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NEWS Distillation – Week of 28 February 1 March 2013 – (TCP)CHICAGO

Today's Headlines - (TCP)CHICAGO

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25 February 2013

Italy – The BBC reported: Italy’s parliamentary elections have ended in stalemate and the possibility of a hung parliament. With all domestic votes counted, Pier Luigi Bersani’s centre-left bloc won the lower house vote but has failed to secure a majority in the Senate. News of the results led to a sharp fall on Italian financial markets. Mr Berlusconi conceded the lower house vote but control of both houses is needed to govern. A protest movement led by comedian Beppe Grillo won 25%. Meanwhile a bloc led by current Prime Minister Mario Monti came a poor fourth, with about 10%. The outcome of the election, which comes amid a deep recession and tough austerity measures, was so close that the margin of victory given in interior ministry figures was less than 1% in both houses of parliament.

Gaza – The Houston Chronicle reported: Gaza militants on Tuesday fired a rocket into Israel for the first time in three months, rattling a cross-border truce that has held since Israel’s military offensive against the Hamas-run territory. Israel closed Gaza’s main cargo crossing until further notice, an apparent warning to Gaza’s Hamas rulers to clamp down on rocket squads. “Quiet will be met with quiet, missiles will be met with a response,” said Israeli President Shimon Peres, adding that he believes both sides “have a deep interest in lowering the flames.” Militants claiming affiliation with the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, a violent offshoot of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah, movement took responsibility. They said in an email to journalists that they fired the rocket to avenge the death of a Palestinian in Israeli custody. It was impossible to independently verify the claim of responsibility.

Washington D.C. – The New York Times reported: Secretary of State John Kerry said on Monday that the Obama administration has been considering new steps to increase support for the Syrian opposition and hasten the departure of President Bashar al-Assad and that some of them would be decided at an international conference in Rome this week. “We are determined that the Syrian opposition is not going to be dangling in the wind wondering where the support is or if it’s coming,” Mr. Kerry said at a news conference in London. “And we are determined to change the calculation on the ground for President Assad.” Mr. Kerry’s comments came amid diplomatic maneuvering and an unusual White House intervention over the Rome meeting, scheduled for Thursday. After the Syrian opposition signaled that it would boycott the Rome conference to protest what it sees as negligible help from Western nations, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Mr. Kerry called Moaz al-Khatib, the leader of the Syrian opposition coalition, and persuaded him to attend.

North Korea – The Indian Express reported: North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un oversaw a live-fire artillery drill aimed at simulating an “actual war”, state media today said, a day after South Korea swore in its first female president. “An endless barrage of shells were fired by artillery pieces on ‘enemy positions’, their roar rocking heaven and earth, and all of them were enveloped in flames,” the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said. “Feasting his eyes at the ‘enemy positions’ in flames, (Kim) was satisfied,” the official agency added. KCNA gave no precise time or location for the drill, but its announcement followed yesterday’s presidential inauguration in the South, at which new leader Park Geun-Hye signalled a zero-tolerance policy to North Korea provocation. According to KCNA, Kim ordered the live fire exercise to test the capability of artillery units “to fight an actual war.” It marked the latest in a series of high-profile military inspections by Kim following the North’s nuclear test earlier this month.

Cameroon – The New York Times reported: A French family kidnapped last week on the Cameroon-Nigeria border appeared on a video posted Monday on YouTube, with one of the hostages and a gunman saying that the family is being held by the Nigerian Islamist extremist group Boko Haram. The family members — three adults and four children — are shown sitting on the ground inside a sort of tent made from prayer mats, in front of a black Qaeda-style banner, grim-faced but apparently in good health. The children, boys ages 5 to 12, fidget and glance at the camera. The family is flanked by two masked, fatigues-wearing men holding rifles, and in front of them s another masked hostage taker, who reads out a statement in Arabic demanding the release of “brothers” and “sisters” and threatening twice to “slaughter those we took” unless the group’s demands are met. The French military campaign against Islamist militants in Mali is obliquely referred to by the masked gunman, who says “the president of France” has “waged war against Islam.” Before that, a man identified by the French media as Tanguy Moulin-Fournier, the children’s father, reads a statement in French saying the family was “arrested” by Boko Haram. He uses the group’s Arabic name — it means “those engaged in the propagation and teaching of the prophet and of jihad” — which is responsible for hundreds of killings in a three-year insurgency in Nigeria’s north.

JapanBloomberg reported: Japan’s government will sell a stake in Japan Tobacco Inc. (2914) for about $10.3 billion to help cover reconstruction costs of the 2011 earthquake in the country’s largest share offering in three years. The Ministry of Finance owns about 1 billion shares, or 50 percent, of the cigarette maker and will offer as many as 333.3 million shares next month, it said yesterday in a regulatory filing. Based on yesterday’s closing price of 2,901 yen a share, the stake is worth about 967 billion yen ($10.3 billion). Japan Tobacco gained about 34 percent in Tokyo trading since mid-November, when the yen started weakening, boosting the value of the overseas earnings that account for more than half of operating income. The slumping Japanese currency spurred a 35 percent rally in the benchmark Nikkei 225 Stock Average in the same period. “The timing for the sale is really good,” said Mitsushige Akino, executive director at Ichiyoshi Asset Management Co. “Japan Tobacco could pass as a good defensive stock, or a growth stock for its overseas business.”

Kenya – The Voice of America reported: Kenya’s presidential candidates argued over the economy, corruption and foreign policy at the second and final presidential debate Monday in Nairobi.  The candidates came out aggressively with just a week to go before the vote. Eight presidential candidates made their case to the Kenyan people before the March 4 vote and took swipes at each other in the process. The moderators stayed mostly out of the way while the candidates attacked each other on corruption and land. Prime Minister Raila Odinga rejected allegations that he protected members of the health ministry suspected of involvement in the questionable distribution of money from a National Hospital Insurance Fund.

Syria – The LA Times reported: Syrian opposition members have reportedly reversed their decision to boycott a meeting in Rome on Thursday with Secretary of State John F. Kerry and other world leaders, averting a potential embarrassment for Kerry on his first overseas trip as top U.S. diplomat. Separately, Syria’s foreign minister said in Moscow on Monday that the government was prepared to talk with the opposition, including armed rebels. The twin developments came as Kerry arrived in London on the first leg of a nine-nation tour. They also were set against a backdrop of continued violence in Syria, where a large explosion shook the capital, Damascus, late Monday, followed by smaller blasts and sounds of gunfire. As many as 70,000 people have died in the almost two-year conflict, according to the United Nations. Walid Bunni, a spokesman for the Syrian National Coalition, told Al Arabiya television Monday that the members of the umbrella group had changed their minds about boycotting the meeting of the so-called Friends of Syria, following promises from U.S. and allied figures that they would increase aid to the rebels. Bunni said the rebels would go to Rome “and we will see if the promises are different this time.”

