FRENCH STANDOFF ENDS - WITH HIGH DRAMA
-THE FINAL MOMENTS…In the end, he didn't go quietly. An Islamic extremist who boasted of killing seven people to strike back at France died Thursday after jumping from his window, gun in hand, in a fierce shootout with police. Interior Minister Claude Gueant said the suspect, who claimed links to al-Qaeda, jumped after police entered the apartment Thursday and found him holed up in the bathroom. The death of Mohamed Merah, 23, ended a more than 32-hour standoff with an elite police squad trying to capture him alive. Merah was wanted in the deaths of seven people, three paratroopers, three Jewish schoolchildren and a rabbi, all killed over 10 days. Another student and another paratrooper were wounded in his attacks. "The killer came out of the bathroom, firing with extreme violence," Gueant said, adding that the special forces squad had "never seen an assault like it." The volley of gunfire resounded throughout the neighborhood Thursday morning, and two police officers were wounded in the firefight. Gueant said police "went in by the door, taking off the door first. They also came in by the windows." He said police used special video equipment to search the second-floor apartment. "The killer came out" from the bathroom firing "with extreme violence," Gueant told reporters. Police "tried to protect themselves and fired back." "Mohammed Merah jumped out the window, gun in hand, continuing to fire. He was found dead on the ground," Gueant said. Police said that during hours of negotiations Wednesday when the standoff first began, Merah admitted to being proud of the seven slayings he carried out in three motorcycle shooting attacks around the southwestern city of Toulouse. They are believed to be the first killings inspired by Islamic radical motives in France in more than a decade. Authorities said Merah, a French citizen of Algerian descent, espoused a radical form of Islam and had been to Afghanistan and the Pakistani militant stronghold of Waziristan, where he claimed to have received training from al-Qaida.
-EUROPE'S "LONE WOLF" PROBLEM…The NYTimes reports that much of the concern about domestic terrorism across Europe has centered on young people like Mohammed Merah. They're often second-generation Muslims who are susceptible to calls for jihad, especially when their own lives have been marked by disappointment, crime, racism and joblessness. As we know, Merah has served time in prison and traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan for militant training - and he said he acted been to avenge the deaths of Palestinian children killed in Gaza.
THE AFGHAN WAR
-WANTED: BAN ON NIGHT RAIDS…Afghan officials are expected to press their U.S. counterparts today for veto power over controversial night raids on Afghan homes. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has long insisted on an end to the raids, which U.S. commanders consider one of their most effective tools against Taliban insurgents. Karzai repeated his demand in angry remarks last week after the massacre carried out by American soldier Robert Bales. Meantime, top U.S. Commander General John Allen will be on Capitol Hill this morning, appearing before a Senate panel.
-SGT. BALES MAY BE CHARGED THIS WEEK…Charges against Sgt. Robert Bales in that Afghan massacre will likely be filed this week. According to Luis MARTINEZ, the charges will probably be handed down in the form of a press release from Afghanistan, even though the trial will be held in the U.S. Bales' home base of Fort Lewis in Washington state is a likely trial venue.
-HOW MANY DEPLOYMENTS IS TOO MANY?…That's the question USAToday poses this morning. As we wait for the charges, the paper examines efforts to determine how many deployments may be more than soldiers can bear. The nation has never fought wars this long with this small a military, deploying troops time and again. Yet questions about how many times a soldier can recycle into combat without psychological harm remain unanswered.
-APACHE CRASH: WERE THEY HOT-DOGGING?…We've watched it several times now - and still can't believe the pilots and those on the snowy ground all survived the crash of an Apache helicopter in Afghanistan. It happened last month but the pictures emerged only yesterday - and they've raised questions about pilots who hug the ground too closely - accused sometimes of showing off. The military says it is investigating.
