The Global Post: Pope & the Castros…Assad in Homs…Japan Quake & U.S. Athletes…Venice Sinking – and Shifting

By Tom Nagorski

Mar 27, 2012 11:04am

THE POPE IN CUBA

-BENEDICT TO HONOR ICON, MEET AT LEAST ONE CASTRO…Benedict XVI spent the night in a brand-new home built just for him near the sanctuary of Cuba’s Virgin of Charity icon, where he will kneel in prayer this morning, before heading to the capital. In Havana, Benedict plans to meet with President Raul Castro and possibly Fidel Castro at 5:30p ET. This whole Fidel-or-no-Fidel has gained a fever pitch – with rumors both of a meeting today, and/or an appearance at the huge mass tomorrow morning in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolucion.

-PLEA FOR FREEDOMS…Benedict declared himself a “pilgrim of charity” and urged the island to move toward greater openness, freedom and religious devotion. At last night’s mass in Santiago de Cuba, the Pope expressed support for the “just aspirations and legitimate desires” of all Cubans, including prisoners. The outdoor Mass was broadcast live on Cuban state television. Benedict earlier said he carries the sufferings and joys of Cubans in his heart and mentioned inmates among others. Cubans have been jailed for criticizing the Castro regime and the lack of democratic freedoms.

-HEAVY HAND?…The NYTimes reports many worshippers at the festive Mass Monday had been pressured to attend by their employer or a local chapter of the Communist Party, and dissidents pressured not to attend, according to a Cuban priest who is among the clerics most critical of the government. As Christiane AMANPOUR reported, a man who started shouting criticism of the government was quickly removed by security. And when Jorge Martinez, a Havana street cleaner, told the Times, “The pope will only make things better here – he’ll bring peace, not war,” the interview was interrupted by Cuban police wanting to know what questions were being asked. An officer who refused to give his name said, “Cuba doesn’t need any change. We don’t need any other system.”

SYRIA: A NEW DEAL – AND ASSAD IN HOMS

-THE AGREEMENT…The Syrian government has agreed to accept Kofi Annan’s six-point plan for ending the violence in Syria, the former UN chief’s spokesman says. “The Syrian government has written to the joint special envoy Kofi Annan, accepting his six-point plan, endorsed by the United Nations Security Council,” spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said Tuesday. “Mr Annan views this as an important initial step that could bring an end  to the violence and the bloodshed, provide aid to the suffering, and create an environment conducive to a political dialogue that would fulfill the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people,” he added. His plan calls on Assad to withdraw troops and heavy weapons from protest hubs, a daily two-hour humanitarian ceasefire, access to all areas affected by the fighting and a UN-supervised halt to all clashes. This note of caution from Alex MARQUARDT: “Quick reminder that Syria also accepted the Arab League plan last year that called on troops to return to barracks. Nothing happened. This plan also calls on opposition to lay down arms. That won’t happen.” Annan, who is in China to seek Beijing’s support for his peace proposal, had written to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad asking Damascus to “put its commitments into immediate effect”.

-ASSAD IN BESEIGED CITY…And for anyone thinking President Bashar al-Assad’s regime – or Assad himself – are in danger, there was a startling scene in the wrecked neighborhood of Baba Amr, in Homs. This place that saw so much carnage over the last months saw Assad glad-handing and smiling today. Syrian State TV says Assad made the trip to “inspect conditions” in Homs.

-SYRIAN OPPOSITION: LOOKING FOR ALTERNATIVE TO ASSAD…Syria’s opposition groups begin talks in Istanbul today aimed at demonstrating they can provide an effective alternative to President Bashar al-Assad. The opposition forces have been invited by Turkey and Qatar, which holds the rotating chair of the Arab League, to talks in Istanbul to try to form a common front while their homeland suffers under Assad’s brutal repression of a year-old uprising.

AFGHAN WAR: U.S. PUBLIC SUPPORT DROPS

After a series of violent episodes and setbacks, support for the war in Afghanistan has dropped sharply among both Republicans and Democrats, according to the latest NYTimes/CBS News poll. The survey found that more than two-thirds of those polled — 69 percent — thought that the U.S. should not be at war in Afghanistan. Just four months ago, 53 percent said that Americans should no longer be fighting in the conflict. The increased disillusionment was even more pronounced when respondents were asked their impressions of how the war was going. 68 percent thought the fighting was going “somewhat badly” or “very badly,” compared with 42 percent who had those impressions in November. In a Washington Post/ABC News poll, 60 percent of respondents said the war in Afghanistan had not been worth the fighting, while 57 percent in a Pew Research Center poll said that the United States should bring home American troops as soon as possible.

