Syrian forces have reportedly seized control of a rebel stronghold during a ground invasion in the city of Homs. A spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights said they have received unconfirmed reports of a series of executions involving 17 people in the neighborhood of Baba Amr after the Syrian army took over. The Syrian government has now granted permission for aid groups to travel to the area, which had been isolated during a month-long siege. The International Committee of the Red Cross and Syrian Red Crescent are expected to arrive in Baba Amr today bearing food and medical supplies. They also plan to evacuate some of those wounded in the attacks. A Red Cross spokesperson announced the group’s effort to reach Homs.
Hicham Hassan: "This morning a joint team from the ICRC and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent left Damascus heading towards Homs. The convoy is including also seven truckloads of assistance, mainly food, but other items, as well. The snow, sadly, slowed down the convoy a bit. We hope, however, to be inside Homs within the hour. Red Crescent ambulances and volunteers, including doctors, are in Homs. That’s the Homs branch. And we hope to get into Baba Amr as soon as possible."
Meanwhile, the French journalists Edith Bouvier and William Daniels have escaped from Homs to Lebanon with the aid of Syrian rebels. Bouvier was wounded in the attack late last month that killed two other journalists. France and Britain have announced plans to close their embassies in Syria, following the United States.
The Assad regime continues to come under criticism at the United Nations. On Thursday, the U.N. Human Rights Council passed a measure condemning Syria for "widespread and systematic violations of human rights." The Security Council meanwhile has unanimously passed a measure expressing "deep disappointment" over Syria’s refusal to admit U.N. humanitarian aid chief Valerie Amos and "[deploring] the rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation" on the ground. The measure passed with the support of Russia and China, who had previously vetoed a resolution critical of the Assad regime. Acting U.N. Security Council president, Mark Lyall Grant of Britain, read out the council’s statement.
Mark Lyall Grant: "The members of the Security Council deplore the rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation—in particular, the growing number of affected civilians, the lack of safe access to adequate medical services, and food shortages, particularly in the areas affected by fighting and violence, such as Homs, Hama, Daraa and Idlib. The members of the Security Council call upon the Syrian authorities to allow immediate, full and unimpeded access of humanitarian personnel to all populations in need of assistance, in accordance with international law and guiding principles of humanitarian assistance."
Republican presidential candidates are heading into a busy weekend of campaigning ahead of next week’s crucial "Super Tuesday" primaries. The 10 states holding votes on Tuesday are worth 437 delegates, more than the total number of delegates elected in the two months of the race so far. On Thursday, Rick Santorum took aim at Mitt Romney for negative campaigning, while Newt Gingrich said he was the best candidate to defeat what he called President Obama’s "socialist, bureaucratic, secular" agenda.
Rick Santorum: "That’s how one candidate has been able to win the race, not by painting a positive agenda, but by just serially destroying, with negative ads, their opponent. Good luck doing that in the general election. It’s not a winning formula. What’s a winning formula is having better ideas, motivating the base of the Republican Party, being authentic."
Newt Gingrich: "We have two nice people running who are not visionaries. We have a president who has the wrong vision. And so, we need to match our positive vision of an American future with his negative vision of a socialist, bureaucratic, secular future."
President Obama, meanwhile, paid a visit to New Hampshire, where he renewed his call for a repeal of federal subsidies to Big Oil.
President Obama: "Does anyone really think that Congress should give them another $4 billion this year? Of course not. It’s outrageous. It’s inexcusable. And I’m asking Congress: eliminate this oil industry giveaway right away. I want them to vote on this in the next few weeks. Let’s put every single member of Congress on record. You can stand with the oil companies, or you can stand up for the American people. You can keep subsidizing a fossil fuel that’s been getting taxpayer dollars for a century, or you can place your bets on a clean energy future."
Later in the day, President Obama spoke at a New York City fundraiser, where he was interrupted by a protester speaking out against the possibility of military action against Iran.
President Obama: "None of this change—
Protester: "No war on Iran!"
