Israel appears to be escalating military attacks on Syria after two bombings over a three-day span. A series of large explosions were seen around the Syrian capital of Damascus on Sunday, by all accounts the result of Israeli missiles. The Syrian government says dozens of elite military forces were killed in strikes on several critical army facilities. Anonymous Israeli officials have reportedly confirmed the attack, which marked the third on Syria by Israel this year. An earlier bombing on Friday hit what was alleged to be a site holding Iranian missiles meant for Hezbollah. Syria has called the strikes an “an act of war” that’s “opened the door to all possibilities.” In a statement, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged all sides to exercise “maximum restraint … and respect [the] national sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries.”
The New York Times reports the United States had already been discussing the launch of strikes on Syria in the days before the Israeli attack. The talks were held with Britain and France, with a proposed bombing modeled on the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya. Speaking during a visit to Costa Rica, President Obama appeared to offer tacit support by saying Israel has the right to stop weapons shipments to Hezbollah. Obama also left open the possibility of U.S. military intervention but ruled out deploying troops on the ground.
President Obama: “I’m not going to comment on what happened in Syria yesterday. I’ll let the Israeli government confirm or deny whatever strikes that they’ve taken. What I have said in the past, and I continue to believe is, is that the Israelis justifiably have to guard against the transfer of advanced weaponry to terrorist organizations like Hezbollah. With respect to the larger issue of Syria, as I said yesterday, I don’t take any options off the table as commander in chief. Circumstances can change, you never know what contingencies you have to deal with. But what I do know is that I cannot see a scenario right now in which American boots on the ground would make any sense.”
The Obama administration is reportedly set to decide in the coming weeks on options ranging from supplying weapons to Syria’s rebels to carrying out air strikes.
Although speculation on chemical weaponry has centered around the Syrian government, at least one U.N. investigator is singling out Syrian rebels. Speaking to Swiss-Italian television, Carla Del Ponte, a member of an independent U.N. panel investigating Syria’s civil war, said she has strong suspicions the armed opposition has used sarin nerve gas.
Carla Del Ponte: “We collected some witness testimony that made to appear that some chemical weapons were used, in particular nerving (sic) gas and what appears to our investigation (was) that that was used by the opponents, by the rebels.”
The death toll from last month’s collapse of a garment building in Bangladesh has now reached at least 645. The figure was released earlier today in the ongoing search of the building’s rubble. The Dhaka collapse marked the worst accident in the garment industry’s history. Bangladeshi police have acknowledged for the first time they are investigating murder charges against the building’s owner, Sohel Rana, following a complaint brought by the wife of a dead worker. Rana and eight others have already been arrested on other charges. On Sunday, an architect who worked on the building’s initial construction said it had been designed to hold a shopping mall, not as a site for heavy industrial operations.
Seven American soldiers were killed in Afghanistan on Saturday, making it one of the deadliest days for the U.S. occupation in months. A NATO spokesperson confirmed the deaths of five soldiers in one of the two attacks.
Günter Katz: “It’s with deep regret that I have to inform you that today five American soldiers died following an attack with an improvised explosive device in southern Afghanistan. It was a very difficult week for us. Like I said, every soldier who dies here in Afghanistan is one too many. But again, this will not have an effect on our overall campaign; we stay committed and will stay committed in this country to support the Afghans also in the future.”
The other two Americans were killed when an Afghan soldier opened fire on them in Farah province, the latest in a series of “insider attacks” by members of the Afghan forces.
The United Nations is calling for an independent probe of a mass killing in Nigeria last month. At least 200 civilians were reportedly killed when Nigerian forces raided the town of Baga in northern Borno State. U.N. spokesperson Rupert Colville said the attack has also left scores wounded and displaced.
Rupert Colville: “We are very concerned about the large number of casualties, including many civilians, and massive destruction of houses and property, and population displacement that’s taken place in the past few weeks in the northeast of the country. According to various sources, around 200 people were killed, at least 70 others injured, and more than 2,000 houses were damaged during raids conducted by Nigerian military in Baga, in Borno State.”
President Obama wrapped up his three-day visit to Mexico and Costa Rica over the weekend, the first Latin America trip of his second term. In a joint news conference with Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla, Obama said he is not seeking to militarize the drug war.
President Obama: “I’m not interested in militarizing the struggle against drug trafficking. This is a law enforcement problem. And if we have effective law enforcement cooperation and coordination, and if we build up capacity for countries in Central America, then we can continue to make progress.”
The latest job figures show the nation’s official unemployment rate has hit a four-year low. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says 165,000 jobs were added in April, bringing unemployment down from 7.6 to 7.5 percent. But economists have warned the gains are likely temporary and the effects of budget cuts under sequestration will continue to slow economic growth.
Tens of thousands of people gathered in Houston over the weekend for the annual gathering of the National Rifle Association. In an address to conference attendees, NRA chief Wayne LaPierre celebrated the recent defeat of gun-control legislation in the Senate.
Wayne LaPierre: “Apparently, there is nothing the president will not do to get something, anything, through Congress to advance his agenda to destroy our Second Amendment — nothing. So far, thanks to you and millions of Americans all over this country just like you, that’s exactly what President Obama has gotten: absolutely nothing.”
LaPierre will now be joined in helming the NRA by James Porter, who begins his term as the group’s new president today. Porter has previously referred to the U.S. Civil War as the “War of Northern Aggression.” The weekend gathering also heard from a number of top Republican and right-wing figures, including former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, the radio host Glenn Beck and the musician Ted Nugent. Gun-control activists held a small counter-protest in an adjacent park. On the eve of the conference, the Houston airport was partially shut down after one man shot himself dead in the terminal.
New figures show a considerable increase in suicides by middle-aged Americans. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the suicide rate in people aged 35 to 64 rose by nearly 30 percent over the past decade, to 17.6 deaths per 100,000. The biggest increase was seen for men in their fifties, where the suicide rate increased 50 percent. Overall, suicides are now a greater cause of death in the United States than car accidents.
A federal judge has ruled a paroled Cuban American previously jailed for spying can remain in Cuba. René González is one of a group known as the “Cuban Five” convicted in 2001 for conspiracy to commit espionage in southern Florida. The five say they were not spying on the United States, but trying to monitor violent right-wing Cuban exile groups responsible for attacks inside Cuba. González was released on parole in 2011 and recently returned to Cuba to attend his father’s funeral. On Friday, a judge ruled he can remain there if he renounces his U.S. citizenship. The other four Cuban Five members remain behind bars.