IsraelCNN reported: Israel completed a successful test flight of its Arrow 3 interceptor system on Monday, the Ministry of Defense said in a statement. The system is designed to defend against medium-range missiles that could be fired from countries such as Iran. “The successful test is a major milestone in the development of the Arrow 3 Weapon System and provides further confidence in future Israeli defense capabilities to defeat the developing ballistic missile threat,” the statement said. The test of the joint American and Israeli weapon system was held over the Mediterranean Sea on Monday morning. Israel and the United States have been jointly developing the multi-billion dollar Arrow missile defense system since 1986. The goal is to provide Israel with a defense for medium range missiles fired toward it from the region.

United NationsYahoo NEWS via Reuters reported: U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon will urge the Security Council to approve a force to fight rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo, according to a draft report seen on Monday, which also applauded suspension of aid to Rwanda over claims it backs the insurgents. In the draft of a special report to the 15-member council, Ban said a brigade of several thousand soldiers should be created within the existing U.N. peacekeeping force in Congo, known as MONUSCO, and be deployed initially for one year. “The intervention brigade would carry out targeted offensive operations, either on its own or jointly with the FARDC (Congolese army), in a robust, highly mobile and versatile manner,” Ban said in a copy of the draft obtained by Reuters. He added that the intervention brigade would focus on preventing the expansion of armed groups, “neutralizing” and disarming them. Such peace enforcement missions allow the use of lethal force in serious combat situations. In practical terms, U.N. diplomats say, troops in the brigade will have more freedom to open fire without having to wait until they are attacked first, a limitation that is standard for U.N. peacekeepers deployed around the world.

27 February 2013

Mexico – The Houston Chronicle reported: The arrest of Mexico’s most powerful union leader echoes the hardball tactics of Mexico’s once-imperial presidency while pushing forward an education reform that Enrique Pena Nieto has made a centerpiece of his new administration. Elba Esther Gordillo, known for flashing her Hermes handbags and heels, stood behind bars Wednesday in a grim prison in eastern Mexico City as a judge read off charges of embezzlement and organized crime. The arrest sidelined a woman who had tried to mobilize teachers to block a schools shake-up designed to end her control over hiring and firing of teachers across the country. It also sent a message to other union bosses and business magnates: Don’t get in the way of Pena Nieto, whose Institutional Revolutionary Party has newly returned to the power it held for seven straight decades, when incoming presidents often crushed those who challenged them.

IranReuters reported: Iran was upbeat on Wednesday after talks with world powers about its nuclear work ended with an agreement to meet again, but Western officials said it had yet to take concrete steps to ease their fears about its atomic ambitions. Rapid progress was unlikely with Iran’s presidential election, due in June, raising domestic political tensions, diplomats and analysts had said ahead of the February 26-27 meeting in the Kazakh city of Almaty, the first in eight months. The United States, China, France, Russia, Britain and Germany offered modest sanctions relief in return for Iran curbing its most sensitive nuclear work but made clear that they expected no immediate breakthrough. In an attempt to make their proposals more palatable to Iran, the six powers appeared to have softened previous demands somewhat, for example regarding their requirement that the Islamic state ship out its stockpile of higher-grade uranium. Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili said the powers had tried to “get closer to our viewpoint”, which he said was positive.

China – The New York Times reported: Relatives of nine Hong Kong residents who were killed in a fatal balloon accident in Egypt were headed to Cairo on Wednesday to claim the bodies, a day after the balloon exploded into a fireball while preparing to land. The five women and four men from Hong Kong who died in the accident on Tuesday were part of a group that was on a 10-day visit to Egypt, and they were taking the balloon for a tour over the ancient temples of Luxor when it burst into flames, killing 19 people in all. Immigration officers from Hong Kong have been dispatched to travel with the families of the victims to Cairo, where the bodies have been transported to four hospitals. The Hong Kong travel agency that handled the trip to Luxor, Kuoni Travel, said Wednesday that it was arranging for the six other members of the tour who chose not to participate in the balloon trip to leave Egypt and return to Hong Kong, and five will return to Hong Kong Friday.

Italy – The Times of India reported: A center-left group of parties appears to have the best shot at forming a coalition government in Italy after an inconclusive national election, but the challenge is steep and comes amid public anger over austerity measures. If Italian parties fail to form a governing coalition, new elections would be required, causing more uncertainty and a leadership vacuum, and that possibility has rattled financial markets across Europe. Pier Luigi Bersani and his center-left allies appeared on Tuesday to have won a narrow victory in the lower house of parliament, while the Senate looks split with no party in control. Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian premier whose center-right coalition did better than expected, is a key player since his coalition is now the second-biggest bloc in the upper chamber. Comic-turned-political leader Beppe Grillo, whose 5 Star Movement capitalized on a wave of voter disgust with the ruling political class, had a surprisingly strong showing. His bloc of seats in Parliament could prove crucial in making any coalition government viable.

AustraliaThe Australian reported: A shark attack off the popular Muriwai Beach on Auckland’s west coast has claimed the life of a filmmaker known to the surf lifesavers who tried to save him. Television commercial director Adam Strange, 46, was swimming 200m offshore north from Maori Bay to Muriwai at about 1.30pm when he was attacked by a large shark. He was dead by the time lifeguards and police, one of whom was firing shots at the shark, reached him. His family said in a statement that they were in shock and requested privacy. “The family are grieving the loss of a glorious and great father, husband and friend,” the statement said. Muriwai Volunteer Lifeguard Service chairman Tim Jago said the man was well known to lifeguards who tried to save him, describing him as “a good water man”. He told media the lifeguards who went in inflatable boats to try to rescue him had been traumatised and were being offered support and counselling. The shark that attacked the man was reportedly up to four metres long and believed to be a great white. Another shark was also seen by rescuers.

Egypt – The New York Times reported: Egypt’s main opposition coalition declared Tuesday that it would boycott the coming parliamentary elections, all but ensuring that Islamists will continue to dominate the legislature and that their rivals will continue to question their legitimacy. With the elections scheduled to begin in April, the Islamists who dominated the 2011-12 parliamentary and presidential votes appear more vulnerable than at any time since the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak two years ago. President Mohamed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm, is presiding over a period of political polarization, street violence, economic hardship and the first steps of cutting public subsidies. Among the pockets of vocal discontent are the cities along the Suez Canal, which are revolting against his government and apparently eager to vote for almost any viable alternative. Nonetheless, the boycott by the coalition, known as the National Salvation Front, underscores the depth of its animosity toward the governing Islamists. And it reveals the opposition’s continuing distrust of Egypt’s nascent political process.

