A number of aid organizations in Afghanistan are challenging the Obama administration’s recent claim that insurgents now control less territory than they did a year ago. Nic Lee, the director of the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office, told McClatchy Newspapers: "Absolutely, without any reservation, it is our opinion that the situation is a lot more insecure this year than it was last year." Challiss McDonough of the U.N.'s World Food Program said, "There are fewer places where we have completely unimpeded access." Security analysts say that Taliban shadow governors still exert control in all but one of Afghanistan's 34 provinces. 2010 proved to be the deadliest year in Afghanistan for international troops. More than 700 foreign troops were killed, on an average of about two per day. According to the United Nations, at least 2,400 civilians died in Afghanistan in the first 10 months of the year, and 3,800 were injured. Earlier today at least 14 Afghan civilians died in a roadside blast in southern Helmand province.
Ivory Coast’s newly appointed ambassador to the United Nations has warned the country is "on the brink of genocide" following last month’s disputed presidential election. President Laurent Gbagbo has refused to relinquish power to Alassane Ouattara, who is widely regarded as the winner of the election. Ambassador Youssoufou Bamba spoke in New York after being formally welcomed at the U.N.’s headquarters.
Ambassador Youssoufou Bamba: "172 people killed, only because they want to demonstrate, they want to speak out, they want to defend the will of the people. We think it’s not acceptable. That’s one of the messages I tried to get across during the conversations I’ve conducted so far, to tell we are on the brink of genocide. Something should be done."
Ambassador Youssoufou Bamba was appointed by Alassane Ouattara after last month’s election. Alain Le Roy, the head of the U.N. peacekeeping operation in Ivory Coast, has accused President Gbagbo of using the airwaves to instigate violence.
Alain Le Roy: "The declarations I hear on the Ivorian State Television are concerning us and shocking us, because they clearly instigate the population to turn against the United Mission to Ivory Coast, instigate towards hatred. It’s very clear. That’s how we interpret the incident that happened yesterday at Yopougon that everybody saw. It’s clearly a direct consequence of all the appeals to hatred, lies and anti-ONUCI propaganda which is advanced by the RTI."
In the Ivory Coast, the prominent Washington lobbyist Lanny Davis has announced he is resigning from his job representing Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo. A former White House special counsel under President Bill Clinton, Davis was hired to make the case that Gbagbo won the November election. Davis’s work overseas has often come under criticism. His recent clients include Ecuadorian Guinea dictator Teodoro Obiang as well as key supporters of the 2009 coup in Honduras.
Former Israeli President Moshe Katsav has been convicted of two counts of rape and faces at least eight years in prison. Katsav was convicted of twice raping an aide when he served as tourism minister and of molesting or sexually harassing two other women during his presidency. A member of the right-wing Likud party, Katsav was Israel’s first conservative president.
President Obama has appointed Robert Ford to become the first U.S. ambassador to Syria since 2005, using a recess appointment to bypass opposition from Senate Republicans. The Bush administration withdrew its ambassador from Syria in February 2005 following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri. On Wednesday, President Obama also appointed ambassadors to Turkey, the Czech Republic and Azerbaijan. In addition, James Cole was appointed as deputy attorney general, the nation’s second-ranking law enforcement post.
The United States has revoked the visa of the Venezuelan ambassador to Washington, Bernardo Álvarez Herrera. The move came after Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez said he would not allow Larry Palmer to be the U.S. ambassador to Venezuela. Chávez criticized Palmer for recently claiming that Colombian rebels are finding refuge in Venezuela.
Mexican and Honduran government officials have agreed to do more to protect Central American migrants as they travel north through Mexico. Two weeks ago, some 50 Central American migrants were abducted in Mexico’s southern state of Oaxaca after armed men held up the cargo train they were riding on. Honduran Deputy Secretary of Foreign Affairs Alden Rivera blamed drug cartels for much of the violence.
Alden Rivera: According to information provided to us by Honduran citizens who unfortunately have been the object of kidnappings, because of their inability to pay a ransom, they are offered by the criminals to join their organizations. And we do have information that some Hondurans are becoming part of these groups of organized crime."
Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour has suspended the life sentences of a pair of African American sisters who had served 16 years in prison for taking part in an $11 armed robbery. For years civil rights advocates, including the NAACP, have called for the release Jamie and Gladys Scott, often known as just as the Scott Sisters. One of the sisters, 38-year-old Jamie Scott, is in need of a kidney transplant. Her sister Gladys Scott has agreed to donate one of her kidneys as a condition for her release from prison.
In economic news, the latest figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show that the unemployment rate for veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan remains above the national average. In November, 10 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans were unemployed, compared with 9.1 percent of non-veterans.
The Washington Post is reporting the U.S. government is expanding the number of names on its terrorist watch list by altering its criteria so that a single-source tip can lead to a name being placed on the list. Currently, there are 440,000 people on the list, an increase of about five percent since last year. Civil liberties groups have argued that the government’s new criteria have made it even more likely that individuals who pose no threat will be swept up in the nation’s security apparatus. Chris Calabrese of the American Civil Liberties Union said, "They are secret lists with no way for people to petition to get off or even to know if they’re on."
In news from Haiti, an American aid worker has been released from prison after being held for 18 days on accusations that he kidnapped an infant from a hospital where he worked as a volunteer. The aid worker, Paul Waggoner, co-founded the Materials Management Relief Corps after last January’s devastating earthquake. In an interview last night on CNN, Waggoner said the kidnapping accusations were part of an extortion plot.
Dilma Rousseff will be sworn in as Brazil’s first female president on Saturday. Rousseff is a former leftist guerrilla who was imprisoned and tortured for three years during Brazil’s dictatorship in the 1970s. Rousseff is a close ally of Brazil’s outgoing president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. In a recent nationally televised address, Lula praised the progress Brazil has made over the past eight years.
Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva: "It is deeply symbolic that the presidential sash is being handed over from the first working-class president to the first female president. This will be a landmark in the beautiful path our people have been building to turn Brazil, if it’s God’s will, into one of the world’s most equal countries."
A group of prominent conservative organizations are boycotting the upcoming Conservative Political Action Conference because a Republican gay rights organization called GOPProud was invited to attend. Groups boycotting the event include the Family Research Council, Concerned Women for America and the National Organization for Marriage.
The Justice Department is investigating whether Tea Party favorite Christine O’Donnell violated federal law by diverting campaign funds for personal use. O’Donnell ran for Senate on the Republican ticket in Delaware.
And in Alaska, Sen. Lisa Murkowski is about to be certified the winner of Alaska’s U.S. Senate race. Alaska’s governor and lieutenant governor are set to sign papers today certifying that Murkowski beat rival Joe Miller in the November race.