Israeli Warplanes Strike Convoy on Syria-Lebanon Border
Israeli fighter jets have struck a target on the Syrian-Lebanese border, according to sources cited by the Reuters news agency, after Israeli government officials warned that the country could take action to prevent Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile from falling in the hands of Hezbollah or what it termed “global jihadists” operating within Syria. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) declined to comment on the attack on the convoy, just within Lebanese territory over the border with Syria. A Lebanese army statement said that “four Israeli planes entered Lebanese airspace at 4.30pm on Tuesday. They were replaced four hours later by another group of planes, which overflew southern Lebanon until 2am, and a third mission took over, finally leaving at 7.55am on Wednesday morning”. Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Silvan Shalom had told an IDF radio station on Sunday that “if there is a need, we will take action to prevent chemical weapons from being transferred to Islamic terror organisations. We are obligated to keep our eye on it at all times, in the event chemical weapons fall into Hezbollah’s hands”.
Syrian Opposition Could Hold Talks with Al-Assad Regime at Neutral Location
Mouaz Alkhatib, the head of Syria’s main opposition group, said on Wednesday that he would be amenable to talks with representatives of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad outside the country if the government agreed to release thousands of jailed rebels. Syrian officials said that the dialogue should take place in Damascus and that any opposition figures attending the meetings would have any charges against them dropped. This follows a speech by al-Assad in which he called for reconciliation talks. The government’s offer has been dismissed by most opposition figures, who say that the only condition that needs to be met for the beginning of talks is the departure of al-Assad himself. “I am prepared to sit down directly with representatives of the Syrian regime in Cairo, Tunis or Istanbul,” Alkhatib said in a statement on his Facebook page. As well as asking for the release of the jailed detainees, the opposition leader also said Syrian embassies should issue new passports to Syrians whose documents had expired. Another faction of the Syrian opposition, the Syrian National Council, distanced itself from the notion of talks with the government in a statement. “The Syrian National Council affirms its absolute commitment to the Syrian people’s will, and rejects any settlement with the Syrian regime or negotiation with it.”
Spain’s Recession Worsens, Economy at Lowest Performance since 2009
Spain’s economic downturn worsened in the final three months of 2012, with output falling 1.8 percent in comparison to the same period in 2011, according to data released by the country’s National Institute for Statistics. It marks Spain’s worst performance since the 2009 global recession. The country’s weak internal demand is still the most important factor in the downturn, but it is joined by the impact of repeated austerity measures that have caused a decrease in infrastructure investments. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy reacted to the figure by announcing a new stimulus package, expected to include tax cuts for young entrepreneurs. The measures should be announced during the annual State of Nation debate in the Spanish parliament in February.
Scottish Government Agrees to Change Independence Referendum Question
The Scottish government has agreed to a change in the wording of the independence referendum question, after concerns that the previous edition of the question might lead some people to instinctively vote “yes”. Scottish National Party ministers wanted to ask voters the yes/no question: “Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?”, but the Electoral Commission said that a more “neutral” wording was needed. The new phrasing of the yes/no question will be “Should Scotland be an independent country?”. Deputy Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said she was “particularly delighted with the conclusion the Electoral Commission has reached on the question. While its view is that our proposed question was clear, simple and easy to understand, I am nevertheless happy to accept their recommended change”. The referendum on Scottish independence is scheduled to be held in the autumn of 2014.
Only US$217 Remain in Zimbabwe’s Coffers
Zimbabwe now has US$217 left in reserves after paying its civil servants last week, according to a report by the South African Press Association. Finance Minister Tendai Biti told the assembled reporters in the capital Harare that many of them were probably better off than the state. The Zimbabwean economy has been crippled by a decade repeated shocks since President Robert Mugabe began seizing white-owned farms. The move prompted investors to flee the country, paralysing production and prompting international sanctions. Inflation hit 500 billion percent in 2008, leading the country’s central bank to issue a 100 trillion Zimbabwean dollars note. An agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) made the country switch to U.S. dollars, but the country is still plagued by a minimal tax base and very low cash reserves, as described by finance minister Biti. He added that the lack of cash threatened the upcoming elections, which should happen in March at a cost US$104 million.