Priests Rafael Reatiga (left) and Richard Piffano were gunned down a year ago in Bogota.
By msnbc.com staff
Hours after he asked his parishioners to pray for him, Rev. Rafael Reatiga was found shot to death in a car in Bogota with another Roman Catholic priest.
The Associated Press reported that police initially suspected that Reatiga and Rev. Richard Piffano, 37, were victims of robbery. But now, three weeks after their bodies were found, Colombian prosecutors say the two Catholic priests hired hitmen to kill them when at least one of them was diagnosed with AIDS.
Prosecutors located the alleged hitmen based on phone numbers the priests had called from their cell phones days before their deaths.
Prosecutors said Tuesday that the priests paid about $8,500 for the hit. They had originally planned to commit suicide by throwing themselves into a canyon but couldn’t bring themselves to jump. Medical tests showed that Reatiga, 36, had AIDS.
He also had syphilis and had been seen visiting places frequented by gay men in Bogota, according to the AP.
Two of the four assassins have been arrested, the AP reported. They face up to 40 years in prison if convicted.
An Iranian patrol boat approached a U.S. aircraft carrier, backing down within two miles from the USS Abraham Lincoln. NBC's Jim Miklaszewski reports from the USS Abraham Lincoln.
By NBC News and msnbc.com news services
ABOARD THE USS ABRAHAM LINCOLN – A U.S. aircraft carrier sailing through the strategic Strait of Hormuz had a close encounter with an Iranian vessel Tuesday.
The Iranian navy patrol boat came within two miles of the USS Abraham Lincoln, part of the Bahrain-based 5th Fleet, as it sailed through the strait with the destroyer Cape St. George and a guided missile cruiser.
The Iranian military came out for a look at the ships, first sending a reconnaissance flight and then sending the Iranian patrol boat.
The commander of the USS Abraham Lincoln, Capt. John Alexander, said such close encounters “could eventually lead to a fatal miscalculation.”
“They have the ability to take a shot at me at some point, and I worry about it,” Alexander told NBC News.
Because of strong U.S. sanctions over Iran’s nuclear program, Iran has threatened to shut down the strait and attack U.S. warships. Oil tankers carry a fifth of the world's oil supply through the strait, only about 30 miles across at its narrowest point.
Iran has also amassed Revolutionary Guard fast boats, submarines and, along the shoreline, anti-ship cruise missiles.
Vice Admiral Mark Fox, commander of the 5th Fleet, said, “We’re ready today. This is the world we live in.”
Fox said Sunday that Iran had built up its naval forces in the Gulf and prepared boats that could be used in suicide attacks, but the U.S. Navy could prevent it from blocking the Strait of Hormuz.
The U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet always has at least one supercarrier at sea accompanied by scores of jets and a fleet of frigates and destroyers.
NBC's Jim Miklaszewski and Reuters contributed to this report.
A lioness named Nyanga attacked and killed a 63-year-old South African zookeeper on Monday, apparently because security gates were left open, the Johannesburg Zoo said Tuesday.
Colleagues heard Joe Ramonetha screaming and rushed to help but it was too late, zoo spokeswoman Letta Madlala said. Ramonetha, suffering a severe bite to the neck, was declared dead on arrival at the hospital, she said.
Ramonetha had been feeding the 11-year-old lioness or cleaning out her enclosure at a rural lion breeding farm in Parys that is managed by the Johannesburg Zoo, about 75 miles southwest of Johannesburg, Madlala said.
The zoo's executive manager for education, Louise Gordon, called Ramonetha’s death a “terrible accident.” She said there had not been a fatal animal attack at the zoo in 50 years.
"Joe was attacked in the staff passage and sustained a fatal bite wound to his throat," Gordon said. She said staff are trained to close gates when they enter the lion area and to release them to an outside camp area before starting to work in the enclosure.
Zoo managers will meet to decide the fate of Nyanga the lioness. The lioness was tranquilized and moved to a separate cage following the incident, according to the BBC.
Ramonetha had worked at the zoo for more than 40 years and was an experienced handler. He is survived by his wife and four children.
South Africa has about 2,700 free-ranging lions and 4,000 lions in captivity.
Msnbc.com staff contributed to this report from The Associated Press.
Dogs let off their leashes were blamed in the death of scores of kiwis in a New Zealand national forest, according to local media reports.
The Bay Bush Action Network, an activist group that aims to protect native animals in New Zealand’s Opua State Forest, said about 60 kiwis have been killed over a one-year period, almost all by dogs. The group posted a picture of a flock of killed birds on its Facebook page.
Don Robertson, of New Zealand’s Department of Conservation, told the New Zealand Herald that 80 percent of adult kiwi deaths can be attributed to pet dogs every year.
The kiwis are targeted by dogs, Robertson said, because they are “nice smelling and run away when disturbed."
"People believe they just have the right to keep their dogs off the lead -- or they say 'my dog wouldn't do that.' Of course it would,” Robertson told the Herald. “People don't understand kiwi can be half a metre off the track sheltering under a bush.”
The paper reported that the estimated number of North Island kiwi declined by at least 90 percent during the 20th century, with some 8,000 remaining in the far northern reaches of the island.
The Yekaterinburg nuclear submarine is in Gadzhiyevo in the Murmansk region, Russia, on March 16, 2011. Firefighters extinguished a massive fire aboard a docked Russian nuclear submarine Friday, Dec. 30, 2011, as some crew members remained inside, officials said, assuring that there was no radiation leak and that the vessel's nuclear-tipped missiles were not on board.
By NBC News and news services
MOSCOW -- Russia came close to nuclear disaster in late December when a blaze engulfed a nuclear-powered submarine carrying atomic weapons, a leading Russian magazine reported, contradicting official assurances that it was not armed.
