TERROR IN DAMASCUS
-HORROR AT RUSH HOUR
The explosions – and the carnage in their wake – bear all the hallmarks of a classic Qaeda-style attack. Two explosions tore through the Syrian capital at a few minutes before eight this morning, ripping the façade off a military intelligence building, just as employees were arriving for work. The Interior Ministry says 55 people have been killed and another 170 injured – the highest toll since this campaign of bombings began in late December. This video is said to be of the second blast as smoke rises from the first: As Alex MARQUARDT reports, there has been no claim of responsibility, but one will likely come from the al Qaeda-styled group Al Nusra. The head of the UN monitoring mission, Gen. Robert Mood, has visited the scene. You’ll recall that a convoy he was traveling in yesterday was hit by an IED near Deraa.
-BIG PICTURE…From the beginning President Bashar al-Assad and his aides have said they are in a fight against terrorists – not supporters of democracy. Assad said as much to ABC News in our interview. It wasn’t true at the outset and of course it’s not entirely true today, either – but there is now no doubt: Terror has become a part of this, in the form of bombings that may target government facilities but often take a big civilian toll.
THE YEMEN BOMB PLOT
-AIR STRIKE HITS YEMEN…An airstrike killed five al-Qaida militants in the south of Yemen on Thursday, officials tell the AP, days after details emerged about that agent who provided information allowing the CIA to target one of its key leaders. No immediate word from Washington on whether it was behind the latest pre-dawn strike, which completely leveled a house in which the five were staying on the western outskirts of the town of Jaar. Jaar, along with the nearby town of Zinjibar, has been held by al-Qaida militants for a year. The identity of the five militants was not immediately known, but the officials said one of them might have been a senior member of the terror network in charge of armament.
-U.S., SAUDI + COUNTERTERRORISM…The NYTimes has an interesting look at the ups and downs of the intelligence relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia. “…When it comes to counterterrorism, the Saudis have been crucial partners, not only for the United States but also for an array of other Western powers. The crucial testing ground for that partnership is now Yemen, where the local affiliate of Al Qaeda continues to plan attacks against Western targets…”
-CRITICAL DAY…Today begins a crucial act in the ongoing political drama in Greece. If Socialist leader Evangelos Venizelos fails to form a coalition, that will throw the country into a second round of elections. Greece’s many foreign leaders fear that will lead to even more instability in world markets.
-HOW WE (THEY) GOT HERE…The Wall Street Journal examines how exactly the bailout plan for Greece failed and culminated in this high-stakes political mess. “Two years after Europe bailed Greece out to protect the euro, the rescue has become a debacle that threatens to unravel the common currency…The story of the ill-fated bailout suggests that forcing deep austerity on individual member states won’t save the euro and may worsen its crisis.
ALSO IN GREECE…OLYMPIC FLAME LIT
The flame that will burn during the London Games was lit at the birthplace of the ancient Olympics on Thursday, heralding the start of a torch relay that will culminate with the opening ceremony on July 27. Actress Ino Menegaki, dressed as a high priestess, stood before the 2,600-year-old Temple of Hera, and after an invocation to Apollo, the ancient Greeks’ Sun God, used a mirror to focus the sun’s rays and light a torch.
RUSSIA: OLYMPIC PLOT FOILED?
From Kirit RADIA in Moscow: Russian authorities announced they have foiled a terror plot targeting the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. According to the Interfax news agency ten weapon caches, which included manpads capable of taking down low-flying aircraft, were uncovered in Abkhazia, a breakaway region that Russia defended in a brief war with Georgia a couple years ago. The report quotes a spokesman for the Russian National Antiterrorist Committee as saying that the Federal Security Service (the FSB, which replaced the KGB), believes terrorists planned to move the weapons to Sochi over the next two years with the intention of staging an attack during the games. Interfax reports that the FSB raided a series of sites last week as part of an investigation into a Chechen terror group. The weapons stashes reportedly included three portable air missile defense systems, two antitank missile systems, a mine launcher with 36 shells, a flame gun, 29 grenade launchers, 12 improvised explosive devices, 15 antitank and antipersonnel mines, 655 shells for a grenade launcher, 39 grenades, a sniper rifle, two automatic weapons, 15 kilograms of TNT, and over 10,000 rounds of ammunition.
RUSSIAN JET: WRECKAGE, BODIES FOUND
An awful end to a promotional event for Russian aviation. Here’s Kirit RADIA again: Searchers have found bodies near the wreckage of a Russian demonstration flight that dropped off radar over Indonesia yesterday. All 45 people aboard – including crew, journalists and airline representatives – are believed dead. The Sukhoi Super Jet 100 was the first new model to be produced in Russia since the end of a the Soviet Union, making this crash a crushing blow to Russia’s national aerospace industry.
CHINA: TROUBLE FOR ACTIVIST’S FAMILY?
The AP reports authorities are tightening restrictions on the extended family of Cheng Guangcheng, the blind activist whose flight from house arrest into the protection of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing set off a diplomatic dispute. Chen and the Chinese Human Rights Defenders say authorities in Chen’s hometown of Shandong have placed Chen’s elder brother and sister-in-law under house arrest. Chen said Thursday his mother told him by phone that police are searching for the wife of Chen’s nephew, and have threatened to detain Chen’s sister-in-law if the wife does not show up. In a phoner with the AP, Chen said, “I feel that Shandong’s retribution against me has already started. I have no way of finding out exactly what’s going on…I have no way of reaching them, I heard that my elder brother’s family’s mobile phones have been seized.”
