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President Obama has announced a plan to withdraw as many as 10,000 troops from Afghanistan this year, reversing his controversial troop surge. In a televised address, Obama said he will also bring home another 23,000 troops by the end of summer in 2012 — just as his re-election campaign will be in full swing.
President Obama: “Starting next month, we will be able to remove 10,000 of our troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year, and we will bring home a total of 33,000 troops by next summer, fully recovering the surge I announced at West Point. After this initial reduction, our troops will continue coming home at a steady pace as Afghan security forces move into the lead. Our mission will change from combat to support. By 2014, this process of transition will be complete, and the Afghan people will be responsible for their own security.”
President Obama’s plan would leave around 70,000 military forces, plus thousands of contractors in Afghanistan — the same size as before the troop surge last year.
A split has emerged within NATO over the bombing of Libya. Italy is calling on other member states to halt the international assault and allow for the delivery of humanitarian aid. But the NATO leadership is vowing to continue launching air strikes, saying any pause would increase civilian casualties and strengthen the forces behind Libyan leader Col. Muammar Gaddafi. A NATO air strike this week reportedly killed a number of civilians — including two children — in the capital city of Tripoli. Thousands of people gathered on Wednesday to bury the dead. Libyan government spokesperson Moussa Ibrahim condemned the NATO bombings.
Moussa Ibrahim: “We have been calling for peace and negotiation for months, and no one wants to listen to us. Now we have to pay a very heavy price of casualties, civilian casualties and also military casualties. I think the time has come for the world to understand that this conflict has to come to an end immediately.”
Forces loyal to Libyan leader Col. Muammar Gaddafi continue to launch strikes at rebel strongholds. A field hospital in the rebel-held city of Misurata said it had received at least four dead victims.
Doctor: “Today it’s quiet at the moment, but in afternoon they start bombing by mortars on the west gate of Misurata, I mean Dafniyah. We received today 23 civilian; four of them, they are dead on arrival.”
Bahraini opposition members are warning of a worsening political crisis following the sentencing of eight leading activists to life in prison. On Wednesday, a Bahraini court ruled Shiite political leader Hassan Mushaima and seven others were guilty of plotting a coup in the protests that erupted earlier this year. Thirteen other activists were given sentences of between two to five years. Bahrain is a key U.S. government ally in the Middle East, hosting the Navy’s Fifth Fleet. In Washington, U.S. Department of State spokesperson Mark Toner expressed “concern” over the sentences.
Mark Toner: “We are concerned about the severity of the sentences handed down yesterday in Bahrain. We’re also concerned about the use of military courts to try these civilians. As President Obama said in his May 29—or May 19th speech, 'such steps are at odds with the universal rights of Bahrain's citizens.’ We understand that these cases will now go through an appeals process. We continue to urge the Bahraini government to abide by its commitment to transparent judicial proceedings.”
A number of other Bahraini protesters stand to face trial. A military trial is ongoing for a group of doctors and medical workers who treated wounded activists. This week, the wife of one of the doctors says her husband was tortured into confessing, after being forced to stand for three weeks, handcuffed, and deprived of sleep.
Syrian forces have entered a village near the Turkish border, forcing hundreds of people living in makeshift camps to flee into Turkey. Tanks, armored vehicles and buses carrying troops moved into the town of Khirbet el-Jouz early Thursday morning. The camps had provided a temporary home for thousands of Syrian families fleeing President Bashar al-Assad’s ongoing crackdown on opposition supporters. Syrian human rights groups estimate about 1,400 people have been killed and 10,000 detained in the last three months.
China’s best-known artist, Ai Weiwei, has been released from prison after more than two months behind bars. Chinese authorities had detained Weiwei and seized more than 30 computers from his studio just days after he accused the Chinese government of trying to silence dissident voices. Outside of his studio, Weiwei refused to answer questions, saying it would violate his bail conditions.
Ai Weiwei: “Sorry, I can’t.”
Reporter: “You can’t talk? You’re not allowed to talk?”
Ai Weiwei: “I’m on probation, so…”
Reporter: “And what about the police saying that you admitted”—
Ai Weiwei: “I cannot talk. I’m so sorry.”
Ai Weiwei: “Please understand. Thank you so much.”