Russian officials said at the time that all nuclear weapons aboard the Yekaterinburg nuclear submarine had been unloaded well before a fire engulfed the 550-foot vessel and there had been no risk of a radiation leak.
But the respected Vlast weekly magazine quoted several sources in the Russian navy as saying that throughout the fire on Dec. 29 the submarine was carrying 16 R-29 intercontinental ballistic missiles, each armed with four nuclear warheads.
"Russia, for a day, was on the brink of the biggest catastrophe since the time of Chernobyl," Vlast reported. The 1986 disaster in modern-day Ukraine is regarded as the world's worst nuclear accident.
Neither the Russian Defense Ministry nor the office of Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who has responsibility for military matters, would immediately comment on the report. A spokesman for the navy could not be contacted.
Senior U.S. officials told NBC News on Tuesday that the report is true and that nuclear arms were onboard Dec. 29, but there was no danger of a catastrophic disaster on the scale of Chernobyl.
The reason, said one official, is that the fire was not near the weapons or the ship's reactor and that those areas are hardened.
The fire started when welding sparks ignited wooden scaffolding around the 18,200-ton submarine at the Roslyakovo docks, 900 miles north of Moscow. It is one of the main shipyards used by Russia's northern fleet.
Russia Today File / AFP - Getty Images
A grab from images released by Russia Today shows fire crew trying to extinguish a fire on board the Russian nuclear submarine Yekaterinburg docked in Murmansk on Dec. 29, 2011.
The rubber covering of the submarine then caught fire, sending flames and black smoke 30 feet above the stricken vessel. Firemen battled the blaze for a day and a night before partially sinking the submarine to douse the flames, according to media reports.
Vlast reported that immediately after the fire, the Yekaterinburg sailed to the navy's weapons store, an unusual trip for a damaged submarine supposedly carrying no weapons and casting doubt on assurances that it was not armed.
"K-84 was in dock with rockets and torpedoes on board," the magazine said, adding that in addition to the nuclear weapons, the submarine was carrying torpedoes and mines as well as its two nuclear reactors.
The magazine said that if one of the torpedoes had exploded, it could have threatened the nuclear missiles, leading to a nuclear accident.
Media reports of what happened at the time of the fire were contradictory, and foreign journalists were unable to gain access to the high-security zone.
An official told NBC News on Tuesday that even if the nuclear warheads had caught fire, the physics of nuclear weapons don't lend themselves to accidental detonation.
Although the probability of a disaster was low, there is a high probability that someone in command will have to answer questions, the officials said.
It is standard operating procedure in the world's nuclear navies to remove nuclear warheads from submarines prior to maintenance.
Russia's worst post-Soviet submarine disaster was in August 2000 when the nuclear submarine Kursk sank in the Barents Sea, killing all 118 crewmen aboard.
NBC News' Robert Windrem contributed to this report from Reuters.
Police armoured personnel fire tear gas at anti-government protesters in the village of Sanabis, west of Manama, Feb. 14. Anti-government protesters tried to march from all directions to reach to the junction but riot police dispersed them by firing tear-gas, rubber bullets and sound grenades. At least 25 protesters have been arrested throughout the daylong protests across the country.
Associated Press reports: Bahraini security forces fanned out across the island nation in unprecedented numbers on Tuesday as Shiites marked the one-year anniversary of their uprising against the country's Sunni rulers.
Authorities sent troop reinforcements and armored vehicles to the predominantly Shiite villages around the capital Manama to prevent people from gathering and answering the call of the main opposition movement, Al Wefaq.
Bahraini anti-government protesters face off with riot police Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2012, in Sanabis, Bahrain, on the edge of the capital of Manama. Clashes and attempts to march toward the well-barricaded hub of last year's pro-democracy protests marked the first anniversary of the uprising in the Gulf kingdom, and Bahraini security forces fanned out across the island nation in unprecedented numbers.
Hasan Jamali / AP
Anti-government protesters grab prepared petrol bombs to use against riot police, in Sanabis, Bahrain, on the edge of the capital of Manama, on Tuesday, Feb. 14. Clashes and attempts to march toward the well-barricaded hub of last year's pro-democracy protests marked Tuesday's first anniversary of the uprising in the Gulf kingdom, and Bahraini security forces fanned out across the island nation in unprecedented numbers.
Hasan Jamali / AP
A Bahraini man removed from his car is taken into custody Tuesday, Feb. 14, in Manama, Bahrain, where police stopped some motorists entering the capital, checking identification and arresting young men from several cars. Clashes and attempts to march toward the well-barricaded hub of last year's pro-democracy protests marked the first anniversary of the uprising in the Gulf kingdom, and Bahraini security forces fanned out across the island nation in unprecedented numbers.
A woman shovels the snow from the entrance of her house in Glodeanu Silistea village, 100km east of Bucharest on Feb. 14. Romania may halt electricity exports and limit supplies to industrial consumers in a bid to meet rising household demand due to freezing temperatures, the government said today.
The Associated Press reports: Snow as deep as 15 feet (4.5 meters) isolated areas in Romania, Moldova and Albania on Tuesday and turned a power plant in Kosovo into a park of dazzling ice sculptures.
In a winter harsher than many can remember, energy workers struggled mightily Tuesday to break the ice that has encapsulated Kosovo's main power station in Obilic. Steam from the plant's vents coated its pipes and buildings with ice and snow, turning them into unworldly, unrecognizable objects of art.
Since the end of January, Eastern Europe has been pummeled by a record-breaking cold snap and the heaviest snowfalls in recent memory.
