The self-described Islamic State has seized control of the ancient city of Palmyra in central Syria. Palmyra is home to some of the world’s most renowned historic structures and is classified as a World Heritage Site. There are fears it could see the same fate as other cities where ISIL has destroyed ancient cultural sites and artifacts. With Palmyra’s capture, ISIL now reportedly controls more than half of Syrian territory. The seizing of Palmyra in Syria comes as the U.S. has launched airstrikes and expedited weapons shipments for the campaign to dislodge ISIL from the Iraqi city of Ramadi. ISIL seized Ramadi on Sunday, leaving hundreds dead and forcing thousands to flee. Iranian-backed Shiite militias are staging a counteroffensive to retake the city.
Malaysia and Indonesia have offered temporary refuge to up to 7,000 migrants stranded in boats off their coasts. The Malaysian foreign minister announced the move on Wednesday.
Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman: “Indonesian and Malaysia agreed to continue to provide humanitarian assistance to those 7,000 irregular migrants still at sea. We also agreed to offer them temporary shelter, provided that the resettlement and repatriation process will be done in one year by the international community.”
The migrants are mostly Bangladeshis and persecuted Rohingya Muslims from Burma, who are not considered citizens in Burma and are effectively stateless. The cap of 7,000 means thousands more could remain stranded at sea. Thailand has said it will allow the sick to receive medical care, and won’t push any boats back out to sea. Australia, meanwhile, has refused taking any in.
The United Nations says it will convene a meeting of Yemen’s rival factions in Geneva one week from today. A spokesperson for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the aim is a negotiated settlement after over seven weeks of conflict.
Farhan Haq: “The only durable resolution to the crisis in Yemen is an inclusive, negotiated political settlement. The United Nations has worked closely with Yemenis since 2011 to support national aspirations for change. With this experience, and coupled with Yemen’s tradition of dialogue, the secretary-general hopes these consultations will help Yemen relaunch the political process, reduce the levels of violence and alleviate the intolerable humanitarian situation.”
The announcement comes as residents of the capital Sana’a say they’ve suffered the most intensive night of Saudi-led bombings since the offensive began in late March. Meanwhile, Iran has announced it will submit a cargo ship carrying humanitarian supplies to international inspections in Djibouti before arriving in Yemen. Iran had sent the ship in defiance of a Saudi blockade that has deprived Yemen of fuel and basic goods. The inspection could avoid the risk of a major showdown with Saudi vessels enforcing the siege.
Five of the world’s top banks will pay over $5 billion in fines after pleading guilty to rigging the price of foreign currencies. Attorney General Loretta Lynch unveiled the plea deal.
Attorney General Loretta Lynch: “We are here to announce a major law enforcement action against international financial institutions that for years participated in a brazen display of collusion and foreign exchange rate market manipulation, and will, as a result, pay a total of nearly $3 billion in fines and penalties. As a result of our investigation, four of the world’s largest banks have agreed to plead guilty to felony antitrust violations. They are Citicorp, JPMorgan Chase & Co., Barclays PLC and the Royal Bank of Scotland PLC.”
UBS is also expected to plead guilty to charges and pay a $500 million fine. The Justice Department is voiding a previous non-prosecution agreement with UBS over its violations of the terms. No individual bank employees were hit with criminal charges, meaning no one will go to jail.
Nebraska lawmakers have voted to abolish the death penalty. A measure approved Wednesday would replace lethal injection with a maximum life sentence behind bars. Republican Governor Pete Ricketts has promised a veto, but state legislators are expected to override it as early as next week. If the override prevails, Nebraska would be the first conservative state to ban the death penalty in more than four decades.
Republican Senator Rand Paul staged a self-described filibuster Wednesday to protest the extension of bulk data collection by the NSA. The Senate is set to consider the measure before the PATRIOT Act expires on June 1.