27 February 2013

SyriaRadio Free Europe reported: A “Friends of Syria” meeting is opening in Rome with expectations the United States and European countries will announce the intention to provide nonlethal aid to fighters opposing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Representatives from dozens of nations are due to meet with Syria’s main opposition group on February 28 to discuss possible ways forward in the nearly 2-year-old conflict in Syria. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Rome from Paris after discussing the situation in Syria with French officials. The Syrian opposition initially rejected participating in the Rome meeting but changed its position after statements from Kerry that concrete proposals would be discussed.

Iran – The New York Times reported: As Iranian negotiators spoke in positive tones about their resumed nuclear negotiations with the big powers, Congressional lawmakers in Washington introduced legislation on Wednesday that would greatly expand the sanctions on Iran, amounting to what both supporters and critics said would be like a commercial trade embargo if fully carried out. The bipartisan measure, which was expected to pass both the House and the Senate, would build on existing laws that restrict business dealings with Iran, widen the list of blacklisted Iranian companies and individuals and potentially block Iran’s access to its foreign bank assets held in euros. That access has been one of the country’s few remaining avenues for repatriating profits that are not held in dollars, which have been greatly constricted by other sanctions. The legislation, named the Nuclear Iran Prevention Act, also would penalize foreign companies and individuals that violate the American sanctions by threatening them with restrictions on doing business with the United States, a coercive tactic integrated into earlier, narrower sanctions.

North Korea – The LA Times reported: It’s a story so strange it could have been cobbled together through Mad Libs: Flamboyant basketball star Dennis Rodman and some of the showy Harlem Globetrotters arrived Tuesday in the isolated country of North Korea, in a filmed trip billed as “basketball diplomacy.” Bringing the pierced and provocative Rodman into regimented North Korea is aimed at “finding common ground on the basketball court,” said Shane Smith, the founder of a Brooklyn-based media company, Vice, which is filming the unusual delegation for an upcoming HBO special. “These channels of cultural communication might appear untraditional, and perhaps they are, but we think it’s important just to keep the lines open,” Smith said in a statement Tuesday. “And if Washington isn’t going to send their Generals then we’ll send our Globetrotters.” Fans will recognize that as a double-entendre, since the Washington Generals are the opposing team who exist solely to get defeated by the Globetrotters night after night. The towering “basketball diplomats” plan to stop by national monuments, visit an animation studio and run a basketball camp for North Korean children, according to Vice.

ThailandABC NEWS via (AP) reported: Thailand’s government signed a breakthrough deal with Muslim insurgents for the first time ever Thursday, agreeing to hold talks to ease nearly a decade of violence in the country’s southern provinces that has killed more than 5,000 people. The agreement was announced in Malaysia’s largest city, Kuala Lumpur, between Thai authorities and the militant National Revolution Front, also known by its Malay-language initials, BRN. It is seen as a positive step, but is unlikely to immediately end the conflict because several other shadowy guerrilla movements also fighting in southern Thailand have yet to agree to talks. “God-willing, we’ll do our best to solve the problem. We will tell our people to work together,” Hassan Taib, a Malaysian-based senior representative of the BRN, said after a brief signing ceremony with Lt. Gen. Paradorn Pattanathabutr, secretary general of Thailand’s National Security Council.

Switzerland – The New York Times reported: At least three people were killed and seven people were injured in a shooting at a Swiss factory on Wednesday, the police said, adding that the gunman was among the dead. The shooting occurred at a wood-processing factory in Menznau, about 14 miles west of Lucerne, the police said. A police spokesman said that the gunman was a 42-year-old employee of the factory and that he had not been shot by the police. Although shootings involving multiple casualties are uncommon in Switzerland, the shooting was the second such episode in two months, and it could revive debate on gun control in Switzerland. An estimated two million to three million guns are in circulation among a population of eight million people.

AfghanistanABC NEWS via (AP) reported: Taliban insurgents poisoned, then shot and killed 17 people as they slept at a local police post in eastern Afghanistan, one of two attacks in as many days targeting Afghan security forces, an official said Wednesday. It’s unclear how the militants were able to drug people inside the post before firing bullets into their incapacitated bodies Tuesday night, said Abdul Jamhe Jamhe, a government official in Ghazni province. Ten members of the Afghan Local Police, a village-level defense force backed by the U.S. military and Afghan government, and seven of their civilian friends died in the attack, said Provincial Gov. Musa Khan Akbarzada. He said there was a conspiracy of some sort but declined to confirm if poison was involved. Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid claimed responsibility for the attack in Andar district. He told The Associated Press by telephone that the attackers fatally shot the men in their sleep, but denied they had been poisoned. Residents of Andar took up arms last spring and chased out insurgents. The villagers don’t readily embrace any outside authority, be it the Taliban, the Afghan government or the U.S.-led NATO military coalition.

Afghanistan – The Chicago Tribune via Reuters reported: An Afghan police officer drugged 17 colleagues and shot them dead on Wednesday with the aid of the Taliban, police said, the latest in a series of so-called “insider” attacks involving Afghan security forces and the Taliban. The attacks have undermined trust between coalition and Afghan forces who are under mounting pressure to contain the Taliban insurgency before most NATO combat troops withdraw by the end of 2014. The killings, the worst in a string of similar attacks in recent months, occurred at a remote Afghan Local Police (ALP) outpost in the eastern province of Ghazni. “An infiltrated local policeman first drugged all 17 of his comrades, and then called the Taliban and they together shot them all,” the chief police detective for Ghazni, Mohammad Hassan, told Reuters. Seven of the dead were new recruits still undergoing training, officials said.

Syria via France & Russia – The Times of India reported: French President Francois Hollande says he hopes to discuss political transition in war-torn Syria with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, whose stance on Syria is crucial to peace settlement. Speaking ahead of this meeting with Putin at the Kremlin on Thursday afternoon, Hollande told the Ekho Moskvy radio station that Putin’s position on Syria can determine how soon peace will come to Syria. Russia, the most influential backer of Syrian President Bashar Assad, has dismissed all settlement plans involving Assad’s departure as the conflict in Syria has claimed more than 70,000 lives, according to the UN. Hollande said on Thursday that he is encouraged by the fact that Russia has acknowledged the influence of the Syrian opposition but would like to see Russia supporting talks on political transition in Syria.

EgyptBloomberg Businessweek reported: The pilot of a hot-air balloon that caught fire in mid-air and crashed, killing 19 foreign tourists, jumped from the gondola without shutting off the gas valve, Egypt’s Civil Aviation Minister Wael El-Maadawi said. A Briton also managed to escape from the balloon by leaping to safety before it soared into the sky and exploded in a fireball, El-Maadawi said, according to the state-run Ahram Gate website. The blast came during an early-morning tour over the famed pharaonic sites in the southern Egyptian city of Luxor early yesterday. The incident cast a pall over Egypt’s tourism industry, which is struggling to rebound two years after the uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak, with officials seeking to deflect potential criticism about regulatory oversight both in the sector and across the nation. El-Maadawi said the company that operated the flight, the pilot and the balloon itself, were licensed and necessary inspections were up to date. In some of the first details to emerge about the incident, El-Maadawi said that after the fire broke out, the pilot jumped from the balloon when it was five meters (16 feet) above the ground without turning off the gas.