Vadim Ghirda / AP
Barbed wire is covered in ice in the village of Silistea Glodeanu, Romania, Tuesday, Feb. 14. Snow as deep as 15 feet (4.5 meters) isolated areas of Romania, Moldova and Albania on Tuesday, and helicopters and army trucks were used to deliver food and medicine, and to transport sick people to hospitals.
MILAN - Italian prosecutors asked the country's highest criminal court on Tuesday to reinstate the murder convictions of American Amanda Knox and her former boyfriend in the brutal slaying of a British student.
Knox, through her attoney, called the prosecutors' request "harassment."
Perugia prosecutors filed the 112-page appeal, more than four months after an appeals court threw out the convictions against Knox, 24, and Raffaele Sollecito, 27.
Prosecutors Giovanni Galati said he is "very convinced" that Sollecito and Knox are responsible for the Nov. 1, 2007, stabbing death of Meredith Kercher, a 21-year-old British student who shared an apartment with Knox in the university town of Perugia.
Galati told reporters in Pergugia that the appeals sentence must be thrown out, saying it was full of "ommissions and many errors," the news agency ANSA reported.
The prosecutors appeal, which was expected, marks the third and final stage in the criminal case against Knox and Sollecito.
The two were found guilty in a lower court of slaying Kercher in what prosecutors described as a sex-fueled attack, and sentenced to 26 years and 25 years respectively. An appeals court then said the evidence did not hold up, freeing Knox to return home to the United States after serving four years in prison. Sollecito lives in Italy.
Luca Maori, Sollecito's lawyer, said the high court is expected to issue its decision toward the end of the year.
The prosecutors move was expected, and Maori said he would file his counter-arguments after going over the prosecutors' appeal.
"We will write our brief to say it's a mistake," Maori said.
Amanda Knox's family, in a statement obtained by NBC News, said the appeal was not unexpected.
"We are not concerned about this appeal, as Amanda’s innocence was clearly and convincingly proven in her appeal trial," said the statement, issued by attorney Theodore Simon. "This is simply another example of harassment by the prosecutor against Amanda and makes this terrible, painful incident continue to go on for Amanda, Raffaele and their families."
Fatal blow? The high court cannot hear new evidence, and will make its decision based on what has been submitted in earlier trials.
The fatal blow to the prosecution's case was a court-ordered DNA review in the appellate trial that discredited crucial genetic evidence used to convict Knox and Sollecito in 2009.
Kercher was found slain in a pool of blood in the house she shared with Knox in Perugia. The appeals court in October said the guilty verdicts against the pair were not corroborated by any evidence, and that the court hadn't proven they were in the house when Kercher was killed.
Still, the appellate panel stopped short of saying what might have happened the night of the murder.
An Italian appeals court throws out Amanda Knox's murder conviction and orders her free after nearly four years in prison for the death of her British roommate. NBC's Lester Holt reports.
A third defendant, Ivory Coast-born drifter Rudy Guede, was convicted in a separate trial of sexually assaulting and stabbing Kercher. His 16-year sentence, reduced in appeal from an initial 30 years, was upheld by Italy's highest court in 2010.
Last week, Knox's Italian lawyer has filed an appeal of her slander conviction. Although she was cleared of the murder conviction, the Italian appeals court had upheld her conviction for slander — for falsely accusing bar owner Diya "Patrick" Lumumba of involvement in the slaying.
A suspected Iranian man is severely injured in Thailand after a grenade explodes on a Bangkok street. Msnbc's Chris Jansing reports the incident could escalate tensions between Israel and Iran, whom Israel accuses of several assassination attempts on its citizens.
By NBC News, msnbc.com and news services
BANGKOK -- An Iranian man carrying grenades blew off his own legs and wounded four civilians Tuesday after an earlier blast shook his house in Bangkok, Thai authorities said. The explosions came a day after an Israeli diplomatic car was bombed in India — an attack Israel blamed on Iran.
Authorities said it's unclear whether the Bangkok explosions were linked to the New Delhi attack, but in Jerusalem Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said, "we can't rule out any possibility."
Thai security forces found more explosives in a house where the Iranian man was staying in Bangkok, but the possible targets were not known, Police Gen. Pansiri Prapawat said.
A passport found at the scene of one blast indicated the assailant was Saeid Moradi from Iran, Pansiri said. Authorities in Tehran could not immediately be reached for comment.
Tuesday's violence began in the afternoon when a stash of explosives apparently detonated by accident in Moradi's house, blowing off part of the roof. Police said two foreigners quickly left the residence, followed by a wounded Moradi.
"He tried to wave down a taxi, but he was covered in blood, and the driver refused to take him," Pansiri said. He then threw an explosive at the taxi and began running.
Police who had been called to the area then tried to apprehend Moradi, who hurled a grenade to defend himself. "But somehow it bounced back" and blew off his legs, Pansiri said.
A member of Thailand's explosives disposal unit inspects the scene of a bomb blast that injured a man thought to be Iranian on a roadside in Bangkok Tuesday.
Photos of the wounded Iranian showed him covered in dark soot on a sidewalk strewn with broken glass. He lay in front of a Thai primary and secondary school. No students were reported wounded.
A motorcycle taxi driver who arrived on the scene shortly after the explosion said he saw the man identified as Moradi lying on the ground with his leg blown off.
"Luckily school hadn't finished yet, otherwise there would be more injuries," Dechchart Puangket told NBC News.
A dark satchel nearby was investigated by a bomb disposal unit. Pansiri said police found Iranian currency, US dollars and Thai money in the bag.
Three Thai men and one Thai woman were brought to Kluaynamthai Hospital for treatment of injuries, said Suwinai Busarakamwong, a doctor there.
