The Vatican has announced Pope Benedict XVI will step down as head of the Catholic Church later this month. The surprise move makes Benedict the first pontiff to resign in nearly six centuries. Benedict’s papacy has been marked by a rightward bent on a range of issues and a number of child molestation scandals in the Catholic Church, including allegations he ignored at least one case of abuse while serving as a cardinal. In a statement, Benedict, who is 85, cited ill health as the reason for his departure. A conclave to elect a new pope will be held by the end of March.
President Obama is reportedly preparing to announce new reductions to the country’s arsenal of nuclear weapons. In his State of the Union address Tuesday night, Obama is expected to announce plans to cut the number of deployed warheads to just more than 1,000, a one-third reduction from the current number of around 1,700.
A former Los Angeles police officer accused of killing three people after posting a revenge manifesto online remains on the loose in California. On Friday, the Los Angeles Police Department announced it would reopen a probe into the incident that caused the former officer, Christopher Dorner, to lose his job. Dorner was fired from the LAPD in 2008 for making false statements after he complained his training officer had kicked a mentally ill suspect during an arrest. In a statement announcing the new investigation, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck said Dorner’s claims would be re-examined in light of the department’s legacy of racism and abuse. At a news conference, LAPD Commander Andrew Smith said the LAPD is not seeking to appease Dorner, but encouraging transparency.
Andrew Smith: “He’s not opening it because of the accusations or because of the musings of someone who’s a—who’s a multiple murderer now. He’s doing it because he wants to ensure that the public knows that the Los Angeles Police Department is fair and transparent.”
On Sunday, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa announced a record $1 million reward for information leading to Dorner’s capture.
At least nine people were killed in the weekend blizzard that swarmed large parts of the northeastern United States. The storm brought some three feet of snow to some areas and knocked out electricity to hundreds of thousands of people, mostly in Massachusetts and Connecticut. Many are still without power. Roads and public transit were shut down in Boston, which saw its first travel ban since 1978. Another storm is now brewing across the Northern Plains, bringing more snow and high winds. A series of tornadoes, meanwhile, has hit areas of Alabama and Mississippi, injuring at least 10 people and badly damaging hundreds of homes and buildings.
Syria’s capital of Damascus is seeing its heaviest violence in over six months as government forces and rebel fighters battle for control of a key highway. The fighting in Damascus comes as rebels have also launched offensives in several Syrian areas. Activists with the Local Coordination Committees say at least 77 people were killed nationwide on Sunday. At the United Nations, a spokesperson for the high commissioner for refugees said 5,000 Syrians are now fleeing the country each day.
Adrian Edwards: “Five thousand people are now crossing the border — borders of Syria into other countries every single day, so this is really a full-on crisis right at the moment. Today’s figure, there’s 787,000 Syrians are now registered or being assisted as refugees. If you go back to 19th of December, when we issued our Syria regional response plan, the figures then were 515,000. There’s been a huge increase. In January alone, we’re talking of a 25 percent increase in registered refugee numbers over a single month.”
Marine General Joseph Dunford has assumed control of the U.S.-led NATO occupation force in Afghanistan, replacing Marine General John Allen. Dunford is expected to be the last commander of NATO troops before combat operations formally end in 2014, although thousands of soldiers will remain behind. In his outgoing address, Allen said the U.S. is winning the war in Afghanistan.
Gen. John Allen: “Afghan forces defending Afghan people and enabling the government of this country to serve its citizens, this is victory. This is what winning looks like, and we should not shrink from using these words. I believe that Afghanistan will never again be a safe haven to terrorists that will oppress the precious people of this country and be the scourge and the plague of the world.”
The Obama administration plans to nominate Allen to serve as NATO’s next supreme allied commander after he was cleared of misconduct in the scandal that ousted former CIA Director David Petraeus.
