Sunni militants laid siege to two key cities in western Iraq on Thursday, liberating prisoners, occupying buildings and setting police stations on fire. The Iraqi military has pushed back with air strikes. Iraq is embroiled in a sectarian crisis fueled by the civil war in neighboring Syria. The recent attacks took place in Anbar province, the site of the 2007 "surge" of U.S. troops and an area where nearly a third of U.S. war casualties lost their lives. More than 7,800 Iraqi civilians died last year, a return to levels seen during the height of the U.S. occupation.
The United Nations is warning spiraling crises in the Central African Republic, South Sudan and Syria are testing the limits of the global humanitarian system. U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos said more than one-in-six Central Africans are now internally displaced due to the violence there. In South Sudan, nearly 200,000 people have been driven from their homes in recent weeks. Amos said the global picture has worsened since last month when she projected a record $12.9 billion would be needed to reach people in more than 50 countries.
Valerie Amos: "Developments in the Central African Republic and South Sudan have already added tens of thousands of people to the list of those who need our help and support. And with the ongoing emergencies in Syria, the Philippines and elsewhere, our collective response capacity and our resources are being stretched to the limit. Millions of people have begun this year internally displaced or as refugees, dependent on humanitarian organizations for a place to sleep, food to eat and for basic healthcare."
UNICEF, meanwhile, is warning attacks against children have reached unprecedented levels in the Central African Republic with 16 confirmed killed, at least two of them beheaded. Children are being recruited into armed groups and targeted in brutal revenge attacks.
The military in South Sudan says rebels are forcibly recruiting civilians in a bid to seize the capital of Juba even as peace talks opened in Ethiopia. The rebels already control the strategic city of Bor, the capital of the oil-producing Jonglei state. The United States has been evacuating staff from the embassy in Juba amid continuing fears of a full-blown civil war.
In Lebanon, a powerful car bomb hit a neighborhood south of the capital Beirut Thursday, killing at least five people. The area is a stronghold of the Shiite group, Hezbollah.
The United States is continuing to pressure Afghanistan to sign a deal keeping thousands of U.S. troops there beyond this year. On Thursday, a group of U.S. senators met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai to urge him to stop delaying the bilateral security agreement. Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona said they had made progress.
Sen. John McCain: "I am convinced that as a result of our long meeting with President Karzai we have narrowed those differences, and I believe that we can look forward to the signing of the BSA (bilateral security agreement) and an implementation of it sooner rather than later."
The United States is also pressuring Afghanistan not to release a group of 88 prisoners from Bagram, the prison north of Kabul that became known for the abuse of prisoners under U.S. control. Afghanistan has already released 562 prisoners and plans to release the others, saying there is not enough evidence to keep detaining them. But the United States says the prisoners were involved in killing U.S. troops and Afghan civilians.
In Cambodia, police opened fire on striking garment workers south of the capital today, killing at least three people. Witnesses said police armed with assault rifles shot at protesters hurling rocks and other projectiles. Workers have launched a week-long strike demanding a minimum wage of $160 a month, which is double the current rate.
Rwanda’s former spy chief has been found murdered in South Africa. Patrick Karegeya had fled to South Africa in 2007 after being accused of plotting a coup against Rwandan President Paul Kagame. His body was found on a bed in an upscale hotel in Johannesburg on Wednesday. Rwanda’s opposition party has accused President Kagame of ordering his death.
The United States has transferred the last three Chinese Uyghur prisoners from Guantánamo to Slovakia five years after a judge ruled their detention was unlawful. The Uyghurs are members of a Muslim minority that faces persecution in China. They had been held for more than a decade without any evidence of ties to terror groups. Nineteen other Uyghur prisoners previously held at Guantánamo have already been resettled in five other countries. On Thursday, State Department deputy spokesperson Marie Harf hailed the transfers as part of a push to close Guantánamo.