The blasts came a day after bomb attacks targeted Israeli embassy staff in India and Georgia. Israel accused Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah of being behind those attacks. Hezbollah is a Shiite Islamist group backed by Syria and Iran that is on the official U.S. blacklist of foreign terrorist organizations.
An Israeli official told news website Ynet that the Bangkok explosions appeared to be a "bombing gone wrong."
Second Iranian detained Another Iranian was detained Tuesday night at Bangkok's international airport as he attempted to leave for neighboring Malaysia, said police commander Winai Thongsong. Authorities were interrogating the man, but it was not yet known whether he was involved in Tuesday's blasts.
Kerek Wongsa / Reuters
Tuesday's violence began when a stash of explosives apparently detonated by accident in a Bangkok house, blowing off part of the roof.
While Thai officials declined to speculate on whether the two men they had detained were involved with any militant group,
Israeli Minister of Defense Ehud Barak blamed Iran.
"The attempted terrorist attack in Bangkok proves once again that Iran and its proxies continue to perpetrate terror,'' Barak said on a visit to Singapore.
"Iran and Hezbollah are unrelenting terror elements endangering the stability of the region, and endangering the stability of the world,'' said Barak, who spent a few hours in Bangkok on Sunday.
Last month, a Lebanese-Swedish man with alleged links to pro-Iranian Hezbollah militants was detained by Thai police. He led authorities to a warehouse filled with more than 8,800 pounds of urea fertilizer and several gallons of liquid ammonium nitrate.
Israel and the United States at the time warned their citizens to be alert in the capital, but Thai authorities said Thailand appeared to have been a staging ground but not the target of any attack.
Immigration police are trying to trace Moradi's movements, but initial reports indicated he flew into Thailand from Seoul, South Korea on Feb. 8, Pansiri said. He landed at the southern Thai resort town of Phuket, then stayed in a hotel in Chonburi, a couple hours drive southeast of Bangkok, for several nights.
Bangkok's blasts came one day after bombs targeted Israeli diplomats in India and Georgia. The attack in India wounded four people, while the device found in Georgia did not explode. Iran has denied it was responsible.
Israeli police have increased the state of alert in the country, emphasizing public places, foreign embassies and offices, as well as Ben-Gurion International Airport.
Thailand has rarely been a target for foreign terrorists, although a domestic Muslim insurgency in the country's south has involved bombings of civilian targets.
NBC News, Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
An Australian barman who mooned the U.K.'s Queen Elizabeth during her visit to the country last year has been fined about $800, according to reports.
The Herald Sun newspaper said Liam Warriner, 22, of Sydney, admitted being a public nuisance after a charge of wilful exposure was dropped. He was fined 750 Australian dollars, which is just over $800.
The paper said that the Queen's motorcade was driving along a street lined with crowds of people in Brisbane when Warriner dropped his underwear and shorts and lifted his shirt.
He then ran about 50 yards alongside the motorcade with an Australian flag between his buttocks. He later told police he did not like the Queen or elitist groups.
Warriner's lawyer John-Paul Mould said his client was unlikely to do the same thing again as it was "extremely unlikely as the Queen was unlikely to visit Australia again," The Brisbane Times reported.
"So the media says, but who knows?" Magistrate AnnThacker replied.
'Proud anti-monarchist' The Herald Sun reported that Warriner said after the court case that he had no regrets.
"I'm a proud anti-monarchist ... What's uncivilized about it? We came into the world naked," he told the paper.
Warriner added that people should not think of the Queen as a "cute granny," saying she was a "very powerful woman."
The Herald Sun said there was a heated exchange between Warriner and reporters outside the court.
Warriner said Australia Prime Minister Julia Gillard and even Barack Obama would not be immune to his style of protest, the paper reported.
"Any self-important, self-propogating elitists, I will happily bare my buttocks to and tell them what I think of them," he said.
Abu Qatada, a radical cleric who was once described as "Osama bin Laden's right-hand man in Europe," has been freed from an English prison after six years.
By NBC News
After six years behind bars, Abu Qatada, al-Qaida’s most senior man in Europe, was released on bail from a high security English prison on Monday, triggering uproar among British officials who say he should stay imprisoned.
The European Court of Human Rights told Britain to release Qatada because he had not been charged. The court said his detention was unlawful.
The 51-year-old extremist preacher is believed to have inspired several al-Qaida attacks, including those on the World Trade Center towers on 9/11. Videos of his lectures were found in the hijackers’ apartments.
British Prime Minister David Cameron passionately decried the ruling, saying, “We are doing everything we can do to get this man out of the country.”
The human rights court will not allow Britain to extradite Qatada to Jordan, where he is wanted on terrorism charges, because the court believes the Jordanians would torture him for information.
“This has put the British government in a very tough position,” said Michael Leiter, NBC News’ counter-terrorism analyst. “It has highlighted the inherent tension of the European Court of Human Rights making a decision that is contrary to the professional views of the British security services.”
Six other men connected with al-Qaida may be freed from British prisons because of the court ruling. Among them, Abu Hamza, a radical Muslim cleric, is currently fighting extradition to the U.S.
The debate over whether the men should be freed comes just in time for the UK’s biggest security challenge ever: the Olympics.
Days after the Marines apologized for a flag resembling the Nazi “SS” symbol, new questions are being raised about an Army base in Afghanistan reportedly called “Combat Outpost Aryan.”
The Military Religious Freedom Foundation, which first raised the controversy over the “SS” photograph, is now demanding that the outpost be renamed and the circumstances surrounding the naming of the base be investigated.
MRFF founder Mike Weinstein told msnbc.com that he was contacted by numerous U.S. and Afghan soldiers who were upset about the name of the base and wanted it changed. He said he felt compelled to go forward with a complaint.
