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The crisis in Syria is intensifying following a massacre of Sunni villagers in Hama province. Witnesses and activists say government-backed forces killed up to 86 people in the village of Qubair, around half of them women and children. Most of the victims were burned in their own homes, with many bodies showing signs of grisly murders. The massacre reportedly came after dozens of Syrian troops and militia members surrounded the village from all directions. On Thursday, Syrian troops blocked U.N. monitors from reaching the village, and some observers came under fire as they tried to approach. The attack in Hama came less than two weeks after pro-government forces killed more than 100 civilians in the village of Houla. The Syrian government has denied responsibility for both atrocities, blaming rebel "terrorists."
At the United Nations, international envoy Kofi Annan acknowledged his ceasefire plan has failed and said responsibility first rests with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Kofi Annan: "Today, despite the acceptance of the six-point plan and the deployment of a courageous mission of United Nations observers to Syria, I must be frank and confirm that the plan is not being implemented. Clearly, all parties must cease violence, but equally clearly, the first responsibility lies with the government. Since then, shelling of cities has intensified. Government-backed militia seem to have free reign with appalling consequences."
Also in his remarks, Annan renewed his warning that Syria may already be in the midst of a catastrophic civil war.
Kofi Annan: "Given the level of violence and the actors on the ground, you could say we are drifting, if we are not already, in a sort of a civil war. All efforts are being made to ensure that if it were to become a full-blown civil war, it doesn’t spread to the neighbors."
Appearing with Kofi Annan, U.N. Security-General Ban Ki-moon condemned the massacre in Hama.
Ban Ki-moon: "Any regime or leader that tolerates such killing of innocents has lost its fundamental humanity. Today’s news reports of another massacre in al-Qubair and Kafr Zeta are shocking and sickening — a village apparently surrounded by Syrian forces, the bodies of innocent civilians lying there. They were shot, some allegedly burned or slashed with knives. We condemn this unspeakable barbarity and renew our determination to bring those responsible to account."
Members of the U.N. Security Council remain at an impasse over an international response to Syria’s turmoil. Kofi Annan has proposed establishing a new contact group involving the United States, Russia and Iran, but the United States has refused to accept Iran’s involvement. Russia and China continue to oppose proposals for sanctions against Syria and the U.S.-led calls for Assad to step down. At the United Nations, Russia envoy Vitaly Churkin said Council members have ignored the role of Syria’s armed rebels in the ongoing violence and called for Iran’s involvement in any future talks.
Vitaly Churkin: "The truth of the matter, as you know, is that armed opposition groups do not only — do not only fail to comply to the Kofi Annan plan, but they declare that it is their intention not to do so, which, to us, is a very dangerous development, a very counterproductive development. We hear complaints about Iran, so the way to deal with that is to involve Iran in discussions and make sure that their activities are in sync with the activities of the rest of us who want to have this matter finally settled peacefully."
Earlier in the day, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov vowed to oppose any Security Council measure authorizing military intervention, saying: "There will not be a Security Council mandate for outside intervention, I guarantee you that."
Speaking during a visit to Turkey, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton renewed the Obama administration’s call for the immediate departure of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Hillary Clinton: "Assad has doubled down on his brutality and duplicity, and Syria will not, cannot be peaceful, stable or certainly democratic until Assad goes. So even as we intensify the sanctions pressure, because as we were meeting in Istanbul, the sanctions working committee of the Friends of the Syrian People was meeting in Washington, the time has come for the international community to unite around a plan for a post-Assad Syria."
President Obama has reportedly ordered a major increase in drone strikes inside Pakistan over the past few months in apparent anticipation of the Pakistani government imposing an all-out ban. According to Bloomberg News, Obama’s reported order may account for the recent spike in drone attacks that have killed scores of people. A number of U.S. officials say they fear Pakistan may order the CIA to vacate the air base it uses to deploy its fleet of Predator drones.
The United States is reportedly withholding at least $3 billion in an ongoing dispute with Pakistan over the free passage of NATO supply convoys and the U.S. refusal to apologize for a November air strike that mistakenly killed 24 Pakistani troops. Speaking in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the United States is "reaching the limits" of its patience with Pakistan.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta: "We are reaching the limits of our patience here. And for that reason, it is extremely important that Pakistan take action to prevent this kind of safe haven from taking place and from allowing terrorists to use their country as a safety net in order to conduct their attacks on our forces."