Mexico – The LA Times reported: The reversal of fortune could not have been more striking. And for many Mexicans, the images, broadcast live on national television Wednesday, could not have been more unexpected. Here, once again, was Elba Esther Gordillo, the powerful boss of Mexico’s massive, sclerotic teachers union. But instead of the image Mexicans were used to — Gordillo standing in front of adoring followers, defiantly speechifying, dressed to the nines — her famous face was now barely visible through the bars of a Mexico City jail. The face scowled above a simple white turtleneck as a federal court official read the charges against her. They allege that she illegally diverted more than $156 million in union funds, which she used to support her famously lavish lifestyle: the plastic surgery procedures; the Neiman Marcus spending sprees; the private jets like the one she had landed in Tuesday at the Toluca airport, where she and three others were promptly arrested by federal officials. The surprise arrest of Gordillo, 68, has many Mexicans riveted by the latest chapter in her telenovela-like life story and relieved that there will be some kind of reckoning for a flamboyant, reform-averse and seemingly untouchable leader who, to her many critics, was the embodiment of old-school Mexican corruption. At one Mexico City restaurant, a crowd broke into cheers Wednesday afternoon when images of the jailed Gordillo were rebroadcast.

ChadYahoo NEWS via Reuters reported: Chad’s President Idriss Deby appealed to West African leaders on Wednesday to urgently speed up deployment of their forces to northern Mali where Chadian and French forces are locked in bitter fighting with al Qaeda-linked rebels. Chad’s contingent of some 2,400 troops has borne the brunt of battles with die-hard Islamists holed up in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains after a six-week French-led campaign pushed the militants into the desolate region by the Algerian border. France, which said Islamists’ seizure of northern Mali last year was a threat to international security, hopes to start withdrawing its 4,000 troops from March but is waiting for the effective deployment of a U.N.-backed African mission, AFISMA. “It’s no longer time to talk, but time for action. The enemy is not waiting,” Deby told his West African counterparts at a meeting of the ECOWAS bloc in Ivory Coast’s capital Yamoussoukro. “We call on ECOWAS’ joint staff to be quicker in sending troops to liberated areas to protect the population.” The Chadian death toll rose to 25 on Wednesday after a soldier died from his wounds in fierce fighting at the weekend in the Adrar des Ifoghas. Mali’s army, expelled from the region in April by a Tuareg-led revolt subsequently hijacked by the Islamists, has yet to return to the country’s far north.

28 February 2013

France – The Baltimore Sun via Reuters reported: French President Francois Hollande will raise concerns about Russia’s human rights record with Vladimir Putin on Thursday but he sought to play down differences that might undermine trade ties. Hollande, who began his 24-hour debut trip to Moscow by giving a radio interview, hopes to strike a balance between a robust defense of human rights and the desire to boost France’s economy by increasing business links with Russia. An encounter in Paris last June between President Putin and the newly elected Socialist bristled with tension, unlike the cozy meetings between Putin and Hollande’s conservative predecessors, Nicolas Sarkozy and Jacques Chirac. Aides on both sides want to avoid the full-frontal clash on rights that marked German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s trip to Moscow last year, when she accused Moscow of stifling dissent. “We will discuss this with President Putin. I would not like to take a provocative approach,” the French leader told the liberal Ekho Moskvy radio station in an interview dubbed over with a Russian translation. “Questions of democracy and human rights are just as important as other aspects of our cooperation.”

Tibet via ChinaFOX NEWS via (AP) reported: Chinese authorities have arrested five Tibetans, mostly Buddhist monks, whom they allege persuaded three people to self-immolate at the behest of foreign forces. The official Xinhua News Agency said Thursday the five Tibetans were arrested by police in northwestern Gansu province and included a 21-year-old monk from neighboring Sichuan. Xinhua says the five are accused of recruiting three people and encouraging them to self-immolate in late October and November last year, saying their sacrifice would contribute to the Tibetan cause. Authorities initially responded to the self-immolations by flooding Tibetan areas with security forces to seal them off. With those efforts doing little to stop or slow the protests, Beijing now appears to be seeking to weaken sympathy for them by portraying them as misguided and criminal.

Malaysia – The New York Times reported: An obscure, centuries-old territorial dispute between Malaysia and the Philippines erupted in violence on Friday, leaving at least 13 dead and straining relations between the close Southeast Asian neighbors. Malaysian security forces battled on Friday morning with about 180 Filipinos, some of whom were armed, in an effort to remove them from a remote coastal village they had occupied for two weeks in the northeastern Malaysian state of Sabah. The Malaysian state news agency Bernama reported that 10 to 12 Filipinos died in the clash and two Malaysian police commandos were killed in a mortar attack. Another three Malaysian security officials were wounded, the agency reported. The group, which represented itself as a royal militia in service of the sultanate of Sulu, which for centuries controlled the southern Philippines and part of what is now the Malaysian state of Sabah, arrived by boat on Feb. 12 to re-establish its long-dormant claim to the area.

BangladeshUSA Today reported: Protesters clashed with police for a second day Friday as the death toll rose to at least 44 in clashes triggered by a death sentence given to an Islamic party leader for crimes linked to Bangladesh’s 1971 independence war, police said. The latest fighting broke out in northern Gainbandha and Chapainawabganj districts, killing two people, police officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity as they are not allowed to speak publicly. At least 42 others were killed Thursday in rioting triggered by the death sentence given to Delwar Hossain Sayedee, one of the top leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami, the country’s largest Islamic party. In Dhaka, dozens of Jamaat supporters smashed several vehicles in central Malibagh district, witnesses said. Baton-wielding police dispersed the protesters.

North Korea – The New York Times reported: Photographs of Dennis Rodman laughing while watching a basketball exhibition in Pyongyang, North Korea, with Kim Jong-un, the leader of one of the world’s most repressive countries, may be some of the strangest sights in the history of accidental American diplomacy. Not only did Kim attend the game Thursday and watch alongside Rodman, but he also invited Rodman, three Harlem Globetrotters and the Vice Media crew filming the trip for a documentary to his palace for a party, said Shane Smith, the founder of Vice Media, who dreamed up and organized the trip. The group landed in Pyongyang on Tuesday with approval from North Korean authorities to conduct the exhibitions and film the documentary, but it was not promised that Kim would meet with the group. “Apparently, he had a blast at the game,” Smith said, after speaking by phone with Ryan Duffy, a Vice Media correspondent who was on the trip. “So he invited them back to his home for a party, and they had a grand old time. Speeches were made — Dennis made a very nice one — and they were met with rounds of applause.” The scene was particularly bizarre because of the tense relations between the United States and North Korea, which made that relationship more difficult recently by declaring it had conducted a nuclear test. Google’s executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, went in January to try to persuade the leadership to allow Internet access for more than a fraction of its people, but he did not report meeting with Kim.