“Today’s stunning information concerning the base near Kandahar being named ‘Aryan’ is simply too much to be coincidental,” the attorney, Randal Mathis, said in the letter. “Viewing either as trivially inadvertent would be preposterous. The horrendous religious and ethnic connotations are beyond dispute.…”
The Department of Defense, however, has said it's all a misunderstanding. A military spokesman told the Army Times that the base name was due to a misunderstanding and a misspelling. The spokesman said the name was actually "Combat Outpost Arian," named for a historical Persian tribe from western Afghanistan. Commander William Speaks told the Huffington Post that the word "Arian" is frequently used by Afghans, and pointed to the name Ariana Airlines.
Weinstein called the military's explanation completely bogus. "At first they said it didn't exist, and now they are saying it does exist but that it is a different name."
The foundation's research director, Chris Rodda, told msnbc.com that several independent sources, including photographs, Facebook posts and other references, have confirmed the base was spelled "Aryan." She said to claim that the base was named by Afghans is "preposterous." All other combat bases, she pointed out, carry clearly American names such as "Terminator" and "Michigan."
In addition, the Army Times reports that the name “COP Aryan” appears in a June 2011 news release on the website of the 170th Infantry Brigade Combat Team.
"This is all part of the military's culture of intolerance," Rodda told msnbc.com. "We see it in regard to gender and race as well as religion." She claimed Nazi symbolism was common in the military.
Emails sent to the Department of Defense and the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan were not immediately returned.
A group of Afghan children got to go one on one in their favorite sport with senior U.S. officials and top coaches. NBC's Atia Abawi reports.
By NBC News
KABUL – For Malalai Anwari, there’s only one way to live life in Afghanistan and that’s by playing basketball.
"I couldn’t live without basketball," Anwari, a member of the Afghanistan Women’s National Basketball team, told NBC News. "Basketball is my life."
Anwari’s sentiments reverberated across the campus of Ghazi Olympic Stadium in Kabul last week, where young Afghans were given the chance to practice their favorite sport with senior United States coaches and sports administrators.
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul working with the Amateur Athletic Union brought in eight sporting officials, including the National Basketball Association's Cares program, to mentor and train both Afghan athletes and coaches in a sports diplomacy initiative.
About 170 children from 10 different provinces in Afghanistan participated in the four-day event.
Matt Wall, a U.S. embassy public affairs spokesman, said the sporting clinic went beyond shooting hoops in the gym.
“I think there are cultural barriers that we are trying to overcome,” Wall said. “Sports isn’t about religion, females and males, it is about kids who just want an outlet to exercise to play with others.”
At the end of the four-day training camp, each athlete earned both an AAU coaching certificate, and an NBA Cares certificate of completion.
A pro-reform protester throws back a gas bomb fired by police during clashes on the outskirts of Manama, Bahrain, on Monday. Injuries were reported among protesters and police ranks, before police managed to turn away the protesters.
By msnbc.com staff and news services
MANAMA -- Security forces in Bahrain fired tear gas and stun grenades at protesters trying to occupy a landmark square in the nation's capital on Monday ahead of the one-year anniversary of the Gulf kingdom's Shiite-led uprising.
Traffic came to a standstill on the highway, the main thoroughfare into the capital of the regional banking hub.
"We will not back down," said Nader Abdulimam, who had taken refuge in a house just outside of Manama with other protesters overcome by tear gas. "This has gone on for one year and it will go for another year or more."
Opposition supporters were undeterred by the authorities' warnings of zero tolerance for anti-government activities around the strategic island that is the home of the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.
Sheikh Ali Salman, leader of the largest Shiite opposition group Wefaq, had earlier called on youths to eschew violence in protests after clashes with police escalated in recent weeks, with teenagers throwing bombs and iron bars.
In an area about six miles west of central Manama, some demonstrators stood atop Bahrain's ancient burial mounds — some more than 5,000 years old — waving flags featuring the image of Pearl Square's six-pronged monument.
Inspired by uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, Bahrainis -- mainly from the Shiite majority -- took to the streets on February 14, 2011, to demand democratic reforms. But the Sunni Muslim-led government crushed the protests a month later after talks involving Wefaq went nowhere and sectarian violence spread.
'Just a case of manners' Mainly Shiite opposition parties are demanding Bahrain's elected parliament be given the power to form governments. Shiites complain of political and economic marginalization by an entrenched elite who do not want to share power.
The ruling Al Khalifa family accuses Iran of fomenting the uprising. Tehran denies playing a role, and Bahrain's Shiite groups deny they receive support from abroad.
In an interview with Germany's Der Spiegel magazine, King Hamad accused his opponents of chanting in support of Ayatollah Khomeini, leader of Iran's 1979 revolution.
"It's just a case of manners. But when they shout 'Down with the king and up with Khomeini' that's a problem for national unity," the magazine quoted Hamad as saying in extracts of the interview, the rest of which would be published on Monday.
The refrain "Down with Hamad," sounded by trumpets and car horns and chanted at rallies, has become a rallying call of opposition protests. Reuters journalists have not witnessed the opposition chanting in support of Khomeini.
"In a sense there is no 'opposition' in Bahrain, as the phrase implies one unified bloc with the same views," Hamad said in the extracts. "Such a phrase is not in our constitution, unlike say the United Kingdom. We only have people with different views, and that's okay."
Human rights organizations say that the government is not doing enough to deal with the demands of protesters.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.
AP reports - Military planes and police helicopters flew in tons of emergency food to snowbound villages and ships in the Balkans on Monday, after blizzards so fierce that some people had to cut tunnels through 15 feet of snow to get out of their homes.
Vladimir Gogic / AP
A Serbian police helicopter delivers food to sailors stuck on stranded boats on the Danube river near Smederevo, Serbia, on Monday, Feb. 13.