HACKER-GATE: FORMER TABLOID EDITORS TESTIFY
Two former News of the World editors, Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson, are testifying today and tomorrow at the Leveson inquiry into widespread phone hacking by journalists at Rupert Murdoch’s News International. Coulson testifies today; Brooks tomorrow. The inquiry is expected to explore relationships the editors had with Prime Minister David Cameron. Coulson, of course, served as the director of Cameron’s communications at 10 Downing Street shortly after leaving the tabloid. A Telegraph report reveals the extent of that relationship – David Cameron sent a text message to Rebekah Brooks encouraging her to “keep her head up” just days before she resigned over scandal.
FOREIGN ADOPTIONS PLUMMET
An adoptions expert at Britain’s Newcastle University finds the number of international adoptions has plummeted to its lowest point in 15 years. Just 25,000 babies were adopted by foreign parents last year, down from a high of 45,000 in 2004. The steep decline is attributed to the stagnant world economy, a new emphasis on placing babies with families in their own countries and a crackdown on baby selling.
P.O.W.’S PARENTS REVEAL U.S. TALKS ON TALIBAN SWAP
The parents of the only American soldier held captive by Afghan insurgents have broken a year-long silence about the status of their son, abruptly making public that he is a focus of secret negotiations between the Obama administration and the Taliban over a proposed prisoner exchange. The New York Times reports that the negotiations, currently stalled, involved a trade of five Taliban prisoners held at the American military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl of the Army, who is believed to be held by the militant Haqqani network in the tribal area of Pakistan’s northwest frontier. Sergeant Bergdahl was captured in Paktika Province in Afghanistan on June 30, 2009. His family has not heard from him in a year, since they saw him in a Taliban video, although they and the Pentagon believe that he is alive and well. The family’s decision to end its silence could free up the Obama administration to discuss the case publicly and reframe the debate in Washington about releasing the Taliban prisoners, which is seen as a crucial confidence-building measure in efforts to strike a political settlement with the Taliban.
AFGHAN WINTER: EVEN DEADLIER THAN WE THOUGHT
We’ve previously noted how deadly this particularly harsh winter in Afghanistan has been, but a new report by the French aid group Solidarites International finds it was even worse than thought, with at least 100 young children claimed by the cold.
PAKISTAN MISSILE TEST
Pakistan successfully test-fired a short-range missile during annual military training exercises today. It’s the second such test by Pakistan in the past two weeks and comes just after Pakistan’s arch-enemy India conducted a missile test of its own.
MANDELA’S CLOTHING LINE ON WAY TO UNITED STATES
Bazi KANANI reports: A colorful South African clothing line inspired by the country’s most famous freedom fighter, Nelson Mandela, will soon be sold in the United States. The “46664″ brand is named after the prison number given to Mandela when he was incarcerated at the infamous penitentiary on Robben Island. Proceeds from the clothing line launched last year support the Nelson Mandela Foundation. A Dallas-based distributor has signed an agreement to bring the line to retail stores in the US and Canada where they should be available for purchase by the holiday season.
SOLAR ECLIPSE – LIVE FROM MOUNT FUJI
Panasonic plans to livestream a rare solar eclipse this month – from the top of Mount Fuji. To make sure this is a “solar only” event, the company is sending employees hiking to the peak of Japan’s tallest mountain, equipped with solar powered batteries. The idea is to make sure the live stream only involves video cameras, laptops, and other equipment that uses solar energy. It’s also, of course – to drum up publicity for Panasonic’s solar- powered devices. The solar eclipse on May 21st, will be the first in 25 years.
SIGNS OF THE TIMES – FROM JAPAN
A pair of trends noted by Akiko FUJITA:
-COLLEGE GRAD SUICIDES SOAR…Suicides among young Japanese who failed to land jobs more than doubled over the last 5 years. The National Police Agency says 150 people under the age of 30 committed suicide last year, specifically citing failure to find a job as a reason for taking their life. The numbers started to rise sharply in 2008, and universities have set up counseling centers. It’s worth noting that the unemployment rate among college grads in Japan is still low compared to other countries. 91 percent grads who graduated last year managed to find jobs – but that’s a record low for Japan.
-MORE DIAPERS FOR ADULTS…THAN BABIES…Unicharm, Japan’s largest diaper maker, says sales of adult diapers passed those of babies for the first time last year. In fact, overall sales of adult diapers increased 105% in just one year, a sign of just how rapidly the country is aging. More than a quarter of Japan’s population is over 65, and the 60 and over crowd accounted for 44% of overall consumption in the country last year…spending $1.4 trillion.
AUSTRALIANS DON’T LIKE VEGEMITE ANYMORE
Whitney LLOYD notes this “shocking” headline from the Wall Street Journal. On average, Australians are now buying just one jar of Vegemite a year… and sales drop off sharply among families whose children have left home. It’s thought an increasing number of immigrants who weren’t raised on Vegemite aren’t buying the salty spread for their own children. The end of an era…?
CRAZY PICTURES AND STORIES FROM THE ROADWAYS OF THE WORLD…
-THE TAIWANESE BUS GOES OFF A CLIFF – BUT STOPS JUST IN TIME…