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U.S. Drone Strikes Kill Taliban Leader, 14 Others in Pakistan

U.S. drone strikes have killed 15 people in Pakistan, including a Taliban commander, according to officials there. Maulvi Nazir was killed along with several other people in a strike in South Waziristan Wednesday night. A second strike this morning in North Waziristan killed at least four people.

U.N.: More Than 60,000 Killed in Syria Conflict

The United Nations says more than 60,000 people have died in Syria over nearly two years of fighting between government forces and rebels opposed to President Bashar al-Assad. A new analysis of the toll conducted for the U.N. human rights office took five months to complete, using data from seven sources, including the Syrian government. The number is higher than the previous estimate of 45,000 reported by the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Rupert Colville, spokesperson for U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay, discussed the Syrian crisis on Al Jazeera Wednesday.

Rupert Colville: "It became so complicated. There were so many different people reporting casualties, so many different places where violence and fighting was going on simultaneously, and no way of really verifying each and every case. So it’s been a very difficult issue. But this is a real attempt to do an exhaustive analysis of the information we do have. It should be treated as an indicative number, not as a real number, but we believe it’s probably the minimum."

Violence in Syria is continuing to claim scores of lives on a daily basis. More than 200 people were killed Wednesday, many of them in and around the capital Damascus, according to an opposition group. Dozens died when a government air strike hit a gas station in a Damascus suburb. An Internet video posted by rebels appears to show fighters loyal to Assad killing two men by stabbing them and hitting them with concrete blocks over an extended period of several minutes. Meanwhile, the United Nations refugee agency says about 84,000 people fled the Syrian crisis in the month of December alone, bringing the total number of people displaced by the conflict to about half a million.

News Blackout Lifted over U.S. Journalist Missing in Syria

A news blackout has been lifted over the disappearance of a U.S. journalist kidnapped in Syria. Freelance reporter James Foley was kidnapped by gunmen in November. His family had kept the news secret, but they have now launched a public campaign for his return. Foley has written for Global Post and Agence France-Presse. In 2011, he was captured and held for weeks in Libya by forces loyal to ousted leader Muammar Gaddafi.

Obama Signs Renewal of Controversial Defense Act

President Obama has signed a renewal of the controversial National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA. The law has drawn widespread criticism for last year’s provision allowing the United States to detain suspects anywhere in the world without charge or trial. A group of journalists, activists and scholars — including Chris Hedges and Noam Chomsky — have challenged the Obama administration over that statute in a case currently before a federal appeals court. The 2013 version effectively blocks the Obama administration from closing Guantánamo Bay by barring the use of funds for construction on facilities that could be used for prisoner transfers. There are currently 166 prisoners held at Guantánamo; 86 of them have been cleared for release. President Obama signed the renewal despite his objections to the Guantánamo provision, following promises to close the detention center. In a statement, he said: "I have approved this annual defense authorization legislation, as I have in previous years, because it authorizes essential support for service members and their families, renews vital national security programs, and helps ensure that the United States will continue to have the strongest military in the world."

House Sets Vote on Sandy Aid After Torrent of Criticism

Following a torrent of criticism from within his own party, U.S. House Speaker John Boehner has set a timeline for voting on $60 billion in relief for Superstorm Sandy. Boehner has pledged to bring $9 billion in aid to the floor on Friday, followed by a $51 billion package on January 15. Boehner had canceled an expected vote this week on Sandy relief, prompting outrage from Republicans in Northeastern states pounded by the storm. In particular, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie hammered Boehner, saying he had called the House speaker four times Tuesday night after being informed the bill had been pulled. During a 40-minute news conference Wednesday, Christie called Boehner’s decision "disappointing and disgusting to watch" and condemned the GOP’s "toxic internal politics."

Gov. Chris Christie: "In our hour of desperate need, we’ve been left waiting for help six times longer than the victims of Katrina, with no end in sight. Americans are tired of the palace intrigue and political partisanship of this Congress, which places one-upsmanship ahead of the lives of the citizens who sent these people to Washington, D.C., in the first place. New Jerseyans and New Yorkers are tired of being treated like second-class citizens. Sixty-six days and counting. Shame on you. Shame on Congress."

House GOP Blocks Violence Against Women Act

House Republicans are also taking criticism for failing to reauthorize the landmark Violence Against Women Act. A version passed by the Senate last year extended domestic violence protections to 30 million undocumented immigrants, LGBT people and Native American women. But House Republicans opposed the extensions and passed their own version. Washington Democratic Senator Patty Murray blasted House leaders for failing to adopt the Senate bill, saying, "This seems to be how House Republican leadership operates. No matter how broad the bipartisan support, no matter who gets hurt in the process, the politics of the right wing of their party always comes first."