Since the end of January, Eastern Europe has been pummeled by a record-breaking cold snap and the heaviest snowfall in recent memory. Hundreds of people, many of them homeless, have died in the bitter cold and tens of thousands have been trapped by blocked roads inside homes with little heat. More on this story...
LAGOS, Nigeria -- Pirates off Nigeria's coast attacked a cargo ship Monday, killings its captain and chief engineer in the increasingly dangerous waters of the Gulf of Guinea on the west coast of Africa, officials said.
"All crew except the bridge team took shelter in the citadel. Due to the continuous firing the captain and the chief engineer were shot," a notice on the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) official said.
The captain and chief engineer died of their wounds as the pirates sprayed the ship with gunfire, said Cyrus Mody, an official at the bureau.
Mody said the bureau had yet to receive additional information about the ship and its crew, though they did contact authorities in Nigeria. A spokesman for Nigeria's navy and the nation's maritime safety agency did not immediately respond to requests for comment Monday.
The killings come as another ship nearby was attacked this weekend and pirates hijacked a tanker ship off the coast of neighboring Benin on Thursday, according to the maritime bureau.
Pirates off the coast of Nigeria tend to raid ships for cash and cargo rather than hijacking the crews for ransom like their counterparts off the coast of Somalia.
The frequency of attacks, while not as high as off the Somali coast or surrounding Indian Ocean, is on the rise.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
The Syrian government pushes ahead with its military crackdown while mourners gather daily to mark the passing of new victims. NBC News' Ayman Mohyeldin reports from Cairo.
By msnbc.com news services
Updated at 5:03 p.m. ET: UNITED NATIONS -- The U.N. human rights chief decried Syria's escalating crackdown on civilian protesters Monday and warned that the Security Council's failure to take action has emboldened the Syrian government to launch an all-out assault to crush dissent.
Navi Pillay expressed fears that the deliberate stirring of sectarian tensions may plunge Syria into civil war. She said there are strong indications of ongoing crimes against humanity and again appealed for President Bashar Assad's government to be referred to the International Criminal Court.
Standing before the 193-member General Assembly, Pillay said tens of thousands of people, including children, have been arrested, more than 18,000 reportedly are still arbitrarily detained, and thousands more are reported missing. Another 25,000 people are estimated to have sought refuge in neighboring countries, and more than 70,000 are estimated to be internally displaced, she added.
The General Assembly is expected to consider a nonbinding resolution similar to the Security Council resolution that Russia and China vetoed on Feb. 4.
"The failure of the Security Council to agree on firm collective action appears to have emboldened the Syrian government to launch an all-out assault in an effort to crush dissent with overwhelming force," she said.
Earlier on Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow would not support a plan to send U.N. peacekeepers into Syria unless there was a halt to violence by both government forces and their armed opponents.
Lavrov said Russia was studying the proposal for a joint United Nations-Arab peacekeeping force in Syria, announced on Sunday at an Arab League meeting in Cairo, and wanted more details.
But his remarks suggested his country, which has veto power at the U.N. Security Council, would use the proposal to underscore its own argument that the government's armed opponents are no less of an obstacle to peace than Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces.
U.N. peacekeeping missions "need to first have a peace to support," Lavrov told a news conference after talks with United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan.
"In other words, it is necessary to agree to something like a cease-fire, but the tragedy is that the armed groups that are confronting the forces of the regime are not subordinate to anyone and are not under control," Lavrov said in Moscow.
Russia joined China on February 4 in a double veto to block a U.N. Security Council resolution supporting an Arab League call for Assad to quit, provoking strong criticism from the Western and Arab sates that supported the draft.
Lavrov, who met Assad in Damascus three days after the veto, said he told the president the violence - which the United Nations says has killed more than 5,000 people since the start of a state crackdown on protests almost a year ago - must stop.
However, he emphasized Monday, this "also applies to the armed groups opposing the regime, which use modern guns, mortars and grenade launchers and also sow death."
"A halt to the violence ... must be universal, no matter where it comes from," Lavrov said. "So there needs to be a mechanism for the realization of this most important, key, primary principle."
Russia has been increasingly isolated in its support for Assad, whose government has given Moscow its strongest post-Soviet foothold in the Middle East by buying arms and hosting a naval maintenance and supply facility.
Workers are seen inside a Foxconn factory in the township of Longhua in the southern Guangdong province in this May 26, 2010 file photo. The Fair Labor Association has begun audits of Apple suppliers' labor practices in China, at the company's request.
By Eve Tahmincioglu
Apple announced Monday a non-profit labor group has started examining working conditions at some of its suppliers in China, as the company tries to calm a growing storm over how the workers who build iPads and iPhones are treated.
One particular supplier, Foxconn, has come under fire for working conditions at its facilities including alleged child labor violations and unsafe work environments. Labor advocates have long noted the problems, but the working conditions got more exposure following a scathing expose in the New York Times last month. The Foxconn plants have seen a rash of suicides in the past year.
Protests have swelled over Apple's labor issues, including demonstrations at the company's stores around the globe. There's also a petition on Change.org titled "Apple: Protect Workers Making iPhones in Chinese Factories" which has more than 200,000 signatures. The petition was started by Mark Shields, an Apple customer who appealed to the company to: "Please make these changes immediately, so that each of us can once again hold our heads high and say, 'I’m a Mac person.'"
Last week, Foxconn's computers were hacked as part of the growing protests, according to The Guardian.
The bad press has been rare for Apple, whose stock hit $500 a share for the first time ever Monday, so it’s not unexpected that the company would move to take some action. It’s unclear, however, whether these audits will lead to change.
