Thousands of people have taken to the streets of the Tunisian capital of Tunis today to demand the resignation President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Nationwide protests have erupted over the past month against unemployment, police brutality and government repression under Ben Ali’s 23-year rule. At least 60 people are believed to have been killed in the unrest. Today’s demonstrations come one day after Ben Ali offered unprecedented concessions, including a vow to not seek a fourth term in 2014. The Tunisian president also agreed to allow political freedom, refrain from censorship of sites such as YouTube, end police brutality, and cut the prices of food staples. In Paris, hundreds of Tunisians rallied on Thursday to support the protests in their home country.
Protester: “We want to start with the departure of Ben Ali and his regime and the installation of a democratic regime that is elected by the people and which represents the people and which defends its social and economic interests.”
An estimated crowd of 7,000 demonstrators have surrounded Tunisia’s Interior Ministry building today, calling for Ben Ali to step down. It is believed to be the largest anti-government protest in Tunisia since Ben Ali took office in 1987.
The youngest victim of the shooting rampage in Arizona has been laid to rest. More than 2,000 people packed a Tucson church Thursday to remember nine-year-old Christina Taylor Green. The third-grade student had recently been elected to her school’s student council. She was among the six people killed when alleged shooter Jared Lee Loughner opened fire at a Tucson grocery store on Saturday, also wounding 13 others, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ). Outside the church, hundreds of people lined the streets to mourn Christina’s death. Arizona resident Ken Locklin noted the significance of Christina’s birthdate — September 11, 2001.
Ken Locklin: “It’s unfortunately that her life was book-ended by two tragedies — you know, tragedy when she was born in terms of 9/11, and then this is a tragic event in terms of what’s happened. So, we’re just here to try to do what we can for the family and let them know that we support them, and it was such a heinous crime that was committed against their daughter, but that we’re here for them.”
Doctors treating Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona say she continues to make remarkable progress in her recovery. In what they called a “major milestone,” Dr. Peter Rhee and Dr. Michael Lemole of the University Medical Center said Giffords is now able to open both eyes, move her legs and arms and respond to her visitors.
Dr. Peter Rhee: “Gabrielle Giffords remains in critical condition, but as you’ve heard from the President yesterday, it is true, she did have spontaneous eye opening yesterday and she’s becoming more and more alert at this time period, and she’s making much more spontaneous movements as we have completely stopped all the medications that might blunt her mental status.”
Dr. Michael Lemole: “But I have to say this is a major leap forward, this is a major milestone for her, and we’re hoping that she crosses through many more.”
The deadly shooting in Tucson has not deterred a nearby gun show from continuing as scheduled exactly one week later. Organizers of the Crossroads of the West gun show say their event will proceed at a site just 13 miles from where the shooting took place. The gun show was moved to Pima County after Los Angeles officials decided organizers have promoted irresponsible gun use. Crossroads’ logo depicts a crosshairs inside the letter “O” of “gun show.”
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has revoked the permit for one of the nation’s largest mountaintop removal coal mines. On Thursday, the EPA said Arch Coal’s proposed Spruce No. 1 Mine in West Virginia would “use destructive and unsustainable practices that jeopardize the health of Appalachian communities and the clean water on which they depend.” It’s the first time in the last 40 years the EPA has revoked a coal mine permit under the Clean Water Act. The Spruce No. 1 Mine has been the subject of controversy and litigation for over a decade.
U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden has reaffirmed a U.S. pledge to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of the year. On Thursday, Biden met top Iraqi officials in Baghdad for the first time since Iraqi lawmakers agreed on a new government last year. Biden says he told the Iraqi government the United States is committed to meeting a status of forces agreement that calls for a full U.S. withdrawal this year. But despite Biden’s pledge, new details have emerged on U.S. plans to maintain a massive presence in Iraq for years to come. The Washington Post reports the Obama administration plans to maintain a force of up to 8,000 private military contractors. The United States would also retain control over several major bases and large portion of Baghdad’s Green Zone. The United States also wants to retain control of a rocket detection system, a large compound near the Baghdad airport, and build new consulates in Basra, near the oil-rich Iraqi south.
