South Sudan Peace Talks Begin Amidst Continued Violence

Peace talks begin today between South Sudan’s two warring sides amidst continued fighting. Negotiators from the South Sudan government and rebel forces arrived in Ethiopia on Wednesday after two weeks of violence that has left over 1,000 dead and tens of thousands displaced. Both sides have signed on to a ceasefire, but clashes continue. The South Sudan government has declared a state of emergency in two states where rebels are in control of the capital. South Sudan Foreign Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin said his government is ready for unconditional dialogue.

South Sudan Foreign Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin: "The president had already formed his negotiating team, his dialogue team, since 48 hours ago, and this team now is ready to go this afternoon to Addis Ababa. So, we are for dialogue, unconditional dialogue, without any conditions. It was the other side putting conditions and refusing to send a team of their own. They were refusing equally for the cessation of hostilities. The president has been on record, and he said we don’t want the people of South Sudan to die again in a senseless war."

U.N.: Both Sides of South Sudan Conflict Committing "Terrible Violence"

South Sudan’s fighting broke out last month after President Salva Kiir accused his former vice president of attempting a coup. Speaking in the capital of Juba, U.N. special envoy Hilde Johnson said both sides have committed atrocities.

Hilde Johnson: "We have seen terrible acts of violence in the past two weeks. There has been killings and brutality, grave human rights violations and atrocities committed. We are seeing evidence of apparent ethnic or targeting of South Sudanese citizens on ethnic grounds. This can lead to a perpetual cycle of violence that can destroy the fabric of the new nation. We need to do everything possible to prevent such a cycle of violence between the communities of South Sudan."

Hotel Bombing Kills 11 in Somalia

At least 11 people have been killed and 17 wounded in a bombing in Somalia’s capital of Mogadishu. The attack targeted a hotel commonly visited by Somali government officials. Three bombs were detonated within the span of an hour, at least one by a suicide bomber. The militant group al-Shabab has claimed responsibility.

Militants Control Provincial Capitals in Growing Iraq Violence

Iraq is facing major clashes between government forces and Sunni fighters in Anbar province. The violence erupted earlier this week after police razed a year-old Sunni protest camp in the provincial capital, Ramadi. Militants from al-Qaeda and Sunni groups are now said to be in control of large parts of Ramadi and Fallujah. On Wednesday, fighters attacked scores of police stations in Fallujah, setting fires and freeing dozens of prisoners. Iraq is currently seeing its worst violence since 2008.

Al Jazeera Seeks Release of 3 Detained Journalists in Egypt

Three of four Al Jazeera journalists detained in Egypt this week remain behind bars. Correspondent Peter Greste, producers Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed, and cameraman Mohamed Fawzy were arrested in Cairo on accusations of "spreading false news" and holding meetings with the Muslim Brotherhood. Only Fawzy has been released so far. The three prisoners have faced repeated interrogation, and one has received medical treatment for an injury. Speaking from Al Jazeera’s headquarters in Doha, correspondent Bernard Smith called for his colleagues’ release.

Bernard Smith: "We would like our colleagues to be released immediately from custody in Cairo. They are journalists simply doing their job in Egypt, reporting on a variety of stories from Egypt, reporting all sides of the story from Egypt."

Israel to Announce New Settlements After Kerry Visit

Secretary of State John Kerry returns to Israel and the Occupied Territories today in a bid to ramp up peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians. The New York Times reports Israeli officials have privately decided to delay an announcement of new settlement construction until after Kerry leaves so as not to embarrass him during his visit. Israel is expected to announce yet another round of settlement building in the occupied West Bank despite ostensibly negotiating over the creation of a Palestinian state there. Earlier today, an 85-year-old Palestinian man died after inhaling tear gas fired by Israeli forces at demonstrators rallying near the West Bank town of Nablus.

Explosion Kills Palestinian Ambassador to Czech Republic

The Palestinian ambassador to the Czech Republic has died in an explosion at his home. Czech officials say Jamal al-Jamal appears to have accidentally triggered an explosive device attached to a safe he had been trying to open.

Millions Receive Coverage as Obamacare Plans Take Effect

Millions of Americans have begun receiving health insurance after the coverage provided by President Obama’s signature healthcare law went into effect on Wednesday. The first day of Obamacare’s insurance plans coincided with the expansion of Medicaid coverage under the law to about half the states. In addition to the plans going live, provisions have also taken effect that ban insurance companies from denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions or limiting reimbursements for essential treatment. In an opinion piece, the filmmaker and single-payer advocate Michael Moore writes that Obamacare is both "awful" for strengthening the insurance industry and a "godsend" for helping low-income Americans obtain life-saving insurance. Moore says: "Let’s not take a victory lap yet, but build on what there is, to get what we deserve: universal quality health care."