As an artist, Weiwei is best known for designing the Bird’s Nest stadium for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. His arrest had sparked an international outcry.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in Guatemala for a gathering on efforts to combat rampant drug trafficking in Central America. The conference includes all seven of Central America’s presidents, as well as the presidents of Mexico and Colombia, leaders from Canada and Europe, and representatives from a number of global financial institutions. On Wednesday, Clinton said the United States will increase funding for regional drug war efforts by $40 million. Clinton also called on Central American countries to ensure wealthy citizens are paying their share of taxes.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: “The countries represented around here and the extraordinary leaders who are here on behalf of their countries must have the resources they require. Businesses and the rich in every country must pay their fair share of taxes and become full partners in a whole of society effort. True security cannot be funded on the backs of the poor.”
The militarized drug war in Mexico has pushed violent drug trafficking organizations into impoverished areas, particularly in the nations of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. Central America is now considered the most dangerous area in the world outside of an active war zone.
Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke has raised the possibility of new government stimulus measures should the U.S. economy continue to show a slow recovery. On Wednesday, Bernanke said he would consider cutting interest rates and purchasing U.S. Treasury securities. The official unemployment rate hit 9.1 percent last month, the second consecutive increase.
Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke: “As indicated in today’s policy statement, the economic recovery appears to be proceeding at a moderate pace, though somewhat more slowly than the committee had expected, and some recent labor market indicators have also been weaker than expected. For example, the unemployment rate has risen by 0.3 percentage points since March, and new claims for unemployment insurance have moved somewhat higher.”
A New York Times reporter who helped uncover the Bush administration’s secret domestic spying program says he continues to face government surveillance and harassment under President Obama. In a new affidavit, James Risen says government monitoring of his incoming and outgoing phone calls has carried over from the Bush years. Risen has been subpoenaed twice to reveal his sources for a 2006 book on the CIA, in which he detailed the CIA’s role in disrupting Iran’s nuclear program. Risen writes: “I believe that the efforts to target me have continued under the Obama administration, which has been aggressively investigating whistleblowers and reporters in a way that will have a chilling effect on freedom of the press in the United States.”
First Lady Michelle Obama is in South Africa for a week-long visit. Traveling with her two daughters and her mother, Obama’s itinerary has included a nationally televised address, meetings with youth leaders, a visit to South Africa’s apartheid museum, and a meeting with former South African President Nelson Mandela at his home. At a public event, Mandela’s wife, Graça Machel, welcomed the Obama family to South Africa.
Graça Machel: “Regina Mundi’s name in Latin means 'Queen of the World.' And we are welcoming you as a daughter of African heritage, and we can call you 'the Queen of our World.'”
Michelle Obama’s visit is being described by some as a turning point in how many South Africans perceive the United States, which supported the apartheid government under the Ronald Reagan administration.
In El Salvador, an environmental activist has been killed after speaking out against a mining project in a northern region. Juan Francisco Duran Ayala is the latest in a string of activists to be killed after denouncing the Canadian gold mining company, Pacific Rim, in its efforts to mine the area of Cabañas. A community youth radio station, Radio Victoria, has also received repeated death threats for covering the story. Lisa Fuller represents the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador.
Lisa Fuller: “Obviously, Pacific Rim, the gold mining company, has a stake in the matter, but also this area is controlled by the right wing, and the local mayors have been promoting the mining project, as well. And community members say that the local mayors have ties to organized crime and that they, in fact, are part of this campaign of violent attacks to destroy the opposition. Furthermore, the attorney general is contributing to this wave of violence by refusing to investigate who is behind these attacks against the social movement in Cabañas.”
Residents fear cyanide used to extract gold in the area could contaminate the local water supply and farmland.
A North Carolina man who deliberately got himself arrested to obtain free medical care in jail has spoken out from behind bars. James Verone, a laid-off employee of Coca Cola, recently noticed a protrusion in his chest and had developed arthritis and carpal tunnel syndrome. Without health insurance or money for private care, Verone concluded his best option would be to go to prison. He then walked into a local bank and handed a teller a note reading: “This is a bank robbery. Please give me one dollar.”
James Verone: “First time I’ve ever been in trouble with the law, so it’s not—you know, I’m sort of a logical person, and that was my logic. That’s what I came up with. If it’s called manipulation, then out of necessity, because I need medical care, then I guess I am manipulating the courts to get medical care.”
After Verone demanded the dollar, he told the bank teller he would be seated, waiting for the police to arrest him. Verone has been charged with larceny. He says he hopes to remain jailed for three years to continue receiving medical treatment.