The Fair Labor Association (FLA) will conduct what Apple calls, “special voluntary audits” of Foxconn’s plants in Shenzhen and Chengdu, China. The first inspection commenced Monday, according to a company statement. The findings will be posted on the organization’s website in March. www.fairlabor.org.
“We believe that workers everywhere have the right to a safe and fair work environment, which is why we’ve asked the FLA to independently assess the performance of our largest suppliers,” said Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO. “The inspections now underway are unprecedented in the electronics industry, both in scale and scope, and we appreciate the FLA agreeing to take the unusual step of identifying the factories in their reports.”
Some labor advocates aren't as hopeful.
"The entry of Apple to FLA is a welcome development," said Mary Gallagher, director of the University of Michigan's Center for Chinese Studies, and associate professor for political science. "However, I'm not optimistic that conditions in Apple's supplier factories will change if we only rely on occasional inspections from an overseas group."
Chinese workers, she continued, "are increasingly aware of their legal rights at the workplace but they often lack the proper tools to realize enforcement of those rights, such as the right to strike and the right to organize collectively."
Li Qiang, director of China Labor Watch based in New York, said "FLA speaks on behalf of the companies, not workers. If Apple wants the inspections be accurate and trustworthy, it should have labor advocacy groups who speak for the workers involved in the inspection process."
A call to FLA officials was not immediately returned.
The FLA will interview thousands of workers at the facilities, according to Apple, and review compensation, safety, and even the dormitories where Foxconn houses its employees.
The company's own audits of its final assembly plants, conducted since 2006, have done little to alter conditions at the facilities, according to labor experts and Apple’s own report on the state of its Chinese manufacturing partners, which was released last month.
China Labor Watch's Qiang said he sees Apple's move as more of an attempt to rebuild its public image rather than to help workers.
"What Apple should do now is to take action to solve the problems and improve the labor conditions in their supplier factories, not to conduct inspections and put the factories into the media and public's attention," he maintained.
TEHRAN, Iran -- A senior Iranian military official has claimed the country's nuclear facilities are immune to cyber attack.
Gholam Reza Jalali, who heads an Iranian military unit in charge of combating sabotage, was quoted Monday by the official IRNA news agency as saying that Iran and its nuclear facilities possess the technology and knowledge to deal with malicious software, according to The Associated Press.
He did not specify what steps have been taken since 2010, when a virus known as Stuxnet disrupted controls of some nuclear centrifuges. Tehran says its scientists neutralized the malware before it caused serious damage.
Iran has reported other cyber attacks since, including an infection in April 2011 dubbed "Stars." Jalali said that Iran also fought a spy virus called "Doku," without providing details.
Iran's claim comes amid rising tensions between the Islamic Republic and the West. As a tightening web of international measures aims at forcing the Islamic Republic to scrap sensitive nuclear work, a string of events have made it look to the outside world like an undeclared "soft war" was under way.
Apart from the Stuxnet computer virus that attacked centrifuges at the Natanz enrichment facility, which Iran accused Israel and the United States for, the U.S. has accused Tehran's shadowy Quds Force in a plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to Washington.
In late 2011, the United States lost a spy drone in Iran, unmasking an aggressive surveillance program.
Tens of thousands of mainland Chinese women travel every year to Hong Kong to give birth so their children can enjoy the former British colony's benefits. NBC's Adrienne Mong reports on the growing tension the trend has fueled between Hong Kong locals and mainlanders.
By Adrienne Mong
HONG KONG & SHENZHEN, China – Anchor babies. Birth tourism. Cross-border births.
It’s a growing global phenomenon driven by Chinese with wherewithal and wealth. Chinese from a China that – even as it continues to grow and open up to the rest of the world – still faces a restrictive enough present and an uncertain enough future that they choose to give birth outside of China.
Some do it to avoid the one-child policy. Many do so for the benefits the child will receive as a citizen of the country into which it’s born: free or better education, the freedom to travel, good social services, a safe haven.
The United States is overwhelmingly the most popular destination for wealthy Chinese, a phenomenon covered by NBC News.
But a close second is Hong Kong, the tiny former British colony of 7 million people.
Since its return to Beijing’s oversight in 1997, and as China has made it easier for its people to travel, tens of thousands of mainlanders regularly head over the border to book up maternity wards at Hong Kong’s good quality and affordable public hospitals.
Of the 88,000 births in Hong Kong in 2010, roughly 45 percent were delivered by mainland Chinese women, according to Hong Kong's government.
The growing number of cross-border births isn’t just straining health care resources and the local population’s goodwill. It’s also helped to provoke an identity crisis that 15 years after the handover has alienated local residents from their northern neighbors.
A business catering to pregnant mainlanders For four years, Gordon Li has been running a business from Shenzhen, southern China, arranging travel to Hong Kong for pregnant mainland Chinese women.
Many Hong Kong locals believe their quality of life is being eroded by mainland China---including the air.
(*Gordon Li is not his real name; he did not want to divulge his identity. Just last week, another agent from mainland China pleaded guilty to breaching Hong Kong immigration laws for helping mainland women give birth in the city. It was Hong Kong’s first prosecution of its kind and, given the current mood, may not be the last.)
“We work like a travel agency [and] the fee depends on the client –whether they want to stay in a luxury hotel or a small hotel, etc.,” said Li, who charges his clients between a few thousand yuan and 20,000 yuan ($3,200) to navigate the system. Most of his customers are from the mainland’s wealthiest regions like Guangdong, Zhejiang, Beijing, and Shanghai.
Li estimates that he has helped at least a few hundred mainland women to have babies in Hong Kong. “Last year was the most,” he said.
His early clients were trying to get around the mainland’s strict one-child policy, but today most of his new customers travel to Hong Kong because, Li says, there are “a lot of conveniences.”
