MARQUARDT and Nasser ATTA are reporting from a Lebanese hospital – where some of the wounded from the battered city of Homs have come for treatment. It’s filled with Syrians – fighters and families both. One young soldier for the Free Syrian Army showed our team his scars of battle – entry and exit wounds on either side of his chest, the work of a sniper in Baba Amr. He made it to the hospital three days ago – says he plans to return, and that “it will be a long battle.”
BEYOND VIRAL: THE FILM, THE CAUSE, AND THE GLOBAL PHENOMENON
From Bazi KANANI: If you didn’t see the link yet in your Gmail, Twitter, or Facebook account, you likely will soon. A video posted online early this week by an activist group pushing for the capture of vicious Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony has gone viral. At one point yesterday it had 4 million views on YouTube. Less than 24 hours later, it has over 21 million views. The incredible early success of a social media campaign by Invisible Children is also drawing criticism. Some question how the organization has spent its money. Others say the film oversimplifies the issue and doesn’t present a true picture of just how difficult it has been – and continues to be – to find Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). In the film, Invisible Children celebrates the recent decision to send 100 U.S. Special Forces troops into central Africa to advise the Ugandan army in their search for Kony. The 30-minute film omits any mention of the last time the U.S. military was involved in efforts to stop Kony. In late 2008, AFRICOM provided logistical and intelligence support to the Ugandan army for an offensive against the LRA. Here is how Senator Russ Feingold described the results a few months later: “Thus far, this operation has resulted in the worst-case scenario: it has failed to stop the LRA, while spurring the rebels to intensify their attacks against civilians.” Kony’s army is small, about 200 perhaps, but analysts point out it has generally been about that size for years. The LRA is believed to be scattered wide in the jungles of three central African countries – an area about the size of California – which is also home to numerous other brutal militia leaders.
IRAN: TOP LEADER LIKES WHAT OBAMA SAID
Iran’s state TV is reporting that the country’s top leader has welcomed comments by President Barack Obama pushing diplomacy and not war as a solution to Tehran’s nuclear ambition. The report quotes Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as praising the recent statement by the U.S. president saying he saw a “window of opportunity” to use diplomacy to resolve the nuclear dispute. It is a rare thing, of course, for Iran’s top leader has praised an American leader.
AFGHAN AIR FORCE – AND DRUG-RUNNING?
The U.S. is investigating allegations that some officials in the Afghan Air Force, which was established largely with American funds, have been using aircraft to ferry narcotics and illegal weapons around the country, American officials told The Wall Street Journal. Two probes of the Afghan Air Force, or AAF, are under way—one led by the U.S. military coalition and another by the Drug Enforcement Administration, officials said. “The nature of the allegations is fairly dramatic and indicated that [AAF officials] were transporting drugs on aircraft and transported weapons not owned by the government of Afghanistan for the use of private groups,” said U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Daniel Bolger, commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization Training Mission-Afghanistan.
BIN LADEN’S WIDOWS CHARGED
Just in from the AP: Pakistan minister says Osama bin Laden’s 3 widows charged with illegally living in country. Habibullah KHAN weighs in from Islamabad: Pakistan’s interior minister Rehman Malik today said that Bin Laden’s three wives will be tried for entering the country illegally. The wives are being held in a security safe house away from public eyes.
60% OF GREEK BOND HOLDERS COMMITTED TO DEBT SWAP
A dry but important headline. Bloomberg reports investors holding about 60 percent of the Greek bonds eligible for the nation’s debt swap have so far indicated they’ll participate, putting the country on the verge of the biggest sovereign restructuring in history; Greek State TV says it may go higher – to 69%. The goal of the exchange is to reduce the 206 billion euros of privately held Greek debt by 53.5 percent and turn the tide against the debt crisis that has roiled Europe for more than two years. The Wall Street Journal reports, the Greek government will announce the results early Friday morning, a person close to the finance ministry said Thursday. Here’s the key: if this works – and if global investors believe in it – that’s likely to be a big positive for international financial markets. As Richard DAVIES says, hopes are rising that enough banks, hedge funds and other private investors will sign up to the debt relief deal by this evening’s deadline, allowing Greece to avoid default.
CHINA EXECUTION SHOW CANCELLED?