President Obama: "None of—nobody has announced a war, young lady, so—but we appreciate your sentiment. You’re jumping the gun a little bit there. None of this change has been easy."
The NATO occupation force in Afghanistan has confirmed two U.S. soldiers were killed on Thursday when two Afghan shooters, one of them a soldier, opened fire at a southern base. It was at least the second attack in less than a week by an Afghan servicemember on U.S. forces in the ongoing uproar over the burning of copies of the Koran by U.S. soldiers. NATO spokesperson Carsten Jacobson announced the attack.
Carsten Jacobson: "What happened this morning is that a base in southern Afghanistan, at a forward operating base, two individuals, one Afghan National Army soldier and a man in civilian clothes, opened fire indiscriminately on members of that base."
A number of foreign NGO workers have left Egypt following the lifting of a travel ban by the military government. Egypt had barred 43 NGO workers, including 16 U.S. citizens, from leaving on allegations of illegally using foreign funds to stir up opposition to the Egyptian military government. The issue strained relations with the United States, which has threatened to withhold billions in aid. The workers were allowed to leave, provided they post bail, but none of the charges have been dropped. In Washington, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said the United States remains "concerned" about the charges.
Victoria Nuland: "The departure of our people doesn’t resolve the legal case or the larger issues concerning the NGOs. We remain deeply concerned about the prosecution of NGOs in Egypt and the ultimate outcome of the legal process, and we will keep working with the Egyptian government on these issues."
The U.S.-backed monarchy in Bahrain continues to block international monitors from assessing human rights conditions in the crackdown on opposition protests. On Thursday, the United Nations’ top investigator into torture said Bahrain has asked him to delay a trip scheduled for this month until July. Bahrain says it wants the investigator, Juan Méndez, to visit after it has completed a set of reforms put forward by an international panel last year. Bahrain has also tightened visa restrictions on human rights group, limiting them to five-day visits to Bahrain and requiring them to obtain a Bahraini sponsor. In response, Amnesty International says it has no choice but to cancel its trip. The moves follow Bahrain’s recent deportations of a number of internationals who had sought to witness the repression of protests.
Maryland has become the latest state to legalize same-sex marriage. On Thursday, Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley signed a same-sex marriage bill into law following its passage by state lawmakers last month. Maryland joins seven other states and the District of Columbia.
The oil giant Shell has taken preemptive steps to protect its offshore drilling plans in the Arctic Ocean by filing a lawsuit against environmental opponents in an apparent attempt to beat them to court. This week, Shell sued more than a dozen environmental groups, seeking a court ruling affirming the federal government’s prior approval of Shell’s oil spill response plan that the groups are expected to challenge. In a separate case, Shell has won a restraining order barring activists from the environmental group Greenpeace from interfering with Shell’s drilling rigs. Last week, activists boarded a rig in New Zealand that is scheduled to begin operations in the Arctic this summer. They were arrested after spending four days on the rig. The group included the actor Lucy Lawless, best known for her role as "Xena: Warrior Princess."
Lucy Lawless: "Seven of us went up the rig, but 133,000 people came down with us in solidarity that have been writing letters. And we know that new heroes are going to spring up in our fervent mission to make sure that the oil industry becomes an energy industry that is renewable and clean."
The controversial conservative and activist Andrew Breitbart has died at the age of 43. Brietbart was known for his online attacks against progressive and Democratic targets, including his posting of an undercover video that fueled a campaign against the anti-poverty group, ACORN. His publishing of sexually explicit photos of former New York Rep. Anthony Weiner led to Weiner’s resignation. In 2010, he helped spur the firing of a Department of Agriculture official, Shirley Sherrod, by posting an edited video falsely making it appear Sherrod refused to help a white farmer.
The former security chief for Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia has been sentenced to three years in prison for his role in covering up the 2010 mining disaster that killed 29 workers. Hughie Stover was convicted of making false statements to FBI and Mine Safety and Health Administration investigators and of obstructing a federal probe. Stover is the first mine official to be sentenced in what is expected to be a number of cases related to the Upper Big Branch tragedy.