Islamists seize new town in Mali
Islamist fighters in Mali have seized a town in government-controlled territory. The move comes amid a military intervention by France in the West African country. Diabaly, 400km (250 miles) from the capital, Bamako, was taken in a counter-attack today. French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian insisted France’s campaign was “developing favourably” with Islamists retreating in the east, but admitted they face a “difficult” situation against well-armed rebels in western areas. Two days of intensified air strikes by French troops in northern Mail reportedly left scores of rebels dead, together with at least 11 civilians including three children. “Mali is now at the mercy of the French army,” said a Malian official in Bamako. “They are bombing the north, they have killed many terrorists. The Islamists have been running into the desert – they have deserted Gao and Timbuktu.” But Al Qaeda-linked Islamist rebels launched their counter-offensive with promises to drag France into a long and brutal Afghanistan-style ground war. Meanwhile, the first of two British transport planes got stuck on the runway on its way to assist the French in Mali. The plane, loaded with military equipment and foreign troops, had been due to help halt an al-Qaeda advance when it was delayed due to a technical fault.
Cameron adds to EU referendum speculation
David Cameron said today that he is confident of getting the changes he wants in the UK’s relationship with Europe – and hinted that a referendum might follow. He told BBC Radio 4′s Today he wants a “fresh settlement” with Europe and would then seek “consent” from Britons. He declined to say whether this meant a referendum, but said consent would be sought in a “straightforward way”. No 10 refused to say what would happen if there was a “no” vote, saying they would “not speculate on the outcome”. But the PM said Britain would not collapse if it was forced to leave the European Union, denying his strategy was dangerous or risky. The prime minister restated his belief that it was in the national interest to remain, but said he did not expect to stage a referendum shortly as an immediate referendum would represent a false choice. Cameron was rebuffing demands by Conservative MPs for a referendum on Europe before the 2015 general election, ahead of a much-anticipated speech he is due to make on the issue next week. He added: “Right now, I think there are a lot of people who say ‘well, I would like to be in Europe, but I’m not happy with every aspect of the relationship, so I want it changed’ – that is my view.”
Syrians face ‘staggering’ humanitarian crisis
The Middle East faces a “staggering” humanitarian crisis caused by the conflict in Syria, according to the the International Rescue Committee (IRC). The US-based aid agency is calling on the outside world to step up its response, with more than 600,000 Syrians having fled the country. The group describes the level of rape and sexual violence occurring in the conflict as “horrific”. In the latest attack, at least 34 people, including seven children, have been killed in an attack by Syrian troops in suburbs of the capital, Damascus, Syrian activists said today. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 19 of the dead, including all seven children, were killed by government air strikes and artillery in eastern Ghouta district yesterday. Today’s report also says that rape is a “significant and disturbing” feature of the Syrian civil war. Women and girls cited sexual violence as their main reason for fleeing the country, and told the IRC of being attacked in public and in their homes, primarily by armed men. The rapes, sometimes by several men, often occurred in front of family members. “The stories we’ve heard, talking to Syrian women, are truly horrific,” said Sanj Srikanthan, IRC-UK emergency field director. “As refugees [the women] can’t find the support they need to heal their physical and emotional scars – let alone provide food and shelter for their families.” The UN estimates that more than 60,000 people have been killed in the uprising, which began in March 2011.
New state pension ‘to be simpler’
David Cameron today defended the Government’s plan to introduce a single “flat-rate” state pension which could result in some workers facing higher National Insurance contributions to pay for it. The weekly payment will be £144, plus inflation rises between now and 2017. The current full state pension is £107.45 a week, but can be topped up to £142.70 with pension credit, and by the state second pension. The government pledged to end the “shameful situation” in which women who take time out to care for their children suffer in retirement. Paul Johnson, the director at the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), said that in the long-term “most people will end up with a lower pension than they might otherwise have thought”.
UK snow spreads risking heaviest snowfall in years
Heavy snow is beginning to fall across parts of the UK, as forecasters warn that large swathes of England could see up to 4in (10cm) fall on Monday. Met Office amber warnings to “be prepared” for snow remain in place in north-east and east England, Yorkshire and Humber, and the East Midlands. The Meteorological Office has raised its cold weather action status to grade three, which is just one step below a national emergency. Up to 10cm of snow is expected to fall in some places, raising fears of widespread transport disruption on roads, rail and at airports.