18 Dead as East Coast Storm Winds Down

The massive storm that blanketed the East Coast in up to 18 inches of snow is expected to ease today after four days. The storm was blamed for at least 18 deaths, mostly in traffic accidents in the South. In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio faced criticism for a decision to keep the schools open. De Blasio says he acted mindful that many parents rely on school for child care, and many low-income students rely on school for their lunch.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio: "We’ve made abundantly clear that we know this city is functioning and that the city agencies are doing their job, and that given the information we had, it was right to go ahead with school. It’s not something you do lightly, to close school."

U.N. Envoy Meets with Russia, U.S. as Syria Talks Face Collapse

United Nations envoy Lakhdar Brahimi met with top U.S. and Russian envoys on Thursday in a bid to save the faltering Syrian peace talks from collapse. Brahimi says he won pledges from both sides to push for a breakthrough between the Assad regime and Syrian rebels, but declined to offer specifics.

Lakhdar Brahimi: "They have kindly reaffirmed their support for what we are trying to do and promised that they will help both here and in their capitals and elsewhere to unblock the situation for us, because until now we are not making much progress in this process."

Human rights activists say Syria has endured its deadliest violence so far in the three weeks since peace talks began, with an average of 236 people killed per day.

U.N.: Syrian Combatants "Consistently and Flagrantly" Violating Humanitarian Law

At the United Nations, Emergency Relief Coordinator Valerie Amos warned both sides in the Syrian conflict are flouting their humanitarian obligations.

Valerie Amos: "I told the Security Council that it is unacceptable that four months since the members of that council demanded action, international humanitarian law continues to be consistently and flagrantly violated by all parties to the conflict. All parties are failing in their responsibility to protect civilians. We understand that a war is going on, but even wars have rules."

Karzai Rejects U.S. Criticism of Prisoner Releases

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has rejected U.S. objections to his government’s latest release of prisoners. A group of 65 inmates were freed from Bagram on Thursday, a prison formerly run by the U.S. occupation. The Obama administration has lobbied intensely against the prisoners’ release, accusing them of attacks on Afghan civilians and U.S. troops. At a news conference, Karzai said the U.S. shouldn’t interfere in Afghan affairs.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai: "Afghanistan is a sovereign country. If the Afghan judicial authorities decide to release a prisoner, it is of no concern to the U.S. and should be of no concern to the U.S. And I hope that the United States will stop harassing Afghanistan’s procedures and judicial authority, and I hope that the United States will now begin to respect Afghan sovereignty."

In a statement, the U.S. military said the newly released prisoners pose a threat to Afghan civilians and foreign soldiers.

Bahrain Arrests Demonstrators Ahead of Uprising Anniversary

Bahrain has arrested scores of people ahead of today’s third anniversary of a pro-democracy uprising. Opposition activists began protesting the U.S.-backed Sunni regime on February 14, 2011, amidst political upheaval in Egypt and Tunisia. The protests have been crushed by martial law and a U.S.-backed invasion of Saudi Arabian forces. Bahrain is a key U.S. government ally in the Gulf, hosting the Navy’s 5th Fleet. Activists have defied a government crackdown to hold protests throughout the week, and more rallies are expected today.

Over 200,000 Flee Volcanic Eruption in Indonesia

More than 200,000 people are being evacuated in Indonesia after a major volcanic eruption. Dangerous ash and rocks have spewed from Java island’s Mount Kelud, threatening residents in at least 36 villages. At least two people have been killed so far.

NSA Fires Employee over Snowden Leaks

The National Security Agency says it has forced out a civilian staffer and downgraded two others in response to the security breach that allowed Edward Snowden to seize a massive trove of documents. The NSA says Snowden used the fired employee’s Public Key Infrastructure certificate and password to access internal files. Snowden has denied using his colleagues’ passwords.

Federal Judge Strikes Down Virginia Gay Marriage Ban

A federal judge has struck down Virginia’s ban on same-sex marriage. On Thursday, Judge Arenda Wright Allen of U.S. District Court said Virginia’s law violates gay people’s constitutional right to due process and equal protection. Allen’s ruling has been delayed pending an appeal. Virginia’s attorney general announced last month the state would stop defending the ban in court.

Facebook Expands Gender Identifiers for Users

The social media giant Facebook has expanded the gender options available to identify its hundreds of millions of users. Instead of just male or female, users can now choose from 10 options, including "transgender," "intersex" and "fluid."

GOP Lawmakers Claim Negative Consequences if Tennessee Workers Unionize

Workers at a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, are in their final day of voting on whether to form a union. The United Auto Workers is seeking to represent the plant’s 1,550 eligible employees in what would be its first presence at a U.S. plant owned by a foreign company. The union push has faced intense opposition from Republican lawmakers and outside groups. This week Republican Sen. Bob Corker claimed he had been "assured" that Volkswagen would reward the plant with a new car to build if its workers reject unionization. Volkswagen has denied Corker’s claim, and critics say he is engaged in scare tactics. On Thursday, Corker doubled down on his statement, saying his information is even more credible than Volkswagen’s top local executive, who himself said there is "no connection" between the vote and the company’s plans. Also this week, State Senator Bo Watson said future legislative incentives for Volkswagen could have "a very tough time" if the workers unionize. Right-wing groups have also weighed in. The D.C.-based Americans for Tax Reform has purchased over a dozen local billboards urging workers to vote no. At a UAW news conference, plant worker John Wright criticized what he called outside interference.

John Wright: "It’s kind of outrageous that we have all of these outside groups coming in from Washington, D.C., and other areas trying to influence both our politicians and our local employees into saying no to any type of unionization. They’re an outside party. They don’t know anything about Volkswagen itself. They don’t know anything about us. And really, we kind of see it as a lot of interference."

Comcast Prepares Lobbying Frenzy over Time Warner Merger

Consumer advocates and media reform groups are speaking out against a planned merger between the cable giants Comcast and Time Warner. Comcast has announced plans to buy Time Warner Cable for more than $45 billion in stock, giving it a virtual monopoly in 19 of the nation’s 20 largest media markets. The media reform group Free Press says the deal is "unthinkable," while former FCC Commissioner Michael Copps said it’s "so over the top that it ought to be dead on arrival at the FCC." It could take the FCC more than a year to review the deal. Comcast is expected to stage a lobbying blitz similar to when it won approval for an NBCUniversal takeover in 2011. According to the news website Republic Report, at least two officials who oversee antitrust enforcement have close Comcast ties.

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