Sen. Rand Paul: “There comes a time in the history of nations when fear and complacency allow power to accumulate and liberty and privacy to suffer. That time is now, and I will not let the PATRIOT Act, the most unpatriotic of acts, go unchallenged. Right now we’re treating every American in one category. There is a general veil of suspicion that is placed on every American now. Every American is somehow said to be under suspicion, because we’re collecting the records of every American.”
Paul’s effort was aided by seven Democrats and three Republicans who gave speeches to help keep the session going. The Democrats were Senators Ron Wyden, Martin Heinrich, Joe Manchin, Chris Coons, Maria Cantwell, Richard Blumenthal and Jon Tester. The House approved a measure last week that calls for ending the bulk collection of telephone records by requiring the NSA to make specific requests to phone companies for a user’s data, rather than vacuuming up all the records at once. But Republican leaders in the Senate say they want to keep the bulk spying. A federal appeals court this month ruled the bulk collection of phone records is illegal.
California has declared a state of emergency for Santa Barbara County after a ruptured pipeline leaked oil into the Pacific Ocean. The estimated spill size has grown fivefold to up to 105,000 gallons. A Coast Guard spokesperson said the oil slick from the spill has also expanded to nine miles.
Capt. Jennifer Williams: “We have basically two miles from shore a slick that’s approximately 3.7 miles long, that goes along the shoreline heading east. And northeast, we have a slick offshore that’s 5.3 miles. So a slick totaling about nine miles in length. In addition, we are actively on the beaches, and we have the contractors on the beaches removing oil from the sand. This is the first step, because that’s the easiest thing that we can get to on the beach area. And we have plans, obviously, to continue the cleanup of the rocky areas, the pebbles and the outcrops.”
President Obama has issued a call to tackle climate change with an appeal to protecting national security. Obama spoke Wednesday in a commencement address to Coast Guard graduates.
President Obama: “Climate change is one of those most severe threats. And this is not just a problem for countries on the coasts or for certain regions of the world. Climate change will impact every country on the planet. No nation is immune. So I’m here today to say that climate change constitutes a serious threat to global security, an immediate risk to our national security. And make no mistake: It will impact how our military defends our country. And so we need to act, and we need to act now.”
Thousands of workers are rallying for higher pay and the right to unionize at the annual meeting of the fast-food giant McDonald’s. A major protest was held Wednesday outside the company’s headquarters near Chicago, and more actions are planned for today. McDonald’s announced a $1-an-hour minimum wage hike at company-owned stores last month, but workers seek a $15-an-hour minimum wage in line with a growing movement nationwide.
New cellphone video sheds light on Freddie Gray’s fatal journey in a Baltimore police van. The footage obtained by The Baltimore Sun shows Gray lying motionless as several police officers shackle his ankles and load him into the vehicle. It appears to contradict earlier police claims that Gray was “irate” and “combative.” One of the officers, Lt. Brian Rice, reportedly threatened to use his Taser on the eyewitness who was filming.
A Florida mailman who made national headlines when he flew a tiny personal aircraft known as a gyrocopter onto the lawn of the U.S. Capitol has been indicted. Doug Hughes was carrying letters to every member of Congress urging them to address corruption and to pass campaign finance reform. Hughes flew about an hour from Maryland into restricted airspace and onto the Capitol’s West Lawn, stunning authorities and bystanders. On Wednesday, Hughes was charged with six counts carrying a maximum of nine-and-a-half years in prison. When he spoke to Democracy Now! last month, Hughes said it was worth risking his life and freedom to raise awareness about getting big money out of politics.
Dozens of activists gathered outside a Nestlé plant in Los Angeles Wednesday to demand the food giant stop bottling water in California. An activist with the Courage Campaign said Nestlé is unfairly exporting water as the state faces a crippling drought and mandatory caps on consumption.
Laura Leavitt: “Californians across the state and businesses across the state are urged to conserve water. They’re doing their part. There are mandatory water restrictions. Meanwhile, Nestlé is bottling our precious resource, straight from the heart of California’s drought, exporting it out of state and selling it for profit. It’s completely outrageous and irresponsible and unethical, and we’re here today to demand that their bottling practices immediately be halted during this crisis.”