NUCLEAR SUMMIT, DAY 2

-THE NUCLEAR THREAT…World leaders called for closer co-operation to tackle the threat of nuclear terrorism on day two of the international summit on nuclear security in Seoul. A communiqué at the end of the summit repeated a joint call to secure “vulnerable nuclear material”. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said nuclear terrorism remained a “grave threat”, while President Obama said action was key. The meeting was dominated by North Korea’s plan to launch a rocket.

-SUMMIT SIDELINES…Jake TAPPER and Mary BRUCE report: President Obama said Tuesday he is not trying to “hide the ball” in negotiations with Russia over U.S. plans for a missile defense shield in Europe, trying to put to rest a controversy over comments to Russia’s leader that were picked up by an open microphone and quickly drew fire from Republican presidential contenders. Meanwhile, Mr. Obama met with Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani of Pakistan Tuesday to discuss the frayed relations between the United States and Pakistan, as well as Pakistan’s growing nuclear arsenal.

NORTH KOREA: WE LAUNCH IN PEACE

North Korea is pushing back at President Obama’s criticism of its plans to launch a satellite aboard a rocket, calling his stance confrontational and insisting that the launch is for peaceful purposes. An unidentified North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman said Tuesday that Obama’s claims that the launch is a provocation stems from “his wrong conception.” The U.S. government the launch is cover for nuclear missile development.

PENTAGON PIVOTS TO SOUTHEAST ASIA

The U.S. and Australia are planning a major expansion of military ties, including possible drone flights from a coral atoll in the Indian Ocean and increased U.S. naval access to Australian ports, as the Pentagon looks to shift its forces closer to Southeast Asia, officials from both countries tell the Washington Post. The moves, which are under discussion but have drawn strong interest from both sides, would come on top of an agreement announced by President Obama and Prime Minister Julia Gillard in November to deploy up to 2,500 U.S. Marines to Darwin, on Australia’s northern coast. The U.S. is also finalizing a deal to station four warships in Singapore and has  opened negotiations with the Philippines about boosting its military presence there. Analysts see all this as a clear response to a rising China, whose growing military strength and assertive territorial claims have pushed other Asian nations to reach out to Washington.

IRAQ (1): THE WAR MAY BE OVER, BUT THE WORK GOES ON

The Washington Times sets it up quite well: “Imagine a parking lot as large as 100 football fields and filled with nearly every type, make and model of U.S. military vehicle…Your job: Find one specific vehicle, read its serial number and catalog it for transport back to the U.S.” That’s part of the daunting task facing the Responsible Reset Task Force which must inspect thousands of vehicles used in the Iraq War and decide which ones are worth sending back to the U.S.

IRAQ (2): FIRST TIME IN 20 YEARS: BAGHDAD HOSTS ARAB SUMMIT

Iraq is hosting an Arab League summit, an event many Iraqis hope will herald their country’s reemergence as a regional power after decades of isolation, war and occupation. Over the coming three days, dignitaries from 20 nations across the region will pour into a spruced-up and locked-down Baghdad to discuss the many weighty issues confronting the Arab world, including the crisis in Syria, the democratic transitions in Egypt and Libya and the faltering Palestinian quest for statehood.

JAPAN QUAKE

So – for most Japanese a 6.0 quake is a hiccup, barely worth a mention. But the U.S. Women’s Soccer team – on tour in Sendai, Japan, say they felt the quake. ABC Radio affiliate KTRS spoke with goalie Hope Solo shortly after. “All of the sudden I felt like I was about to pass out. I was getting faint and I felt like I was getting dizzy. And then I looked down at my feet and I realized the whole ground was just moving and everybody just started to scream at that point and freak out.” Solo and teammates had seen some of the quake/tsunami damage for themselves. “It’s been interesting to actually be in an earthquake after visiting the orphanages, you know, putting on some soccer clinics for the areas of destruction, so it really has been already a pretty eye-opening experience, and for this to happen it’s a very strange feeling.” They weren’t the only American athletes there – Akiko FUJITA adds that some players from the Mariners and A’s were up there today, hosting a baseball clinic in some of the tsunami-ravaged towns. Not clear whether they were there when the quake hit. The teams are scheduled to face off at the Tokyo Dome Thursday, for the first game of the season.