Israeli forces have dismantled another Palestinian encampment challenging settlement growth in the occupied West Bank. Palestinian activists erected tents near the town of Hebron on Saturday in a bid to protect their land. But Israeli forces quickly moved in, forcibly confronting the activists and arresting six people. The encampment, dubbed “Canaan village,” was the fourth in the West Bank to be shut down by Israeli troops in the past month.
Bahrain’s government is holding reconciliation talks with opposition parties for the first time in more than a year. The negotiations last broke down in July 2011 after opposition groups accused the U.S.-backed monarchy of obstruction and failing to address their grievances. Public protests remain barred inside Bahrain in the monarchy’s attempt to crush a two-year uprising.
More than 100,000 people marched across Ireland on Saturday in protest of the country’s austerity policies. The demonstrations were held under the banner of “Lift the Burden,” a call to end the public bailout of the country’s banking debts
First lady Michelle Obama was among the mourners at a Chicago funeral on Saturday for a 15-year-old girl killed in a random shooting just days after performing at President Obama’s inauguration. Hadiya Pendleton was with a group of friends when a gunman fired from nearby. Pendleton had recently returned from Washington, where she had performed with her school marching band during the inaugural festivities. The Obamas’ home is about a mile from the park where she was killed. During the service, Michael Pfleger of the Greater Harvest Baptist Church and Hadiya’s mother, Cleo, decried gun violence and mourned the girl’s death.
Father Michael Pfleger: “We’re here because of an innocent victim of gun violence. Anthony and Cleo, your angel has become the face and the tragic reality of this epidemic of gun violence that is causing funeral processions of our children.”
Cleopatra Pendleton: “You don’t know how hard this really is. And those of you that do know how hard this is, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. No mother, no father, should ever have to experience this.”
On Sunday, the day after Hadiya Pendleton’s funeral, two men were taken into custody as “persons of interest” in the probe into her death.
In another case of gun violence drawing national attention, four people were wounded in New Orleans on Saturday when shooting erupted during the annual celebration of Mardi Gras. One of the victims is in critical condition.
In Arizona, the armed “posse” of controversial Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio held a training session over the weekend on using guns to protect schools from attack. Arpaio recruited the Hollywood action-film star Steven Seagal to train his volunteers. They used guns firing non-lethal rounds and had children come in to pose as scared students. Both Seagal and Arpaio dismissed the concerns of a group of protesters who demonstrated across the street.
Steven Seagal: “The most precious asset we have as a society and as human beings is our children, and I’m here to try to teach the posse firearms and martial arts to try to help them learn how to respond quicker and help protect our children.”
Sheriff Joe Arpaio: “I don’t know what you’re — what these protesters are talking about. I’m going to say it again, for those protesters: We are here to protect the children. That’s the main mission. They can say whatever they want, but I’m not going to stop.”
Secretary of State John Kerry has made his first public comments on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline since replacing Hillary Clinton earlier this month. Known for being a strong advocate for the environment while serving in the Senate, Kerry will carry out President Obama’s decision on whether to approve the massive oil pipeline critics warn will bring climate catastrophe. Speaking alongside Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird, Kerry vowed a decision in the “near term.”
Secretary of State John Kerry: “With respect to the Keystone, Secretary Clinton has put in place a very open and transparent process, which I am committed to seeing through. I can guarantee you that it will be fair and transparent, accountable, and we hope that we will be able to be in a position to make an announcement in the near term. I don’t want to pin down precisely when, but I assure you, in the near term.”
A new intelligence report has found China and other countries are engaging in rampant cyber-attacks against U.S. businesses and institutions for potential economic gain. According to The Washington Post, a National Intelligence Estimate warns the United States is “the target of a massive, sustained cyber-espionage campaign that is threatening the country’s economic competitiveness.” Attacks from China have been the most widespread, with other countries including Russia, France and Israel. The potential cost of the hacks to the United States has been estimated in the tens of billions of dollars. China’s attacks were reportedly directed at “commercial targets linked to military technology.” The news comes after The New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal all reported their networks were compromised by hacks believed to have originated in China. The Obama administration recently granted itself broad authority to carry out cyber-attacks on other countries.