IRAN, U.S. + THE PRICE AT THE PUMP
Obviously Iran is suffering the effects of sanctions - but Lara SETRAKIAN reports from Dubai on "A not-so-subtle jab from Iran: that US sanctions are backfiring on the US economy. As you know, oil prices have been climbing since tensions between Iran and the West began to escalate late last year. They're now approaching the record highs of 2008, up 15% year to date. That basically serves as a painful added tax on Americans and US companies, while they struggle to shake off the lingering effects of recession. Analysts say the main driver of oil prices is fear, of a war with Iran disrupting shipments from the Persian Gulf, or of Iranian crude coming off the market, tightening supply. Last week Iran's oil minister told me Iran doesn't used oil as a political weapon, but in reality it does use oil as a major card in hand. One expert at S&P sees a deliberate strategy by Iran: make as much noise as possible in the headlines to drive up oil prices and cash in accordingly. He said Iran still has plenty of customers - China and India chief among them. If that's the case then the US could face the worst of all worlds: higher oil prices hurting its economy, while they bring in more income to Tehran.
THE DICTATOR'S WIFE: A LOOK AT ASMA ASSAD
Good piece filed by Alex MARQUARDT on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's wife Asma. Exceprts: On a brisk January day in Damascus, Asma al-Assad stood at the front of the crowd, smiling widely with two of her children as her husband, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, addressed a rally of thousands of flag-waving supporters. It was one of very few glimpses of Syria's glamorous British-born first lady the world had seen since the uprising against the Assad regime began…She has been heard from just once, and only indirectly. "The president is the president of Syria, not a faction of Syrians, and the first lady supports him in that role," read a statement released by her office in February. On Friday, Assad will join her husband on the long list of Syrian individuals and bodies on the European Union's sanctions list, according to The Guardian newspaper. That will mean that the British national will not be allowed to travel or shop in the EU. It is her shopping habits during the "crisis"…that highlight this latest round of sanctions. Last week, The Guardian and other news organizations published a trove of e-mails allegedly between the president, first lady, family and top aides. They paint Assad as an adoring wife who despite the violence ravaging her country, continued to shop for luxury items abroad. She spent tens of thousands of dollars on chandeliers, candlesticks and necklaces, among many other items. She sent a friend photos of Christian Louboutin jewel-encrusted high heels "not made for the general public," to which the friend responded: "Haha…I actually LOVE them!!!…But I don't think they're not going 2 b useful any time soon unfortunately.." She had an eye for deals, writing to an assistant in London about a $4,000 vase, "Pls can abdulla see if this available at Harrods to order - they have a sale at the moment." To which the assistant replied, "He bought it. Got 15% discount."…the e-mail address allegedly used by Ms. Assad wrote to the address The Guardian says is the President's, saying, "If we are strong together, we will overcome this together…I love you…"
THE POPE TO LATIN AMERICA
Vatican officials say the visit by Pope Benedict XVI to Mexico and Cuba beginning this week has nothing to do with politics - but nobody in Latin America really believes that. In Mexico, the Pope is expected to bolster a close Catholic ally, President Felipe Calderon, and his beleaguered ruling party; in Cuba, Benedict will affirm Rome's backing for a politically savvy cardinal who is pushing - ever so gently - for change on the communist-run island. In both countries, the pews on Sunday are often empty - abortion, birth control and divorce are legal and commonplace - and the Catholic Church is struggling for parishioners, relevance and clout. Officially, the pope's trip to Cuba is timed to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the discovery of a statue of the Virgin of Charity, the dark-skinned patron saint of Cuba, adored by the faithful and admired even by committed communists as a symbol of nationalist unity. But many analysts also see the visit to Cuba as a well-timed demonstration of support for Cardinal Jaime Ortega, who has positioned the church as a political player, serving as a moral, legitimate and parallel voice that negotiates with the government. The church in Cuba has been pushing carefully for the government of Raul Castro to free political prisoners, protect human rights and advance economic changes to give Cubans more control of their lives.
EGYPT: MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD MAY RUN IN ELECTIONS
As the Washington Post reports, the Muslim Brotherhood is considering reversing a year-old pledge not to run in Egypt's presidential election. The group says it has found none of the candidates worthy of its support and thus may nominate a Brotherhood member to run in the election which begins in May.
