A new report has exposed a secret CIA program in Colombia that has helped kill at least two dozen rebel leaders. The Washington Post reports the program relies on key help from the National Security Agency and is funded through a multibillion-dollar black budget. It began under former President George W. Bush, but continues under President Obama. The program has crippled the FARC rebel group by targeting its leaders using bombs equipped with GPS guidance. Up until 2010, the CIA controlled the encryption keys that allowed the bombs to read GPS data. In one case, in 2008, the United States and Colombia discovered a FARC leader hiding in Ecuador. According to the report, “To conduct an airstrike meant a Colombian pilot flying a Colombian plane would hit the camp using a U.S.-made bomb with a CIA-controlled brain.” The attack killed the rebel leader and sparked a major flareup of tensions with Ecuador and Venezuela. The U.S. role in that attack had not previously been reported.
The United States has evacuated hundreds of people from fighting in South Sudan amid fears the country is on the brink of civil war. In a letter to congressional leaders, Obama warned he “may take further action to support the security of U.S. citizens, personnel and property.” He said 46 U.S. troops took part in the evacuation effort, adding to the 45 already deployed to protect the U.S. embassy in Juba. Four U.S. troops were wounded Saturday when their aircraft came under fire. Meanwhile, the United Nations mission has relocated its non-essential staff from the flashpoint town of Bor. U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator Toby Lanzer described the situation there.
Toby Lanzer: “So I’ve just got back from Bor in Jonglei. Situation up there is very, very tense. We spent most of the day evacuating wounded, evacuating citizens of various countries. As I left our base and went to the airport in Bor, yeah, there was a lot of looting, a lot of gunshots, a lot of dead bodies, and very, very out-of-control youth, heavily armed. And that needs to be brought under control.”
The violence erupted earlier this month when President Salva Kiir accused his former deputy of mounting a coup. Rebels allied with the former vice president have now taken control of key areas including two state capitals.
Two members of the feminist punk group Pussy Riot have been released from prison under a new amnesty law in Russia. Nadia Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina had been jailed since last March for protesting Russian leader Vladimir Putin in an Orthodox cathedral. They were due to be released within the next few months after serving most of their two-year sentences. Speaking after her release earlier today, Alyokhina denounced the amnesty as a public relations stunt by Putin.
Maria Alyokhina: “Yes, I was keen to reject this amnesty, but the prison had received an order. That’s why I was brought here. Now I would like to meet human rights activists. And now I would like now to deal with the issue of prison. I would like to engage in human rights activity. Now I’m not afraid of anything anymore. Believe me.”
Russia’s former richest man was also released from prison on Friday. Mikhail Khodorkovsky served more than a decade behind bars before being pardoned by Russian President Vladimir Putin. He was jailed after financing Putin’s opponents and was considered a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International.
In Ukraine, some 100,000 people gathered in the capital Kiev for a fifth week in a row to call for the ouster of the president. The crisis began over a decision by President Viktor Yanukovych to strengthen ties with Russia instead of the European Union. The pro-EU demonstrators have been camping out for weeks in Kiev’s Independence Square.
Anti-government protests are also continuing in Thailand after the main opposition party pledged to boycott February elections called by the embattled prime minister. Tens of thousands of people gathered in the capital Sunday to press for Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to resign. Her opponents accuse Shinawatra of being controlled by her brother, a former prime minister convicted of corruption and now living in self-imposed exile.
In Egypt, three leading activists have been sentenced to three years in prison as part of an ongoing crackdown on dissent. Ahmed Maher, Ahmed Douma and Mohamed Adel helped lead the uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak in 2011. They were the first to be sentenced under a new law that effectively bans public protest by requiring seven different permits for rallies. After their sentencing, the three men chanted “down, down with military rule” from their cage inside the courtroom.
In Iraq, a high-ranking Army commander and 17 other soldiers were killed Saturday during a raid on an al-Qaeda affiliate’s training camp. The raid took place near the border with Syria. Attacks in other parts of Iraq killed at least 13 other people on Saturday. Iraq is suffering its highest level of violence since 2008.
In Syria, at least 42 people were reportedly killed on Sunday as Syrian army helicopters continued to bombard Aleppo. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least six children were among the dead. The helicopters have been dropping highly destructive barrel bombs –- oil drums filled with explosives and sometimes with nails or scrap metal. The strikes have killed hundreds of people over the past month.