Syria via Washington D.C. – The New York Times reported: The food rations and medical supplies that Secretary of State John Kerry said Thursday would be provided to the Free Syrian Army mark the first time that the United States has publicly committed itself to sending nonlethal aid to the armed factions that are battling President Bashar al-Assad. But the nature of the assistance also illustrates the Obama administration’s caution about getting involved in the Syrian crisis. At each stop of his first foreign trip as secretary of state, Mr. Kerry has emphasized that one of his principal goals is to change Mr. Assad’s calculations about his ability to remain in power. Mr. Assad is “out of time and must be out of power,” Mr. Kerry asserted after meeting here with Moaz al-Khatib, the leader of the Syrian opposition coalition. The announcement of the supplies fell well short of the weapons and equipment Syrian rebels have requested and left unclear why Mr. Assad, who has fired Scud missiles at the city of Aleppo, would now conclude that he could no longer stand up to his opponents.

Israel – The BBC Middle East Corps reported: Two Palestinian held in an Israeli jail without trial have ended their hunger strike, Israeli officials said. Tariq Qaadan and Jafar Ezzedine started taking food on Wednesday after a military court hearing. Two others, Samer Issawi and Ayman Sharawna, are still on hunger strike and are being observed in hospital. Palestinians have staged a series of protests to support the strikers. The UN and EU have recently expressed concern about their health. They have also called for Israel to end its practice of administrative detention. Under the system a military court can order suspects to be detained indefinitely, subject to renewal every six months, without trial or charge. The Israeli military says it uses administrative detention when it fears an immediate risk to security or to protect informants.

South Africa – The Guardian UK reported: South Africa’s police watchdog has launched a murder investigation after video footage emerged showing a man being tied to the back of a police van and dragged along the road while bystanders looked on. The death of Mido Macia, in Daveyton, east of Johannesburg, has once more focused attention on South Africa’s police force, already dogged by allegations of brutality, corruption and incompetence. In the amateur video footage(warning: contains images that some may find distressing), published by South African newspaper, the Daily Sun, Macia’s hands are tied to the rear of a police van behind his head before it moves off. Just over two hours later he was found dead in a local police cell, according to the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID). A postmortem gave the cause of death as head injuries with internal bleeding. The video provoked outrage with President Jacob Zuma labelling it “horrific, disturbing and unacceptable. No human being should be treated in that manner.” He has instructed the minister of police to investigate the matter.

Iran – The Jerusalem Post reported: Iran’s negotiations with world powers over Tehran’s disputed nuclear program reached “a turning point” this week, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said on Thursday, suggesting a breakthrough was within reach. “I call it a milestone. It is a turning point in the negotiations,” Salehi told Austrian broadcaster ORF in an interview during a visit to the Austrian capital for a United Nations conference. “We are heading for goals that will be satisfactory for both sides. I am very optimistic and hopeful,” he said, according to a German translation of remarks he made in English. Salehi, who had said on Wednesday he was “very confident” an agreement could be reached, gave no details of the talks in Kazakhstan, but said the fact that discussions would resume in a month showed the process was moving forward. In a separate interview with the Austria Press Agency (APA), Salehi was asked about Iran’s enriching uranium to 20 percent purity, a bone of contention with the West.

South AfricaCNN reported: It’s dawn. An international South African sports star bolts out of bed after hearing an “intruder.” He takes out a gun and fires one shot, killing a young innocent woman. But this is not the case of Olympian Oscar Pistorius. In an eerily similar incident in May 2004, former Springbok rugby player Rudi Visagie was awoken by his wife, who heard a car in their driveway in Nelspruit, South Africa. The couple thought a robber was taking off with their daughter’s car. Amid heightened fears following their neighbors’ killings the week before, he broke a bedroom window and fired at the car, hitting the driver in the neck. When the car came to a standstill, he ran toward it — but his daughter’s room was empty. “I heard Rudi growling,” his wife, Frieda Visagie, said. “I wondered what’s happening now … and he told me it’s Marle in the car.” Their daughter, Marle Visagie, 19, was in the driver’s seat.

Turkey – The Washington Post reported: Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan gave a speech to a United Nations body in Vienna in which he compared Zionism, the ideology behind the creation of a Jewish state, to fascism. He compared it to Islamophobia as well. “We must consider — just like Zionism or anti-Semitism or fascism — Islamophobia as a crime against humanity.” Yes, that’s right: he condemned anti-Semitism and Zionism in the same sentence. Does condemning Zionism make you anti-Semitic? Not in Erdogan’s mind, it seems. That’s not a question for me to parse, but it’s worth noting that a lot of people seem to perceive any condemnation of Zionism as a condemnation of, if not all Jews, then certainly the ones living in Israel. And that’s the point. Causing offense to Israelis and concern among Turkey’s Western allies would seem to be an entirely foreseeable consequence of comparing Zionism to fascism. So why say it? The video of his speech is above (flip ahead to 8:00) and a partial transcript (source: the New York Times’s Robert Mackey) is below. But first, here are the three things I find really puzzling about this.

South Korea – The Yonhap NEWS Agency of South Korea reported: South Korea’s new President Park Geun-hye said Friday Japan should face up to history and take responsibility for its wartime wrongdoing if the two countries are to overcome recurring tensions surrounding Tokyo’s colonial rule, and build genuine trust and cooperation. Park issued the appeal in an address marking Korea’s 1919 nationwide uprising against Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule. The speech was watched closely as it came just days after her inauguration and could set the tone for relations between the two countries. The speech appeared to be carefully worded, focusing mostly on principles Seoul has long called for to build what it calls a “future-oriented” relationship and lacking any direct criticism of Japan. Park also made no mention of specific issues of contention. That could signal her willingness to improve frayed ties with Tokyo unless it takes additional steps that worsen them, such as continuing to claim South Korea’s easternmost islets of Dokdo as its own territory. The March 1st Independence Movement anniversary also came as tensions flared anew after Japan renewed its claim over Dokdo in a more assertive way than before by sending a senior official to attend an annual provincial ceremony for the first time last week. On Thursday, Japan’s foreign minister also laid claims to Dokdo and Seoul lodged protests.

