Paramilitaries linked to Belfast riots
After a fourth consecutive night of violence in Belfast, police expressed concern that senior loyalist paramilitaries may have been orchestrating some of the disturbances in the city. In a press conference yesterday, the Police Service of Northern Ireland Chief Constable Matt Baggott advised that senior members of the Ulster Volunteer Force, a loyalist paramilitary group, were responsible for the violence aimed at police and republican protesters. Baggott commended the efforts of the city’s police, 52 of whom have been injured so far, and pledged to “deal firmly” with any further disturbances. The city has been experiencing both peaceful and violent demonstrations from loyalist and republican supporters since the December 3 decision to limit the days the union flag flies over Belfast City Hall. A total of 96 arrests have been made since the violence began, with a 38-year-old man due to stand charges of firearm possession on Monday.
Rare protest in China over censorship
Demonstrators gathered outside the offices of a Guangdong newspaper yesterday, in a rare show of support for media freedom on the Chinese mainland. According to online reports, several hundred protesters convened at the gates of the Southern Weekly’s offices, holding banners demanding “press freedom, constitutionalism and democracy.” The demonstrations are said to have been triggered by the removal of a pro-reform editorial in the newspaper on Thursday last week. Protesters are angered by the censorship of what is seen as one of the country’s more liberal papers, as well as the recent closure of a leading online reform magazine on Friday. The government’s response to the demonstrations is being closely followed, with observers describing the events in Guangdong as the first major test for China’s new premier, Xi Jin Ping. So far, the government has appeared reluctant to answer the calls for media reform, allowing little coverage of the protests in the country’s state-run media and blocking searches for Southern Weekly on the popular micro-blogging site, Weibo. The government did however signal some intention to introduce legal reforms, announcing on Monday that the country’s labour camps will be closed in 2013.
Syrians brush off Assad’s speech
Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s promises to open dialogue have been rebuffed by Syrian opposition groups. In a speech delivered to loyalists at the Damascus Opera House on Sunday, Assad promised to enter discussions with the opposition, announcing initiatives including a national reconciliation conference and a new government and constitution. The speech however was quickly dismissed by opposition groups, with leaders stating that negotiations could not start until Assad’s resignation. With the exception of Iran, the international community also largely scorned Assad’s speech, with the U.S. State Department describing it as “detached from reality.”
Coalition publishes mid-term review
In a joint-press conference today, the U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron and his deputy Nick Clegg unveiled the coalition’s mid-term review, detailing their programme for the second half of parliament. In a show of unity by the two party leaders, Cameron and Clegg wrote in the review’s joint foreword that they hoped their plans would demonstrate how “their sense of shared purpose has grown over time.” A Key proposal announced in the review was a new scheme of tax breaks for working families, under which families will be able to claim an annual £2,000 per child in tax credits to cover the cost of childminders and nurseries. The new measure, which will not be means-tested, could be in place by the next general election, according to Downing Street sources. Other measures announced in the review include a new flat-rate £140-per-week state pension and further financial support for first-time house-buyers.
Bank of America agrees to pay Fannie Mae
Bank of America (BoA) will settle claims worth $3.6 billion with U.S. government mortgage agency Fannie Mae, it was announced today. The claims relate to ‘toxic’ residential home loans sold by BoA in the run-up to the 2008 financial crisis. The bank has also agreed to buy back 30,000 mortgages totaling $6.75 billion and will pay $1.3 billion in compensation. The decision to settle is good news for U.S. taxpayers, who have been propping up the agency since a 2008 bailout by the government. Freddie Mac, the government’s other main mortgage agency, settled with BoA in September 2011.