Marie Harf: "The U.S. government long ago determined that it did not seek to detain these individuals, the Uyghurs, as enemy combatants. And in 2008, these latest ones that were released were among 17 Uyghur detainees ordered released from Guantánamo by a U.S. federal court. We’ve long maintained our position that we will not repatriate Uyghurs to China from Guantánamo due to our humane treatment policies. As we’ve also said, we’re taking all possible steps to reduce the detainee population at Guantánamo Bay, and it is certainly our position that these latest transfers mark an important step in furthering that objective."
Eight other prisoners have been removed from Guantánamo since August, but 155 remain.
A major snowstorm is blasting the midwestern and northeastern United States, prompting flight cancellations and school closings. Nearly two feet of snow had fallen north of Boston as of early this morning, with up to seven inches in New York City. New York and New Jersey declared states of emergency, advising residents to remain indoors.
Secretary of State John Kerry has returned to the Middle East in a bid to revive peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians. On the day of Kerry’s arrival, the Israeli interior minister and a group of lawmakers attended a ceremony marking construction of new settlement homes in the West Bank’s Jordan Valley. All settlements in the West Bank are considered illegal under international law, and Palestinians have warned they could derail the talks. Kerry’s visit comes as former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is near death. Sharon has been in a coma for years, but doctors say his condition has declined.
In India, hundreds of people took to the streets to protest the death of a 16-year-old rape victim who was set on fire. The victim was gang-raped in October. The next day, she was gang-raped again while returning from the police station after reporting the crime. Her family said they faced constant harassment from the rapists. Last week, the victim, who was pregnant, was set on fire, reportedly by two of her attackers. She died this week after identifying the men. At a protest Thursday, a lawmaker blamed authorities in the state of West Bengal.
Brinda Karat: "I stress that the government is answerable for the girl, who would have been present among us today if the West Bengal administration had exercised the laws properly. We do not seek anything else. But where is the law? A girl was gang-raped twice, and still you are unable to punish the accused. Why?"
The young woman’s death came two days after the first anniversary of the death of another woman who was gang-raped on a New Delhi bus. That case ignited the country and drew attention to sexual violence around the world.
In Pennsylvania, a high-ranking Catholic official convicted in a landmark child sex abuse case has been released on bail after his conviction was overturned. Monsignor William Lynn was found guilty in 2012 of hiding child molestation by transferring predatory priests to unsuspecting congregations. An appeals court threw out his conviction last week, saying he was tried under a law that did not apply to him. Lynn was released on Thursday after 18 months in prison. Prosecutors are appealing.
In a victory for immigrant rights, California’s highest court has ruled an undocumented man can become a lawyer. In a unanimous decision, the court ruled law school graduate Sergio Garcia can practice law. Garcia still cannot be legally hired by an employer, but he says he plans to open his own law firm.
In New York City, William Bratton has been publicly sworn in as the commissioner of the New York City Police Department. He returns to the job after heading the NYPD in the mid-1990s when he embraced the controversial "broken-windows" strategy of cracking down on low-level offenses. Bratton was appointed by new Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has vowed to curb the police practice of stop-and-frisk, a tactic Bratton actually expanded while heading the Los Angeles police. On Thursday, Bratton said he would ensure stops are performed constitutionally.
William Bratton: "The mayor has made it quite clear, and I’m reinforcing that, that the concerns about a progressive mayor coming in, that basically, reining in the police, he has made it quite clear that his concerns are around the issue, stop, question and frisk, and that in all things we want to do it constitutionally — you’re going to hear this ad nauseam from me — constitutionally, respectfully, compassionately, because that’s what it’s all about."
In August, a federal judge ruled the stop-and-frisk was unconstitutional and ordered reforms, saying police had relied on a "policy of indirect racial profiling." De Blasio has said he will drop the city’s appeal of that ruling.
A new analysis shows the world’s top 300 richest people became even richer last year, increasing their collective net worth by more than half a trillion dollars. According to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, the aggregate net worth of the world’s leading billionaires was $3.7 trillion at the end of 2013. Bill Gates, the world’s richest person, saw his fortune increase to $78.5 billion. Gambling magnate and right-wing donor Sheldon Adelson added more than $14 billion to his fortune last year.