China’s ‘Interviews before Execution’ – mentioned here yesterday and making international headlines – may be getting the axe. The show features interviews with men and women awaiting execution. After several online articles on Wednesday singled out ‘Interview Before Execution’ as the world’s most bizarre reality series, the local network that airs it went quiet. However, as Karson YIU learned, there are signs that even a single day of international interest was enough for the government to intervene. According to Shanghaiist.com, ‘Unfortunately, fearing possible allegations of civil rights’ violations unveiled by this backfired experience, the government has announced the that show has now been cancelled.’ We were unable to confirm this with the Legal TV Channel in Henan nor the government here by close of business. Earlier today, several of the episodes on various sites were taken down.
From Phoebe NATANSON in Rome: The Vatican’s official website suffered another attack by computer hackers yesterday, cutting off access for several hours. Italian media outlets reported that the website, vatican.va, became unresponsive around mid-afternoon local time, just as several other websites carried messages taking credit for the disruption in the name of the hacking group Anonymous. Email to and from the vatican.va domain was reportedly also blocked for at least part of the time. A posting on one Italian site claimed the attack was an act of revenge for an array of outrages, including the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests and the historic practice of selling indulgences for sins. The incident came one day after federal prosecutors in New York announced criminal charges against four people affiliated with several hacking groups, including Anonymous.
PUTIN: I’LL TALK TO OPPOSITION…LATER
From Kirit RADIA in Moscow: Vladimir Putin says he’s ready to talk with the opposition…but not now. The once-again president-elect said he was ready for dialogue, but only once the opposition comes up with a set of demands. (He probably knows well that the opposition is an unholy alliance of liberals and nationalists who agree on very little other than their opposition to Putin). Putin also said he believed police acted appropriately when they arrested hundreds of protestors on Monday.
MOSCOW – GRIDLOCK HELL
RADIA again: You think New York gridlock is bad? An analyst here calculated that traffic on Moscow’s roads last night stretched 3,000 km, long enough to drive from Moscow to Barcelona. Yesterday was the last working day before a 3-day holiday in Russia, which led to higher traffic volumes.
MOSCOW – THE BILLIONAIRES’ CITY
What would Lenin say? According to the Forbes list released yesterday. There are 78 billionaires in the Russian capital – compared with 58 in New York and 39 in London.
PRINCE HARRY’S SECRET ADVISOR REVEALED
Prince Harry has had a secret adviser during his hugely successful tour of the Caribbean – his brother, the Duke of Cambridge. The Telegraph reports the two Princes have been texting each other and talking on the phone throughout the past week, with the Duke giving his younger sibling tips on how to strike the right balance between fun and formality. Meanwhile, Prince Harry will continue his Jubilee tour in Jamaica before heading to Brazil later today. *Bob WOODRUFF with the Prince.
MAN-MADE ISLANDS TO REPLACE TSUNAMI COMMUNITIES?
From Akiko FUJITA: The Japan Times reports a Japanese architect has come up with a revolutionary idea that would return tsunami survivors to their hometowns, while protecting them from the waves in the future. Keiichiro Sako says he wants to build man-made, stadium-size “islands” to rebuild devastated towns. The “islands” would be built on land, would offer about 96,000 square feet of residential space.
HAPPY INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY
International Women’s Day is celebrated around the world today. It marks the day in 1908 that 15,000 women marched through New York City demanding shorter hours, better pay and voting rights. It coincides with the U.N. Day For Women’s Rights and International Peace. The Rome city council has lit up various female statues in the city center with a pink light for two nights; Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hosts the 2012 International Women of Courage Awards Ceremony with special guest First Lady Michelle Obama. More events here…
SWISS FIRM UNVEILS $5M WATCH
A Swiss watchmaker has put on display one of the most expensive watches in the world - worth $5m (£3m). The white gold timepiece is encrusted with 1,282 diamonds, and will be shown to a small number of people at a corporate event in Basel. It was created by Swiss firm Hublot and took 17 people 14 months to make, according to AFP.
CHINESE COMPANY BUILDS 30-STORY BUILDING IN 15 DAYS
The LATimes reports a Chinese company built a 30-story hotel in just 15 days. YouTube video shows the speedy progress of its construction. How did they do it? The prefabricated building was mostly created in a factory and the foundation was laid ahead of time. Plus, China’s plethora of workers helped get the job done.
RUSSIAN GRANNIES + SINGING CONTEST
One more from Kirit RADIA: A sextet of Russian babushkas from the countryside have won a Russian singing competition similar to American Idol and will now represent their country is the Eurovision competition. The grannies, some in their 70s, come from a region in the Ural mountains. They sing in their regional language and their repertoire includes a mixture of folk music and international hits. Their winning song was called “Party for Everybody.” You can watch the performance here: I didn’t say it was any good.