Syria Confirms Israel Airstrikes as Humanitarian Crisis Intensifies
Syria’s government accused Israel today of carrying out an airstrike aimed at a military research center near the capital, Damascus, killing two workers in the facilities. “Israeli fighter jets violated our airspace at dawn today and carried out a direct strike on a scientific research centre in charge of raising our level of resistance and self-defense,” said the army’s general command. A second strike, denied by Syria, hit a convoy on the Syrian-Lebanese border, according to various sources, targeting a truck that was probably carrying weapons from Bashar al-Assad’s regime to Israel’s enemy group, Hezbollah, in Lebanon. “It attacked trucks carrying sophisticated weapons from the regime to Hezbollah,” a source among Syrian insurgents told Reuters. Those were unlikely to be chemical weapons. The Israeli government recently warned Hezbollah, which is considered a terrorist group by the U.S., U.K., and Egypt, not to take advantage of the chaos to acquire arms. Meanwhile, United Nations and Arab League Special Envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi said the Syrian civil war reached “unprecedented levels of horror,” calling for the U.N. Security Council to act now to end the massacre. Donors pledged $1.5 billion to help Syrian refugees at a conference in Kuwait.
French Troops Press on to Kidal, Last Major Rebel Stronghold in Mali
French troops reached the last major stronghold of Islamic rebels in Mali, the northeastern city of Kidal. After Gao and Timbuktu, the soldiers took hold of the town’s airport, landing in four planes and helicopters in an operation that is still ongoing. Islamic groups are said to have already fled, and secular Tuaregs, who have been fighting for the independence of the desert region, say they have now taken control the town. A sandstorm has prevented the French from advancing further into Kidal. In Gao, which the French and Malian military took over the weekend, residents were reportedly chasing the last insurgents who had not escaped before the army’s arrival. While now free after almost a year in isolation, the city remains unsafe and fuel shortages are keeping it paralyzed. Meanwhile, the U.S. forces reached a deal with Niger to set up a base for surveillance drones to cover North Africa. The agreement paves the way for armed drones, experts say.
U.S. Economy Unexpectedly Shrinks in 4th Quarter
The U.S. economy unexpectedly shrank by 0.1 percent in the fourth quarter as military spending plunged to its lowest level in four decades, exports fell and inventories grew more slowly. The report, released by the Commerce Department, shows the first contraction in gross domestic product since the three months ending in June 2009, when the country was still in a recession. The median forecast was for a growth rate of 1.1 percent, Reuters and Bloomberg surveys show. Slowing European demand for U.S. products contributed to exports decreasing by 5.7 percent, and companies limited production to make up for excessive stockpiles in the third quarter. The economy grew 2.2 percent for the whole of 2012, compared with 1.6 percent in 2011. While experts say the slump is temporary, the U.S. Federal Reserve said today it will maintain stimulus measures, keeping its interest rate at a historic low and buying $85 billion in assets each month.
Senate Judiciary Committee Holds Hearing on Gun Violence
The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing today on gun violence, receiving the testimonies of both former Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford, who was shot in the head two years ago at a rally in Tucson, Arizona, and Wayne LaPierre, executive vice-president of the National Rifle Association (NRA), the nation’s pro-gun lobby, among other witnesses. Speaking slowly and with difficulty, Gifford made her point in just over a minute, urging the government to “act” to decrease gun violence, and “be bold, be courageous.” LaPierre argued against universal background checks upon purchases of weapons, saying it would put too much strain on police resources, while calling for more armed guards in schools. He said the NRA will oppose any new legislation designed to control guns. As the hearing was unfolding in Washington, D.C., a gunman shot and wounded at least five people in Phoenix, Arizona. The Senate may be able to consider a bill on guns by the end of February.