GAZA POWER CRISIS
As Alex MARQUARDT reports, the worst power crisis in years has struck Gaza - due largely to Egypt's cracking down on supplies entering the territory. No smuggled fuel has reached Gaza in the past few days. There is power for just six hours a day, taxis are using cooking oil, half the ambulances have stopped running, sewage pumps have stopped and garbage is piling up in the streets.
"HUNGER GAMES" V. "BATTLE ROYALE" - A FIGHT GOES VIRAL
From Akiko FUJITA in Tokyo: Did "The Hunger Games" rip off a Japanese cult classic? It's a question that's plagued author Suzanne Collins since she first released her book in 2008 - and the debate is brewing again, online, in anticipation of the movie's release. Fans of the Japanese film "Battle Royale" and "The Hunger Games" fanatics have started their own battle on Twitter, and YouTube (where readers have posted videos explaining the difference between the 2 storylines). On Facebook, grievances have been aired on pages titled "Hunger Games is a rip-off of Battle Royale" and "Hunger Games wouldn't exist if it weren't for Battle Royale." Collins has flatly denied having any knowledge of the book or movie, in the past. But the similarities are too striking to ignore. Both evolve around children who are picked at random, to take part in a death match, televised on a game show. Participants are given explosive collars and duffel bags containing random weapons. The tyrannical government ships them off to a remote island, where they are told to kill and fight for survival. The protagonists of both films come from broken families. A link to the Battle Royale trailer, if you haven't already seen it.
BLOOMBERG TO DONATE $220 MILLION TO THE TOBACCO FIGHT
New York City mayor and billionaire Mike Bloomberg is committing $220 million to reduce tobacco use in countries that are home to millions of smokers. The money will go toward instituting smoke-free laws, graphic pack warnings and raising taxes on cigarettes. He's expected to announce the donation today at the 15th Annual World Conference on Tobacco or Health in Singapore.
BUY CHINESE? THE CHINESE GOVERNMENT MAY BE FORCED TO
The Washington Post reports government agencies in China may soon be forced to buy only Chinese-made cars after an outcry on the country's popular microblogging sites. It's been sparked by the crush of foreign-made cars clogging Beijing's streets during this month's annual session of China's national legislature. On one level, the new rules would seem like a rare example of China's authoritarian Communist leaders bowing to public opinion. But the government's push to have its employees riding in Chinese brand cars also serves another purpose: to protect China's struggling domestic auto industry.
COUP IN AFRICA - AMERICANS WARNED
Bazi KANANI reports: The U.S. embassy in the Mali has issued an emergency message to U.S. citizen in the capital of Bamako advising them to seek shelter and stay off the streets today. Soldiers in Mali announced on state TV this morning (which has since been posted on YouTube) that they have taken over the government after a firefight overnight at the Presidential Palace. The mutinying soldiers called the democratically-elected regime "incompetent" because of how it has handled an insurgency with Tuareg separatists in the north. The soldiers say they are sent to fight the Taureg militants without enough weapons and food. Mali was believed to be one of the more stable democracies in West Africa.
RUSSIA UNDER THE TSARS - IN LIVING COLOR
Kirit RADIA sends along these 100-year-old color photos of Tsarist Russia - Nice little slideshow from the BBC today shows the breadth of the Russian empire in vivid color.
NEIMAN MARCUS DIVES INTO CHINA
In a sign of how much the Chinese market has done for the world's luxury retailers, the WSJournal reports Neiman Marcus has chosen China for its first foray outside of the U.S. Interestingly, Neiman will open no stores in China, but launch a website to reach shoppers there. It's an attempt to take advantage of the booming Chinese appetite for luxury goods, without the risk and investment of opening physical stores.
NEW TITANIC PHOTOS
They keep surfacing, a century later: images of the ill-fated Titanic. And now, for the first time, National Geographic Magazine will provide a sense of what the wreck looks like today. These new photographs, shot using state-of-the-art technology by independent research group Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, provide a greater understanding of what happened on that fateful April 15, 1912.