Afghanistan – The Washington Post reported: A roadside bomb killed nine people, mostly border policemen, Thursday in Afghanistan where militants continue to target government security forces taking over from withdrawing international troops. No one claimed responsibility for the bombing, but the Taliban and other insurgents have stepped up attacks against Afghan policemen and soldiers in a bid to undermine the Western-backed government. Afghans are increasingly taking the lead in operations as U.S. and other foreign combat forces prepare to withdraw by the end of 2014. The afternoon blast occurred in Dangam district of Kunar province, near Afghanistan’s eastern border with Pakistan, according to a spokesman for the provincial government. Wasifullah Wasifi said seven border policemen and two civilians were killed, and two women were wounded in the attack. President Hamid Karzai insists his forces are ready to take control of the country’s security and has pushed for a faster handover by the international forces. On Thursday, he demanded control of clandestine Afghan armed groups that are linked to U.S.-led forces amid complaints of abuses by the units.

Israel via Washington D.C. – The Denver Post reported: A roadside bomb killed nine people, mostly border policemen, Thursday in Afghanistan where militants continue to target government security forces taking over from withdrawing international troops. No one claimed responsibility for the bombing, but the Taliban and other insurgents have stepped up attacks against Afghan policemen and soldiers in a bid to undermine the Western-backed government. Afghans are increasingly taking the lead in operations as U.S. and other foreign combat forces prepare to withdraw by the end of 2014. The afternoon blast occurred in Dangam district of Kunar province, near Afghanistan’s eastern border with Pakistan, according to a spokesman for the provincial government. Wasifullah Wasifi said seven border policemen and two civilians were killed, and two women were wounded in the attack. President Hamid Karzai insists his forces are ready to take control of the country’s security and has pushed for a faster handover by the international forces. On Thursday, he demanded control of clandestine Afghan armed groups that are linked to U.S.-led forces amid complaints of abuses by the units.

Russia – The Christian Science Monitor reported: In a speech to Russia’s top military brass, President Vladimir Putin has urged them to make a “drastic upgrade” to Russia’s armed forces within the next five years to counter a series of emerging external threats and what he described as “systematic attempts to undermine the balance of power” by the United States. Russian military experts caution that Mr. Putin’s hawkish rhetoric in his Wednesday address to the Defense Ministry Board, which includes the defense minister and most top generals, was probably not intended for a foreign audience. Yet the remarks are nevertheless bound to be read around the world as another sign – one among many – that Russia under Putin is turning inward, circling the wagons against foreign influences, and using fear of external threats as a means of enforcing an increasingly conservative and isolationist brand of national unity.

Iraq – The Boston Globe via (AP) reported: A crowded floating restaurant loaded with dozens of guests sank in the Tigris River in central Baghdad late Thursday, leaving at least eight people dead and several others missing, according to officials. The tragedy appeared to be an accident, with police saying the boat was over its capacity when it went down. Iraqi river police and a security official said there was no indication that a terrorist act was to blame. The vessel was part of a popular Lebanese restaurant establishment in the Iraqi capital’s Karrada district. The restaurant is one of several new businesses that have sprung up as Iraq’s economy has begun to improve in the years since the U.S.-led invasion nearly a decade ago. At least eight bodies were pulled from the river, and the whereabouts of another nine people were unknown, police and hospital officials said. About 30 people were rescued initially, they said. Local TV aired footage showing people gathered at the entrance to the restaurant as bodies in black bags were loaded into ambulances.

BangladeshYahoo NEWS via (AP) reported: Bangladesh police say 42 people have been killed in rioting sparked by a special tribunal’s death sentence for an Islamic political party leader convicted of war crimes. Top Jamaat-e-Islami leader Delwar Hossain Sayedee was sentenced Thursday for mass killings, rape and atrocities committed during the independence war against Pakistan in 1971. The politically charged verdict sent his supporters into the streets, where they clashed with police, attacked government offices, and uprooted railway tracks in parts of the country. Police and witness said Friday that 42 people had been killed.

LibyaFOX NEWS via (AP) reported: Libya’s Prime Minister Ali Zidan on Thursday called on militias to evacuate their buildings and headquarters and join government security forces, vowing that his government will take a hard-line stand against any armed group that tries to hijack control of any part of the nation. Since the fall of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, armed groups, including rebels who battled Gadhafi’s forces during eight-month civil war, have posed a challenge to transitional authorities struggling to transform them into a unified national military and police force. During a police graduation ceremony in Tripoli, Zidan said the state “will not be lenient and we will not permit hijacking of Tripoli or Benghazi or any other city.” On the one hand, the Libyan government heavily depends on security provided by commanders of powerful militias, such as Rafallah Sahati and Libya Shield. President Mohammed el-Megarif has labeled them as “legitimate” forces.

Iraq – The New York Times via (AP) reported: A series of bombings struck Baghdad, the capital, and towns to the south on Thursday, killing at least 22 people and wounding dozens in mainly Shiite areas. The deadliest attack occurred around sunset when a pair of bombs exploded nearly simultaneously in Shula in northwestern Baghdad. The twin bombings killed 15 people and left at least 40 wounded, officials said. There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but car bombings in Shiite areas are often carried out by Sunni extremists like Al Qaeda’s local affiliate.

1 March 2013

SyriaFOX NEWS via (AP) reported: The head of Syria’s rebels said Friday that the food and medical supplies the United States plans to give his fighters for the first time won’t bring them any closer to defeating President Bashar Assad’s forces in the country’s civil war. “We don’t want food and drink, and we don’t want bandages. When we’re wounded, we want to die. The only thing we want is weapons,” Gen. Salim Idris, chief of staff of the opposition’s Supreme Military Council, told The Associated Press by telephone. The former brigadier in Assad’s army warned that the world’s failure to provide heavier arms is only prolonging the nearly 2-year-old uprising that has killed an estimated 70,000 people. In what was described as a significant policy shift, the Obama administration said Thursday it was giving an additional $60 million in assistance to Syria’s political opposition and said it would, for the first time, provide non-lethal aid directly to rebels battling to topple Assad.

Turkey – The LA Times reported: A flap about Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s description of Zionism as a “crime against humanity” overshadowed U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s visit Friday to Turkey, a key NATO ally. Although the topic of Syria was expected to dominate discussions — both the United States and Turkey are major supporters of the Syrian opposition — Erdogan’s remark this week has drawn a firestorm of criticism, including condemnation from the White House, the United Nations and Israel. Kerry, on his inaugural trip as the nation’s top diplomat, was forced to respond as Erdogan’s comments ignited new friction between two of Washington’s pivotal regional partners, Turkey and Israel. Kerry said at a news conference in Ankara with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu that he communicated U.S. displeasure with Erdogan’s remarks. “We not only disagree with it, we found it objectionable,” Kerry said.

Venezuela – The Washington Post via (AP) reported: President Hugo Chavez has been receiving chemotherapy since recovering from a severe respiratory infection in mid-January and “continues his battle for life,” his vice president said late Friday. Vice President Nicolas Maduro suggested the chemotherapy was continuing in the government’s first mention of it as among treatments that Venezuela’s cancer-stricken president has received since his Dec. 11 cancer surgery in Cuba. Maduro made the disclosure after a Mass for Chavez in a new chapel outside the military hospital where authorities say the socialist leader has been since being flown back to Caracas on Feb. 18. The vice president quoted Chavez as saying he decided to return to Venezuela because he was entering “a new phase” of “more intense and tough” treatments and wanted to be in Caracas for them. Maduro’s offering of the most detailed rundown to date of Chavez’s post-operative struggle came hours after an accusation by opposition leader Henrique Capriles that the government has repeatedly lied about Chavez’s condition.

