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The international peace conference on Syria opened today with deep divisions over the fate of President Bashar al-Assad. Meeting in Switzerland, armed rebels and the Assad regime are holding their first direct talks along with representatives of the United Nations, United States, Russia and other world powers. In his opening remarks, Secretary of State John Kerry ruled out the inclusion of Assad in a transitional government, the conference’s stated goal.
Secretary of State John Kerry: “Mutual consent, which is what has brought us here, for a transition government means that that government cannot be formed with someone that is objected to by one side or the other. That means that Bashar Assad will not be part of that transition government. There is no way, no way possible in the imagination, that the man who has led the brutal response to his own people could regain the legitimacy to govern. One man and those who have supported him can no longer hold an entire nation and a region hostage.”
The Syrian regime has scoffed at demands for Assad’s departure. Syria’s ambassador to the United Nations, Bashar al-Jaafari, dismissed what he called outside interference in Syrian affairs.
Bashar al-Jaafari: “We are here to discuss the future of Syria — Syria as a country, as a whole country. We are here to discuss the future of our own people. We don’t get any lessons from anybody. This is a national Syrian dialogue among the Syrians themselves.”
The Syria talks are being held without the involvement of Iran, whose invitation was withdrawn after U.S.-led objections. On Tuesday, the Iranian government accused Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon of bowing to U.S. pressure.
The Syria talks also continue as a new report accused the Assad regime of war crimes reminiscent of Nazi concentration camps during World War II. A team of three international prosecutors released images obtained from a Syrian defector showing emaciated and mutilated bodies likely resulting from torture. The defector is said to be a military investigator who handed over thousands of photographs he had taken of the Assad regime’s victims. Former war crimes prosecutor Desmond de Silva said the images prove killings on an “industrial” scale.
Desmond de Silva: “We came to the conclusion that the killings were of an industrial kind, that they were regular, they were persistent, and they were systematic, and they’ve been going on for years, such that the evidence we found would certainly underpin any count of a crime at international law. And the pictures are reminiscent of the worst pictures that came out of Belsen and Auschwitz after the Second World War. And these poor creatures were not just starved, but they were also tortured whilst starving.”
A Syrian rebel group has claimed responsibility for a car bombing in Lebanon that killed four people and wounded 20 others. The attack hit a stronghold of the Shiite group Hezbollah south of Beirut. The al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front says it was taking revenge for a Hezbollah missile strike last week. It was the latest violent incident to bolster fears the Syrian civil war is spilling across the border into Lebanon.
Thailand has declared a state of emergency in the capital Bangkok amidst continued protests against Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. Thousands of demonstrators have set up encampments and blocked roads in a bid to force Yingluck’s departure and replace her with an unelected “people’s council.” Yingluck has called a snap election for early next month which she is expected to win.
Three people have died after overnight clashes in Ukraine between state forces and opposition protesters. The government has attacked protest camps in Kiev since thousands defied a state ban on rallies over the weekend. Demonstrators have begun receiving text messages on their cellphones informing them of taking part in an illegal “disturbance.” Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, called on the Ukraine government to respect the right to protest.
Kenneth Roth: “Our principal concern is that neither the police nor the government use the outbreak of violence by a tiny minority of the demonstrators as an excuse to crack down on the vast majority of the demonstrators who continue to protest peacefully. The Ukraine in this rushed legislative effort has adopted a series of new laws trying to stifle the protests. The people of the Ukraine showed this weekend that they have no intention of taking that line down.”
Three members of a polio vaccination team have been shot dead in the Pakistani city of Karachi. The victims were the latest to be killed in the fallout from the U.S. assassination of Osama bin Laden. The Taliban began attacking health workers after it was revealed the CIA used a fake vaccination program to discover bin Laden’s location.
The European Union has frozen talks over a controversial section of a trans-Atlantic trade deal with the United States to allow input from member states. The EU says it wants to give members time to share their input over a proposal that would grant corporations the right to sue governments over potential trade violations. States will have three months to voice their concerns.
States across the northeastern United States have declared emergencies amidst heavy snowfall and freezing temperatures. Thousands of flights were canceled on Tuesday as over a foot of snow hit cities, including Philadelphia and New York City. The snowfall will be followed by frigid conditions reminiscent of the polar vortex earlier this month.
Former Republican Gov. Robert McDonnell of Virginia and his wife have been indicted on charges of illegally accepting gifts from a prominent donor. McDonnell and his family received more than $140,000 from Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams. Federal prosecutors say McDonnell accepted the money in exchange for promoting Star Scientific’s products and providing other favors. McDonnell’s indictment was delayed until his term ended earlier this month.
A student at Indiana’s Purdue University has been killed in the nation’s latest campus shooting. Purdue University Police Chief John Cox said a suspect was in custody after carrying out what appeared to be a targeted attack.
John Cox: “This individual seemed to have had intentions for the decedent and took the action the individual took and then turned around and left the building and was taken into custody outside of the Electrical Engineering Building moments after the act by a West Lafayette city police officer that was arriving to assist.”
The shooting is at least the fourth at a U.S. school in the past week. Last week, five students were shot at middle schools and high schools in Philadelphia, Albany and Roswell, New Mexico.
In Utah, same-sex couples who were able to wed when gay marriage was briefly legal are suing the state for recognition. More than 1,200 LGBT couples got married after a federal judge struck down the state’s ban on same-sex marriage late last month. But the Supreme Court halted the weddings pending Utah’s appeal, prompting state officials to say none of the unions would be recognized. A lawsuit filed Tuesday by the American Civil Liberties Union says the marriages should “treated the same as any other Utah marriage.”