Today is the deadline for most Americans to sign up for health insurance that starts January 1 under the Affordable Care Act. Despite a disastrous rollout, Obama claimed Friday half a million people had enrolled through healthcare.gov in the first three weeks of December alone.
President Obama: “Since October 1, more than one million Americans have selected new health insurance plans through the federal and state marketplaces. So, all told, millions of Americans, despite the problems with the website, are now poised to be covered by quality, affordable health insurance come New Year’s Day.”
A new report has found the company responsible for building the embattled healthcare website was tied to a history of other failed projects –- a history that was not considered by federal officials who selected it for the job. According to The Washington Post, executives at the company, CGI Federal, came from another firm that had mishandled at least 20 other government projects.
Couples across Utah rushed to get married on Friday after a federal judge struck down the state’s ban on same-sex marriage. The ruling marked a surprise victory for LGBT rights in a state known for its right-wing politics and for the influence of the Mormon Church. On Sunday, an appeals court rejected a bid by the state to immediately halt the weddings. The case is due back in court today.
In New York City, domestic workers and their advocates rallied across from the Indian consulate to protest an Indian diplomat’s treatment of her housekeeper. The arrest of Devyani Khobragade, India’s deputy consul general in New York, caused a diplomatic spat with India after she complained about her treatment in custody. But protesters said the focus should be on the diplomat’s alleged crimes, which include paying her employee well below minimum wage.
Prarthana Gurung, executive assistant for Adhikaar: “We think that people have lost sight of the root cause of this entire situation, which is the fact that an employee, a domestic worker, was exploited, and she wasn’t treated in a way that any other employee or staff member would be treated, but instead she was treated as a piece of property. So, we were hoping that coming out here today, we could change the conversation a little bit and have people focus a little more on the domestic worker and what she went through, and hopefully kind of push for justice to be served.”
Khobragade has reportedly been transferred to a post with India’s delegation to the United Nations.
Canada’s highest court has struck down all restrictions on prostitution, saying they threatened the safety of sex workers. Prostitution is legal in Canada, but the ruling eliminates bans on brothels and street solicitation as well as on behaviors like hiring a driver or guard. The court unanimously ruled the bans “prevent people engaged in a risky, but legal, activity from taking steps to protect themselves from the risks.” The court left the law in effect for a year to allow parliament to draft new regulations.
Mexico’s president has signed an energy reform bill allowing foreign companies to drill for oil in Mexico for the first time in 70 years. A recent poll showed more than two-thirds of Mexicans opposed opening the oil and gas sector to private investment, a move that required amending the constitution. But President Enrique Peña Nieto signed the bill into law on Friday.
President Enrique Peña Nieto: “This reform will strengthen national sovereignty and increase Mexico’s energy security. With this decision, we could exploit abundant deposits of hydrocarbons for the benefit of Mexicans, which up to now have not been profitable for Pemex, or we haven’t had access as they’re in deep waters or in shale gas.”
Mexico’s PRD party has vowed to undo the law through a referendum in 2015.
Police in Bangladesh have charged the owners of the Tazreen garment factory for the deaths of at least 112 workers in a massive fire there last year. Eleven factory managers, security guards and other workers were also charged. All of them could face up to life in prison. The factory, which produced clothing for Wal-Mart and other major retailers, lacked fire exits, leaving workers trapped. Managers and security guards have been accused of instructing workers to get back to work after the fire started.
A new report has found the Obama administration buys clothing from overseas suppliers with a history of flagrant safety violations, including padlocked fire exits, worker injuries and buildings at risk of collapse. According to The New York Times, the Obama administration buys its military and other uniforms from companies with a pattern of harsh conditions and legal violations in countries including Bangladesh and Haiti. The United States spends $1.5 billion on clothing made overseas each year.
A Colorado teenager shot by a classmate at Arapahoe High School earlier this month has died. Claire Davis, who was 17, had been in critical condition since December 13, when she was shot by Karl Pierson, a fellow student, who then shot himself. Authorities believe Pierson randomly targeted Davis while seeking a librarian who had disciplined him. Meanwhile in Chicago, Illinois, at least three people were killed and 15 wounded in a series of shootings this weekend, including one that killed an 18-year-old.