Panetta’s visit to Afghanistan came one day after an estimated 18 Afghan civilians were killed in a U.S.-led NATO bombing.
Speaking during a visit to the Pakistani capital of Islamabad, the U.N.’s top human rights official, Navi Pillay, questioned the legality of U.S. drone strikes.
Navi Pillay: "Drone attacks do raise serious questions about compliance with international law, in particular, the principle of distinction and proportionality, and ensuring accountability for any failure to comply with international law. Therefore, I stress the importance of investigating such cases and ensuring compensation and redress to the victims."
Protests erupted in Bahrain on Thursday after a prominent human rights activist was arrested for the second time in a month. Nabeel Rajab, the president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, was detained after criticizing the Bahraini monarchy in Twitter messages and in media appearances, including one on Democracy Now! on May 31. Rajab had only been out of jail for a few days after spending the previous three weeks behind bars. Thursday’s protests ended with Bahraini forces firing tear gas to disperse the crowds.
The State Department has added members of the Somali militant group al-Shabab to its wanted list for the first time, offering tens of millions of dollars in bounties for seven of the group’s leaders. Al-Shabab controls large swaths of southern Somalia and reportedly launched an attack last month on Somali President Sheikh Ahmed. The State Department has accused the group of killing thousands of Somali civilians, peace activists, journalists and aid workers.
On the campaign trail, new figures show Republican candidate Mitt Romney vastly out-raised President Obama in donations last month. Romney took in more than $76 million, nearly 30 percent more than Obama’s haul of around $60 million. Seven percent of Romney’s donors accounted for $64 million of his total. The figures for both parties do not include the numbers raised by super PACs backing the candidates, which can take in unlimited amounts under the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling.
A spokesperson for the Greek neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn has been charged with assault after slapping a rival politician on live television. Ilias Kasidiaris was taking part in a roundtable debate when Rena Dourou of the left-wing Syriza party mentioned Kasidiaris’ alleged involvement in a 2007 armed robbery. Kasidiaris responded by throwing a glass of water at Dourou and then slapped another female politician, Liana Kanelli, in the face three times. Speaking to reporters, Kanelli said the incident demonstrates the Golden Dawn party’s fascist tendencies.
Liana Kanelli: "When you have a democracy that doesn’t count one vote, one person, anybody can get in the parliament under this so-called democracy. The legitimacy comes out of the votes of people. But be careful. There’s a new generation that hasn’t felt fascism and Nazism on its back and on its heart. Now they start to understand."
Thousands of indigenous protesters marched into the Bolivian capital of La Paz on Thursday to demand the ouster of the Canadian mining company South American Silver. The demonstrators arrived from communities surrounding the Mallku Khota silver mine, which holds vast deposits of silver, indium and gallium.
Protester: "The natural resources belong to each and every Bolivian, and we want the government to respect the natural resources. The mining company has run over and violated the rights of the people."
Occupy Wall Street activists returned to Zuccotti Park on Thursday to protest trespassing charges against activists who were arrested at New York’s Trinity Church on December 17. The protesters had scaled a fence onto church-owned property after Trinity refused to give them sanctuary following their eviction from Zuccotti at the time. Thursday’s rally was held as part of a campaign to pressure Trinity to drop cooperation with prosecutors ahead of the protesters’ trial next week. A group of New York pastors led a prayer vigil in support.
Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt: "I must take issue with Trinity Church today. I must take issue with their desire to prosecute people for acting in a way that churches and houses of worship [have] acted for centuries. I must take issue with those people, for whatever reason, who have decided that prosecution of free speech and prosecution in the service of human life and human flourishing is a good idea."
Also speaking at the event on Thursday was the priest, poet and activist, Father Daniel Berrigan.
Father Daniel Berrigan: "Real estate is real when it is in service to the common good. And when people are being served by the real estate, it becomes real once more. We are witnessing, in the case of Trinity, the unreality of real estate out of all control, which is to say, the real estate is growing unreal by playing God, by the way in which it’s trying to be in charge — and failing utterly. One way of putting our project today is to say, we are here to restore the reality to real estate."