Outgoing Rep. Dennis Kucinich Calls for Unity in Farewell Address

Ohio Democratic Rep. Dennis Kucinich has given his farewell speech to Congress at the end of his eighth term in office. Since 1997, Kucinich has been a leading progressive voice on Capitol Hill. He ran for president twice, vowing to create a Department of Peace. In his goodbye address Wednesday, Kucinich called for unity amid partisan differences he said have nearly incapacitated the government.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich: "We need a new politics in America, which unites people, which sets aside partisan differences for the greater good of the country, which strives to reconnect with the greatness of the nation and the goodness of the American people. Now what would that politics look like? The rhetoric would change to one of mutual respect. The questioning of motives would end. The poisoned system of pay-to-play would be transformed by public financing. And our government would be rededicated to addressing the practical aspirations of the American people, for jobs, for healthcare for all, for education for all, for retirement security for all, and for environmental security."

Rep. Kucinich lost his seat after being pitted against fellow Democratic incumbent Marcy Kaptur under Republican-mandated redistricting.

New Hampshire to Swear In All-Female Congressional Delegation

New Hampshire is set to become the first state in the country with an all-female congressional delegation after its newest lawmakers are sworn in today. New Hampshire’s new governor, Maggie Hassan, is also a woman. But the state’s gender progress is not reflected across the country. Women will hold just 20 percent of seats in the new Senate and less than 18 percent in the House. Six states have never elected a woman to the House, and four have never chosen a woman senator.

India: 5 Charged in Court over Fatal Gang Rape

Five men have been formally charged in an Indian court with the gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old student on a moving bus in New Delhi. The attack last month sparked a nationwide outcry with calls for harsher punishments against rapists and an end to violence against women. The outrage deepened after the victim — who has still not been named publicly — died from wounds she suffered in the hours-long assault. Police said they plan to push for the death penalty. A sixth suspect is believed to be under 18 and will likely face charges in juvenile court.

Cold Snap Kills More Than 100 in India

In news from India, more than 100 people have died of exposure amid historically low temperatures in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. Officials said many of the dead were poor people whose bodies were found outside in sidewalks or parks. Temperatures in bordering New Delhi hit their lowest maximum level in more than 40 years on Wednesday.

Colombia: 13 FARC Rebels Killed in Gov’t Strike

At least 13 members of Colombia’s FARC rebel group have been killed after the military struck a rebel camp in a northwestern area. Military attacks against the FARC have continued even after rebels and the Colombian government began meeting for peace talks in Cuba late last year.

Chile: Widow of Singer Víctor Jara Asks U.S. to Extradite Suspect in His 1973 Murder

Several former military officials have been detained in Chile after a judge ordered their arrest for alleged involvement in the 1973 murder of singer Víctor Jara. Jara was shot to death after the U.S.-backed coup that ousted elected President Salvador Allende. First his hands were smashed so he could no longer play guitar. Jara’s widow has called for the United States to extradite one of the eight officers now being charged in the killing, Pedro Barrientos Nuñez, who is currently living in Florida. Joan Jara spoke Wednesday from a stadium that was used as a torture center following the coup.

Joan Jara: "It is very difficult for me to talk at this moment, in spite of the fact that I know it is the time to talk. It’s not a time for celebration; it’s a time to be calm and to know that there is a lot of work ahead in order to finally achieve real justice, and especially real justice for all the victims who suffered so much here and in so many other places in Chile."

Hillary Clinton Discharged from Hospital After Blood Clot

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been discharged from a hospital in New York where she was receiving treatment for a blood clot. The clot in Clinton’s head stemmed from a concussion she suffered last month.

Al Jazeera Expands U.S. Reach with Purchase of Current TV

Al Jazeera has purchased the cable news channel Current TV. The deal is expected to give the Qatar-based news network a wider impact on the U.S. media world. Current TV was founded by former Vice President Al Gore and reaches tens of millions of homes across the United States.

Poet, Civil Rights Activist Jayne Cortez Dies at 76

The poet, spoken-word performer and civil rights activist Jayne Cortez has died at the age of 76. Cortez published numerous books of poetry and put out several records of her words set to music. This is Cortez performing one of her best-known poems, "I Am New York City."

Jayne Cortez: "i am new york city
here is my brain of hot sauce
my tobacco teeth my
mattress of bedbug tongue
legs apart hand on chin
war on the roof insults
pointed fingers pushcarts
my contraceptives all

look at my pelvis blushing

i am new york city of blood
police and fried pies
i rub my docks red with grenadine
and jelly madness in a flow of tokay
my huge skull of pigeons
my seance of peeping toms
my plaited ovaries excuse me
this is my grime my thigh of
steelspoons and toothpicks
i imitate no one."

Jayne Cortez died on December 28.


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