TEPCO: HELP WANTED

So – how’d you like this job? As Akiko FUJITA writes, The operator of the Fukushima plant is struggling to find someone to head the troubled company. Reuters reports the financial baggage and public perception associated with TEPCO now have made the top job a tough sell. As one banking source says “With issues such as nuclear power plants and electricity rate hikes, there aren’t people who really want to take the job.” The next TEPCO chief will be faced with a myriad of problems: billions of dollars worth of compensation and cleanup-costs related to the Fukushima disaster, government oversight (Tokyo has said it plans to have a big say in the company in exchange for injection of public funds), and returning the company to profitability amid growing anti-nuclear sentiment. TEPCO initially planned to name its new chief by next month, a move that is expected to be the first big step towards turning the company around.

FUKUSHIMA: REACTOR 2 BREACHED?

While on the subject…TEPCO revealed the water coolant inside reactor #2 was just 24 inches high, raising concerns about a possible breach in the unit. TEPCO only learned of the low water levels after it inserted an endoscope into the primary containment vessel this week, to check on coolant levels. The low coolant levels are a concern because the nuclear fuel core needs to be constantly covered to prevent the rods from melting. According to Kyodo reports, rods in a similar reactor would be about 13 feet high. A TEPCO spokesman has insisted that the melted fuel is being cooled by injected water and that the temperature is roughly 120 F. He did say the low water levels suggests a leak from the vessel, into the plant – crews are taking a second look. You can find pictures from the endoscope here.

ELGIN PLATFORM GAS LEAK, EXCLUSION ZONE IN PLACE

The BBC reports exclusion zones have been put in place around the Elgin platform in the North Sea which has been suffering a serious gas leak since Sunday. Coastguard officials said shipping was being ordered to keep at least two miles away and there was a three-mile exclusion zone for aircraft. A cloud of gas was reported to be surrounding the platform, which is located 150 miles off Aberdeen. Workers from a second platform and drilling rig have been removed.

ANOTHER BLOW TO AL SHABAB IN SOMALIA

From Bazi KANANI in Nairobi: The latest victory for troops fighting to push an Al Qaeda affiliate out of Somalia was surprisingly easy.  Ethiopian troops and a pro-government militia have seized a main base for Al Shabab in central Somalia. Residents of the town of El Bur report there was a brief exchange of gunfire Monday as troops moved toward the town, then Al Shabab fighters fled. Al Shabab has lost control of several stronghold towns in recent months but continues to cause insecurity with increasing use of guerilla warfare tactics.

OIL IN KENYA

KANANI again: The big, bold headline in all Kenyan newspapers today is about the exciting discovery of “black gold” in the East African country. London-based Tullow Oil found crude oil on its first exploratory drilling attempt in rural, northwestern Turkana County. It said the discovery was “beyond our expectations.”  Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki called it a “major breakthrough” but stressed it is not yet known if there is enough oil in the country to be commercially viable. It could take 8 years before the oil would be processed for use or sale.

ZIMBABWE CONFIRMS BIG GAME HUNT BY DONALD TRUMP’S SONS WAS LEGAL

The photos posted online this month of Donald Trump’s sons posing with a dead leopard and an elephant’s tail were criticized by animal rights groups who called the expensive big game hunting trip unethical. But authorities in Zimbabwe say it was not illegal. A spokesperson for the southern African country’s parks authority said Monday Donald Jr. and Eric Trump were properly licensed for the hunting trip in 2010, and a ranger from the parks department was monitoring the hunt the entire time.

DANISH PALACE AS CHARLES AND CAMILLA EAT DINNER

The Telegraph reports Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall were caught in an unexpected drama on Monday night when a fire broke out at the Danish palace where they were attending a state dinner. The small fire broke went up at 9.15pm, shortly after dinner began, setting off the alarms and causing smoke to enter the banqueting hall. There is no word on what caused the fire.

VENICE SINKING MORE THAN WE THOUGHT

Venice has begun sinking again - and it’s even tilting slightly eastward, new satellite measurements have revealed. Despite previous studies suggesting the subsidence had leveled off, new research indicates that the lagoon city continues to sink an average of one to two millimeters (0.04 to 0.08 inches) a year.  That’s more than researchers previously thought. The study, which will be published March 28 in Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems, a journal of the American Geophysical Union, also found that the City of Water in north-east Italy is tilting one millimeter or two (0.04 to 0.08 inches) eastward per year, meaning that the western part is higher than the rest, Discovery News reports.

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