ChinaXinhua reported: The upcoming execution of four Mekong River murderers manifests judicial sovereignty and judicial authorities’ protection of Chinese citizens’ legitimate rights and interests, prosecution authorities in southwest China’s Yunnan Province have said. Myanmar drug lord Naw Kham and three of his accomplices, all of whom were convicted of murdering 13 Chinese sailors on the Mekong River in 2011, will be executed on Friday, the Kunming Intermediate People’s Court(KIPC) said on Wednesday. They will be executed by lethal injection in the city of Kunming in Yunnan Province, the court ruled. Naw Kham’s three accomplices were identified as Hsang Kham from Thailand; Yi Lai, stateless; and Zha Xika, Laotian.

Vatican City – The Washington Post reported: Minutes after Pope Benedict XVI retired from office on Thursday evening, his former second in command, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, received a scepter symbolizing his role as chamberlain with operational authority over the church during the interregnum. Bertone is himself something of a symbol. For many close observers of the church, the tall, lanky and polarizing prelate represents the dysfunction in the Roman hierarchy and the dangers of over-staffing the universal church’s government with too many Italians. Benedict’s last year in office was overshadowed by leaks exposing Italian prelates engaging in turf wars and battles to influence the Italian government. Even as Benedict’s helicopter, emblazoned with the words “Repubblica Italiana,” lifted over the Vatican walls and spirited him away to a hidden life of retirement, an Italian magazine reported that in the midst of the leak scandal, Bertone had authorized wiretaps, that most Italian of pastimes, to root out potential moles among clergy in the Vatican. The Holy See confirmed that it had ordered the bugging of some phones.

Mali via ChadUSA Today reported: A presidential spokesman says that Chadian President Idriss Deby announced that Chadian troops fighting to dislodge an al-Qaeda affiliate in northern Mali killed one of the group’s leading commanders, Abou Zeid. Officials in Mali and France, which is leading an international military intervention in Mali against Islamic extremists, could not confirm reports of the death of Abou Zeid. He is a leader of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and was behind the kidnapping of several Westerners. The Chadian president’s spokesman said that Deby announced the death of Abou Zeid during a ceremony Friday for Chad’s fallen soldiers. The spokesman insisted on anonymity because he was not authorized to speak ahead of an announcement on state television on the matter. He gave no further details.

Malaysia – The New York Times reported: An obscure, centuries-old territorial dispute between Malaysia and the Philippines erupted in violence on Friday, leaving at least 13 people dead and straining relations between the close Southeast Asian neighbors. Malaysian security forces battled on Friday morning with about 180 Filipinos, some of whom were armed, in an effort to remove them from a remote coastal village they had occupied for two weeks in the northeastern Malaysian state of Sabah. The Malaysian state news agency Bernama reported that 10 to 12 Filipinos died in the clash and two Malaysian police commandos were killed in a mortar attack. The group, which represented itself as a royal militia in service of the sultanate of Sulu, which for centuries controlled the southern Philippines and part of what is now the Malaysian state of Sabah, arrived by boat on Feb. 12 to re-establish its long-dormant claim to the area.

Iran – The New York Times reported: Negotiations this week between the major powers and Iran on its nuclear program achieved only an agreement to hold technical talks in March and then another meeting in April. The outcome was frustratingly incremental, but it keeps alive the slim possibility of a diplomatic solution. The talks ground to a halt last June, as the Iranian issue became mired in the American presidential campaign. But now that Mr. Obama has won a second term he seems more willing to join Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China in shaping a deal that is more likely to get Iran to curb its nuclear work. In Almaty, Kazakhstan, the major powers dropped their demand that Iran shut down its underground uranium-enrichment plant at Fordo, and insisted instead that Iran suspend enrichment work there and agree to unspecified conditions that would make it hard to quickly resume production. They also said that Iran could continue to produce and keep a small amount of its most dangerous product — uranium enriched to 20 percent, which can be turned quickly into bomb-grade material — for use in a research reactor that produces medical isotopes. If Tehran agreed to these steps, the major powers said they would suspend some sanctions against Iran, including trade in gold and petrochemicals, and would not impose new sanctions through the United Nations Security Council and the European Union. The main oil and financial sanctions that have caused Iran’s oil revenues and currency value to plummet would not be loosened.

South Africa – The National Post of Canada reported: The job of the South African police is to fight one of the highest crime rates in the world. Instead, the force stands accused of contributing to it. On Friday, eight South African police officers were charged with murder for the death of a taxi driver dragged by a police vehicle, a videotaped incident that became a worldwide symbol of police brutality in this country. The video even shocked South Africans who are long accustomed to stories of police misconduct. At a bail hearing for Oscar Pistorius last week, a magistrate harshly criticized a police detective for shoddy work in the investigation into the murder case against the double-amputee athlete, charged with killing his girlfriend.

Kenya – The Globe and Mail of Canada reported: When millions of Kenyans queue up at voting stations in a key election on Monday, the shadow of a criminal court in The Hague will be looming over their decisions. One of the front-runners in the presidential election, Uhuru Kenyatta, has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity in the violent aftermath of the last election, when at least 1,500 people were killed. So too has his running mate, William Ruto. If they win, it could push Kenya towards diplomatic isolation. It’s just one reason why Monday’s election is among the most crucial in Kenya’s history, and probably the most important in Africa this year. The outcome, and the risk of a violent reaction, will help determine whether political stability finally arrives in one of Africa’s key democracies, five years after the chaos and bloodshed that followed the last vote. Kenya has one of the most vibrant economies on the continent, with a fast-growing mobile technology sector that sets the pace for Africa. But its growth is projected to collapse if there is post-election violence on the scale that followed the 2007 election.

Egypt – The Gulf NEWS of Qatar reported: Egypt’s opposition has said they will hold protests in Cairo on Sunday when the new US Secretary of State John Kerry starts talks in the country. Kerry will arrive in Cairo on Saturday, and begins talks Sunday. The opposition National Group for Change said it would protest outside the Egyptian Foreign Ministry against the visit, which it called “unwanted”. The opposition has been incensed by the US State Department’s call for them to reverse a decision to boycott controversial parliamentary elections, due to begin in late April. “Neither the US nor any other country has the right to give advice to Egyptians,” the National Group of Change said in a statement. “We do not accept intervention in Egypt’s internal affairs regarding elections or the dialogue between authorities and the opposition,” added the group, founded by Nobel peace laureate Mohammad Al Baradei. The main opposition bloc, the National Salvation Front, said this week it would boycott the four-round polls, citing a lack of transparency. The bloc, a grouping of leftist and liberal political parties, also spurned a call by the Islamist President Mohammad Mursi to attend “National Dialogue” talks to discuss “guarantees” for fair and free polls.

