SYRIA: A DEFECTOR, A RESCUE MISSION, A CIA OPERATION + AND EXIT PLAN FOR ASSAD
-THE DEFECTOR…The government of Jordan confirms that a Syrian pilot has requested asylum, hours after Syrian state TV reported contact had been lost with a MiG-21 fighter jet. Syria’s state news agency says the pilot is Col. Hassan Mari Hamada – and that he was on a training mission when they lost contact with him at 10:34am. Reuters is reporting that the plane landed at Mafraq military base in Jordan. It’s a big deal – as Alex MARQUARDT reports, “This is certainly the first defection of its kind. Reminiscent of the two fighter jets that defected to Malta last February after they were told to bomb protesters in Libya…” There are reports that his ultimate destination may be France.
-ASSAD EXIT PLAN?…The British press carries several reports of a tantalizing-sounding plan hatched at this week’s G-20 meetings in Mexico. The Guardian reports Britain and the U.S. are willing to offer the Syrian president safe passage – and even clemency - as part of a diplomatic push for political transition in Syria. Meanwhile, from the Daily Telegraph: Bashar al-Assad would be offered safe passage to Switzerland to take part in peace talks, under plans being drawn up by Britain and America to end the crisis in Syria. British officials believe that it is now “worth having a go” at attempting to negotiate a “transitional process” for Syria that would involve the president relinquishing power. The idea was reportedly discussed by David Cameron and Barack Obama at the G20 summit in Mexico this week. A well-placed British Government source admitted that the scenario being discussed was “very optimistic”. Asked whether this may involve Assad being offered immunity, the official replied: “It is hard to see a negotiated solution in which one of the participants agrees voluntarily to go to the International Criminal Court.”
-CIA + SYRIAN OPPOSITION…A small number of CIA officers are operating secretly in southern Turkey, helping allies decide which Syrian opposition fighters across the border will receive arms to fight the Syrian government, American officials and Arab intelligence officers tell the New York Times. The weapons, including automatic rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, ammunition and some antitank weapons, are being funneled mostly across the Turkish border by way of a shadowy network of intermediaries including Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood and paid for by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the officials said. The C.I.A. officers have been in southern Turkey for several weeks, in part to help keep weapons out of the hands of fighters allied with Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups, one senior American official said.
-RELIEF CONVOY TO HOMS…The International Red Cross will attempt to evacuate residents of Homs after the Assad regime approved a relief operation for the city that has found itself in the cross-hairs of so much of the violence.
EXPLOSIVES FOUND AT SWEDISH NUKE PLANT
All three of Sweden’s nuclear power stations have raised their security levels following the discovery of a small (“tennis-ball size”) cache of explosives at the Ringhals nuclear power plant on the country’s west coast. The explosive material was discovered in a forklift truck during routine checks. A sample has been sent to Stockholm for analysis, but it’s believed to be the type of explosive used in construction or excavation. Officials say there is no reason for such materials to be on the grounds of a nuclear power plant. No detonators have been found. Police are conducting interviews at Ringhals to discover where and when the explosives could have been placed in the truck – a truck belonging to the plant’s operator, Vattenfall, which apparently had not left the premises in some time. The truck had been checked on Monday.
INDONESIA: AIR FORCE JET CRASHES INTO HOMES
At least six people are dead after an Indonesian air force plane crashed into a housing complex east of the capital, Jakarta. It’s not clear whether all the casualties were on board the plane – or how many were killed on the ground.
EGYPT: SHOWDOWN LOOMS
From Alex MARQUARDT in Cairo: There’s no more word this morning about when final election results – which were supposed to be out today – will be released. State-run Al Ahram reports Saturday or Sunday but nothing is firm. Each passing hour raises the tension here and the speculation that Mubarak-era Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq will somehow be named the winner or it’ll be cancelled, setting of a huge new wave of protests. A spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate (and presumptive winner) Mohammed Morsi says there are attempts to get the Brotherhood to accept the dissolution of parliament in exchange for declaring him the winner. The Brotherhood has called for a big Tahrir protest tomorrow called “Legitimacy’s Return,” Salafists have said they’ll join.
U.S. WEIGHS PLANS TO SEND MILITARY AIRCRAFT TO YEMEN
In another messy corner of the Arab Spring, Yemen may be getting fresh help from Washington. The LATimes says the Pentagon is making plans to send U.S. military aircraft to Yemen for the first time, to help move government troops and supplies more quickly into battle against Islamic militants. Senior U.S. commanders argue that deploying American cargo aircraft could be crucial to carrying on a U.S.-backed offensive that has driven members of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and allied groups out of several cities and towns.
KARZAI AND CORRUPTION
From Muhamad LILA: Afghan President Hamid Karzai singled out corruption as a major problem within his administration, saying it has reached its “peak”, in a wide-ranging speech televised nationally. He also put some of the blame on the US, saying it needs to stop giving contracts to firms that are connected to Afghan government officials and warlords. meanwhile, anti-corruption campaigners are challenging Karzai’s government for awarding a $3 billion oil deal to a company run by a cousin who was jailed in the U.S. for drug trafficking. Watan Oil and Gas, controlled by President Karzai’s notorious cousins Rashid and Rateb Popal, won the oil extraction contract in a joint venture with a Chinese state-owned firm. The Mehmet Ali Agca, the man who attempted to assassinate pope John Paul II in 1981.Per Phoebe, Agca repeats the usual contradictory stuff (lies?) about the Vatican he has repeated before…
PRINCE WILLIAM TURNS 30
Given all the hype, you might have thought it was yesterday or even the day before…but today is in fact William’s birthday. The Palace says it will be a low key and private celebration. William is on a search and rescue course today and will take time off to spend time with close friends and family. He is set to inherit approximately $15 million from his mother’s estate.
CAUGHT ON CAMERA: THE BISHOP & A WOMAN CANOODLING
The Vatican is investigating Argentine Bishop Fernando Bargallo after video and photos emerged showing the 59-year-old cleric cavorting on a secluded Mexican beach with a bikini-clad “lady friend”. The Bishop has denied he was involved in a relationship with the woman and insists that he is “devoted to God.”
THE GREAT SQUIRREL ESCAPE
Thanks to Akiko FUJITA for flagging this one. The hunt (or search) is on to re-capture 30 squirrels that escaped from a Tokyo park during the typhoon a few days ago. The creatures apparently made their great escape when a tree fell on their enclosure, creating a big hole in the netting that held them captive. Park workers have been seen running around the park with nets in hand all day, trying to capture the elusive squirrels, while others have set up traps with bread and sweet potatoes to lure them back. So far, they’ve been able to catch 11. Gets really good at around 48 seconds in.
An adult male leopard that had fallen into a reservoir in eastern India was rescued by forest rangers Wednesday with the help of a net. Dozens of workers at the Hansqua Tea Estate near Siliguri in the eastern state of West Bengal gathered around the reservoir to watch as the big cat, submerged neck-deep in water, tried to climb out of the reservoir tank.
There’s been another shark attack off the coast of Perth, Australia. 62year-old Martin Kane was thrown from his surf-ski by a 10-foot great white shark shortly after 7am. Kane initially thought he had been hit by a boat or jet ski – but then he heard a crunching noise, and saw the fin. Yikes… The crunching was apparently the ski – before the great white could take a bite out of Kane, one of his fellow paddlers hoisted Kane up to safety. There have been four fatal shark attacks in the area since September. Around 8am yesterday, just up the coast, a fisherman reported a 15 foot great white attacking his crab pot. More from the Sydney Morning Herald.
GYM BANS SKINNY PEOPLE