De Blasio Takes Aim at NYC’s Inequality in Inaugural Address

Bill de Blasio began his term as New York City mayor on Wednesday with a bold pledge to tackle income inequality in the nation’s largest city. De Blasio was sworn in following last year’s historic victories in the Democratic primary and general election on a progressive platform. In his inaugural address, de Blasio focused on his campaign pledge to tackle what he called "a tale of two cities," a growing gap between rich and poor.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio: "When I said I would take dead aim at at the tale of two cities, I meant it. And we will do it. I will honor the faith and the trust you have placed in me, and we will give life to the hope of so many in our city. We will succeed as one city. And we know this won’t be easy. It will require all that we can muster. And it won’t be accomplished only by me. It will be accomplished by all of us."

De Blasio is the first Democrat to lead New York in two decades, succeeding the three-term Mayor Michael Bloomberg. We’ll have more from de Blasio’s inauguration after headlines.

Civil Rights Attorney Lynne Stewart Free After Compassionate Release

The civil rights attorney Lynne Stewart has returned home from prison after a federal judge ordered her compassionate release. Stewart is 74 years old and dying from late-stage breast cancer. She had served almost four years of a 10-year sentence for distributing press releases on behalf of her client, Omar Abdel-Rahman, an Egyptian cleric known as the "blind Sheikh." Stewart arrived to a group of cheering supporters in New York City on Wednesday. We’ll have more on this story later in the broadcast.

Colorado Retailers Begin Legal Marijuana Sales

Colorado has enacted a law allowing recreational sales of marijuana following approval by voters in late 2012. The world’s first state-licensed marijuana retail stores opened their doors on Wednesday to long lines of customers. The first person to make a purchase was Sean Azzariti, an Iraq War veteran suffering from PTSD. Azzariti spoke to reporters, along with marijuana advocate Betty Aldworth.

Sean Azzariti: "Now I get to use recreational cannabis to help alleviate my PTSD, and it’s a stepping stone for other states to help other veterans, as well."

Betty Aldworth: "In Colorado we expect almost $400 million in sales next year. And across the nation, the marijuana industries will create $2.34 billion of economic activity."

Possession and private use of marijuana has been legal in Colorado over the past year, but it will now be legally produced and sold, as well. Around three dozen stores have been licensed to sell to customers.

Judge Strikes Down Welfare Drug Tests in Florida

A federal judge has upheld a decision striking down a Florida law that forces welfare recipients to pass a drug test. The measure barred applicants who test positive for drug use from receiving government assistance for one year or until they complete a drug abuse program. On Wednesday, Judge Mary Scriven sided with previous rulings that found the law violates constitutional protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. Figures from a period when the law was briefly in effect showed the testing turned up a less than 2 percent drug use rate among welfare recipients, far less than the rate for the general population at 8 percent. The law ended up losing money for the state because the high cost of the testing exceeded the low savings from denying benefits.

Federal Judge Upholds Unfettered Electronics Searches at U.S. Border

A federal judge has rejected a challenge to the U.S. policy of searching computers and other devices at border checkpoints without a warrant or proof of wrongdoing. The American Civil Liberties Union had brought the case, arguing border officials should have reasonable suspicion in order to seize and search private electronics. But U.S. District Judge Edward Korman sided with the Obama administration’s argument that the "border exemption" for searches applies to digital information. The case was filed on behalf of an Islamic Studies graduate student at Montreal’s McGill University. The student, Pascal Abidor, was taken off of a train in handcuffs after border guards forced him to show them the contents of his laptop. The computer was seized and returned 11 days later. In a statement, the ACLU said: "Suspicionless searches of devices containing vast amounts of personal information cannot meet the standard set by the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures."

Catholic Groups Win Obamacare Exemption on Contraception Coverage

Two Catholic groups have won last-minute exemptions from the part of the new healthcare law requiring contraception coverage for employees. The Obama administration already agreed to grant exemptions for religious organizations last year, but plaintiffs in the case say the certification process for them to opt out marks a violation of their religious freedom. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor granted the temporary injunction on Tuesday night, hours before the mandate took effect. The Supreme Court is set to hear a challenge to the contraception mandate by for-profit corporations later this year.

NYT Editors Back Clemency for Edward Snowden

Editors of The New York Times, the nation’s most influential newspaper, have come out in favor of clemency for NSA contractor Edward Snowden. In an editorial called "Edward Snowden, Whistle-blower," the editors write: "Considering the enormous value of the information he has revealed, and the abuses he has exposed, Mr. Snowden deserves better than a life of permanent exile, fear and flight. He may have committed a crime to do so, but he has done his country a great service."

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