The U.S. military is denying it is holding the alleged military whistleblower Bradley Manning in solitary confinement. A U.S. Army private, Manning has been held at the U.S. Marine Corps brig at Quantico, Virginia, since July on suspicion of leaking classified documents to WikiLeaks. Manning’s attorney has claimed his confinement violates a military rule against “pretrial punishment,” and friends and family say Manning’s mental and physical health has declined. But speaking to the New York Times, military spokesperson Col. T.V. Johnson rejected the allegation as “poppycock.” He added, “[Manning’s] treatment is firm, fair and respectful.” Johnson said Manning is allowed to speak with guards and prisoners in nearby cells, although he is not allowed to see them. He also acknowledged Manning is confined to his cell for 23 hours each day. WikiLeaks meanwhile has announced it has donated $15,000 to Manning’s defense fund. The figure is less than half the $50,000 initially pledged to help Manning last year. In a statement, the Bradley Manning Support Network, which has previously criticized WikiLeaks for not following through on its pledges, said, “This donation from WikiLeaks is vital to our efforts to ensure Bradley receives a fair, open trial.”
The United Nations is accusing forces loyal to incumbent Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo of attacking its vehicles. On Thursday, the U.N. officials said six vehicles were targeted, including an ambulance whose driver and doctor were injured. Gbagbo has refused to step down after a disputed November 29 election. Gbagbo’s rival, Alassane Ouattara, is widely believed to have won the vote. According to the United Nations, more than 200 people have died and some 20,000 have fled to neighboring Liberia as a result of post-election violence.
In Sudan, officials monitoring the week-long referendum on Southern Sudan’s future say turnout has reached the required threshold to make the result binding. Residents of Southern Sudan are expected to vote to split from the mostly Muslim north. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter said turnout has hit the required minimum of 60 percent of the voters.
Jimmy Carter: “There is a requirement to legitimize the election, or the referendum, that 60 percent of those registered vote. And that criterion has already been reached. So there’s no doubt about the legitimacy of the election, as far as the number of votes cast.”
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has wrapped up a five-day Middle East tour. Speaking to a group of Arab leaders in Qatar, Clinton urged democratic reforms to help counter Islamic militants.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: “If leaders don’t offer a positive vision and give young people meaningful ways to contribute, others will fill the vacuum. Extremist elements, terrorist groups and others who would prey on desperation and poverty are already out there, appealing for allegiance and competing for influence.”
After imploring Arab leaders to enact reforms, Clinton went on to defend the Obama administration’s refusal to apply meaningful pressure on Israel to end the occupation of Palestinian land. Clinton appeared to endorse Israel’s rejection of Arab and Palestinian peace offers by echoing Israel’s purported justification for killing more than 2,000 civilians in its attacks on Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2009.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: “We also have to convince the Israelis that a complete move toward a two-state solution will not endanger their security. Any leader in this room knows that you often make decisions based on your own experience and history. And when the Israelis pulled out from Lebanon, they got Hezbollah and 40,000 rockets, and when they pulled out of Gaza, they got Hamas and about 20,000 rockets. So it’s easy to say, well, this is what somebody else should do, but you’ve got to figure out a way to make it possible for people to undertake the hard work of the negotiations that are necessary to achieve a two-state solution.”
In Brazil, the death toll from landslides and flooding in an area near Rio de Janeiro has surpassed 500. Many more people are feared to be dead in areas where a month’s worth of rain fell in less than 24 hours. At least 13,500 people have been left homeless after flooding destroyed their homes.
A new report is warning 2011 is poised to break a record for home foreclosures in the United States. According to RealtyTrac, 1.2 million homes are likely to be repossessed this year, topping the record of one million set in 2010. At least five million borrowers are currently at least two months behind on their mortgages. California, Florida, Arizona, Illinois, Nevada and Michigan are expected to remain the states with the most foreclosures.
An American citizen currently held in Kuwait is claiming he was subjected to a harsh FBI interrogation this week. Nineteen-year-old Gulet Mohamed says he has been tortured and sleep-deprived since trying to renew his visa at a Kuwaiti airport last month. Mohamed says he has been extensively questioned about a 2009 study trip to Yemen and a later visit with family members in Somalia. On Wednesday, Mohamed said FBI agents subjected him to threats and rejected his pleas for an attorney while pressing him to admit to ties with militant groups. Mohamed has been unable to return to the United States since being placed on a no-fly list.
The Centers for Disease Control has released a new report detailing health-related disparities between various ethnic and social groups in the United States. The CDC says infants born to black women are up to three times more likely to die than infants born to women of other ethnicities. Drug-induced deaths increased in ethnicities from 2003 to 2007, with the exception of Hispanics. The death rates were highest among non-Hispanic whites. In a reversal from trends 15 to 20 years ago, prescription drug abuse now kills more people than hard narcotics.