SyriaFOX NEWS reported: The head of Syria’s rebels said Friday that the food and medical supplies the United States plans to give his fighters for the first time won’t bring them any closer to defeating President Bashar Assad’s forces in the country’s civil war. “We don’t want food and drink, and we don’t want bandages. When we’re wounded, we want to die. The only thing we want is weapons,” Gen. Salim Idris, chief of staff of the opposition’s Supreme Military Council, told The Associated Press by telephone. The former brigadier in Assad’s army warned that the world’s failure to provide heavier arms is only prolonging the nearly 2-year-old uprising that has killed an estimated 70,000 people. In what was described as a significant policy shift, the Obama administration said Thursday it was giving an additional $60 million in assistance to Syria’s political opposition and said it would, for the first time, provide non-lethal aid directly to rebels battling to topple Assad.

Mali – The New York Times reported: The French military struck at Islamist militants dug in along the remote, rocky mountain ranges of northern Mali over the last week, killing scores, a French military spokesman said Friday. The week’s operations, conducted with Chadian troops, were a further sign that the French military intervention against the jihadists in Mali, initially viewed as a quick strike, was not winding down soon. Meanwhile, the Chadian president, Idriss Déby Itno, said that Abu Zeid, the most important commander in Al Qaeda’s regional franchise, had been killed in combat, Mr. Déby’s communications director, Dieudonné Djonabaye, said Friday night. The Algerian newspaper El Khabar asserted that samples from the corpse presumed to be that of Abu Zeid — he was of Algerian birth — had been sent to Algiers for testing against relatives; a senior Algerian official declined to confirm the report on Friday night.

IraqCNN reported: Five people were killed and 34 were wounded when two car bombs exploded Friday at a livestock market in Diwaniya, about 140 kilometers south of Baghdad, Iraq, police and health officials said. Diwaniya is a predominantly Shiite city. On Thursday, a car bomb exploded at a livestock market in al-Aziziya, about 80 kilometers north of Kut, killing two people and wounding 19 others.

Washington D.C. – The Washington Post reported: President Barack Obama has phoned Russian President Vladimir Putin, welcoming Russian cooperation on international efforts to confront Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The White House says the two men also discussed the ongoing violence in Syria, a topic that still divides Washington and Moscow. The White House says Putin and Obama agreed to hold their own meeting in June on the sidelines of the upcoming meeting of leading industrial nations in Northern Ireland. Obama also told Putin he looked forward to visiting St. Petersburg for the meeting of leading rich and developing nations in September. The White House says Putin and Obama welcome “substantive and constructive consultations” by Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov over a political transition in Syria.

Iran – The New York Post reported: So Tehran’s official media have dubbed the latest round of talks on Iran’s nuclear program with the “5+1 group.” Rixos is the name of the luxury hotel in Almaty, Kazakhstan, where the Iranian team this week met a delegation of senior officials from the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany led by the European Union’s foreign-policy spokeswoman Catherine Ashton. This round of talks (the sixth the two sides have held since 2003) ended, as usual, with an agreement on holding other rounds, starting with one in Istanbul next month. But this was the first time that the Iranian team has described the results as “positive.” The leadership in Tehran had three objectives. First, it wanted to buy time in which to push its nuclear program further along. By agreeing to “technical talks” lasting at least six months, the 5+1 Group has acquiesced. Next, Tehran wanted to boost the prestige of “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei by claiming that his direct control of the talks secured the victory that three successive presidents, the latest being Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, had failed to achieve. That, in turn, will strengthen Khamenei’s hand in choosing the next president in June. Finally, it wanted the prospect of an end to the pressures inflicted by economic sanctions.

SwitzerlandNBC NEWS via Reuters reported: A fourth person has died in hospital from injuries sustained in a shooting at a Swiss wood processing plant near the city of Lucerne, police said on Thursday. A 42-year-old factory worker opened fire on co-workers with a Sphinx AT 380 pistol on Wednesday, killing two colleagues and wounding seven others. The gunman was also found dead at the scene but police have given no details on how he died. Police said they were still investigating how the weapon came into the man’s possession and the motive for the attack. Among the victims was 26-year-old Benno Studer, a well-known athlete in the Swiss sport of Schwingen, also known as Swiss wrestling, the Swiss wrestling association said in a statement. A police spokesman confirmed that the gunman originally came from Kosovo and had a Swiss passport. Police have not released the gunman’s name. But Swiss newspapers reported that the man, identified by newspaper Blick only as Viktor B., was a former kick boxer and father of three. The country’s second mass shooting this year has reignited debate about Swiss firearm laws that allow men to keep guns after their mandatory military service. A gunman killed three women and injured two men in January in the village of Daillon.

SomaliaUnited Press Intermnational reported: A suicide bomber detonated a bomb at the entrance of a restaurant in Mogadishu, Somalia, killing himself and injuring seven people, police said. The device exploded as the bomber was denied entrance to Indian Ocean, a popular seaside restaurant, as another bomb exploded inside, police officer Abdi Yasin Hassan said. Last month a bomb was set off in the same area, killing a security guard, CNN said. The Somali Shabelle Media Network said such attacks are typically carried out by the militant group al-Shabaab, which linked to al-Qaida.

USA via JapanUnited Press International reported: Two U.S. Navy sailors were convicted and sentenced to prison on Friday for raping and robbing a woman on Okinawa in a crime that outraged many on the southern Japanese island. Seaman Christopher Browning, of Athens, Texas, and Petty Officer 3rd Class Skyler Dozierwalker, of Muskogee, Oklahoma, were found guilty by the Naha District Court of raping and robbing a woman in her 20s in a parking lot in October. Both admitted committing the crime. Browning, 24, was sentenced to 10 years and Dozierwalker, 23, received nine years. The case outraged many Okinawans, who have long complained of military-related crime on their island, which hosts thousands of U.S. troops. It also sparked tougher restrictions for all 50,000 U.S. military personnel in Japan, including a curfew and drinking restrictions. Prosecutors had sought up to 12 years in prison for Browning, who they said also robbed the woman after the rape. Both men admitted their guilt, but the defense had argued that such a long sentence would be excessive. In handing down the verdict, presiding judge Hideyuki Suzuki said the sentences were in line with the severity of the crimes, which he called “contemptible and violent.” Tensions between U.S. troops and Okinawans are endemic because of islanders’ complaints of noise, the danger of accidents and crimes committed by servicemen. The rape in October came amid large protests over the U.S. military’s decision to base a new kind of aircraft at an Okinawan Marine facility.


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