The public health system in freewheeling capitalist Hong Kong is considered better and safer than it is in its communist neighbor. Maternal mortality ratio statistics collected by organizations like the World Health Organization support Hong Kong’s reputation for good quality health care for mothers and newborn babies.
Every day, more than 10,000 students who live in mainland China cross the border to go to school in Hong Kong.
Other benefits for newborns include being automatically eligible for “the right of abode” in Hong Kong, which means becoming permanent residents. Which in turn means unfettered access to free public education considered superior to that in the mainland; political freedoms; and ease of travel anywhere in the world.
And they are entitled to all of this without giving up their China citizenship.
In fact, more than 10,000 mainland Chinese children who were born in Hong Kong, but live in China, go across the border every day to attend school in the former British colony.
Hong Kong is fed up Huang Lijuan is a 27-year-old kindergarten teacher from Guangdong Province. She and her husband, Tsing Ho Nan, a 32-year-old engineer from Hong Kong, met in Shenzhen and moved to Hong Kong after getting married.
“I’m three months pregnant, and the due date is August 5,” Huang told NBC News one afternoon in a community center in Tsuen Wan, Hong Kong. “But I haven’t been able to book a hospital bed in a maternity ward. All of the public hospitals are fully booked.”
“There are 80 to 100 [mainland women married to Hong Kong men living here] who are pregnant, but they failed to book any hospitals to deliver their babies,” said Koon Wing Tsang, an organizer with the Mainland-Hong Kong Families Rights Association. Like Huang, they are all casualties of recent restrictions on non-local women.
Under popular pressure, the Health Authority (HA) in Hong Kong has instituted quotas for non-local residents. Currently, only 3,400 births by non-local women are permitted at public hospitals this year – down from 10,000 in 2011. Private hospitals are allowed 31,000 births by non-local women.
“The government and the HA are committed to ensuring that local pregnant women will be given priority in the use of the services over non-Hong Kong residents (non-eligible persons, NEPs),” said a Health Authority spokesman in a written response to NBC News requests for an interview.
But even the new quotas may not be enough. As Huang found out, all the maternity wards in Hong Kong’s public hospitals – and many private clinics – are fully booked until September.
Moreover, the quotas don’t prevent mainland women from using the emergency wards as a last resort. More than 1,600 such births last year were delivered in Hong Kong’s emergency rooms – an unnecessary medical risk since such wards are not equipped or staffed properly for deliveries.
Some Hong Kong government officials have raised the possibility of an outright ban on mainland Chinese women giving birth in the city, but critics have argued enforcement is problematic.
Others have suggested ending the practice of granting automatic permanent residency status to babies born to non-local parents. To do so, according to legal experts as well as Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Donald Tsang, would mean having to reinterpret the Basic Law – the territory’s mini-constitution.
Any such action would require consultations with Beijing, which could prove to be a political minefield for Hong Kong, which prides itself on its Western-style democratic values.
'Locusts' & 'running dogs' Adding fuel to the fire is a recent series of tense confrontations between local and mainland residents.
Last month, Hong Kong citizens were outraged over a report that a Dolce & Gabbana boutique had banned local shoppers from taking photographs of its shop, but allowed mainland Chinese tourists and other visitors to snap away. A Facebook campaign days later galvanized more than a thousand people to protest outside the shop, forcing it to shut early.
Barely a week later, a heated dispute broke out on the Hong Kong subway when a mainland Chinese child was asked to stop eating on the train – a practice banned in the territory. The argument between locals and mainlanders was captured by a cell phone camera, and the video went viral on the Internet.
Tensions were further inflamed by comments from a Peking University professor, who when shown the video of the subway dispute, called the territory’s residents “running dogs of the British imperialists.”
This month, a group of concerned Hong Kong citizens bought a full-page ad in a popular mainstream Chinese-language Hong Kong daily newspaper that called mainland visitors “locusts.” The term refers to the large numbers overrunning the territory to consume all its resources.
The "Locust" song, which features anti-mainland China lyrics, has gone viral on the Internet in Hong Kong.
A “locust” song even made the rounds on the Internet, with spiteful lyrics poking fun at mainland Chinese, and inspiring at least one group of young Hong Kong men to roam around singing the song at visiting mainland Chinese.
An identity crisis “I think the real reason that Hong Kong people are upset is because they feel helpless politically,” said Wen Yunchao, a mainland blogger and activist now living in the territory. “The rules they believe in are being broken by all these mainland visitors, and yet they still have to rely on China economically.”
Dr. Elaine Chan at the Center of Civil Society and Governance at Hong Kong University agrees the tension is “a manifestation of something deeper.”
“Hong Kong people do not have a very positive view of mainlanders,” she said. “Not just because they are buying properties and not just because they are buying all the luxury goods. But also because of how they carry themselves.”
Both Wen and Chan argue there’s an underlying sensitivity to and awareness of the fact that Hong Kong is bound up with China –culturally, historically, politically, and economically – and yet there remains a gap in fundamental values between the two: in terms of the rule of law or basic civility. That tension makes some people in the territory uncomfortable.
For now, Beijing has remained silent at least on the cross-border births issue, although authorities in neighboring Guangdong province have promised to find a solution.
But another hot-button topic may soon eclipse that of birth tourism. The main topic of conversation last week was a government proposal to open up the border to mainland Chinese drivers and their vehicles. Concern over road safety issues is so great in Hong Kong that an online petition has already gathered 7,000 signatures.
Umar Patek, center, waves as he leaves court in Jakarta, Indonesia, on Monday.
By msnbc.com news services
JAKARTA, Indonesia - A militant suspected of building the bombs used in the 2002 Bali attack went on trial Monday on terrorism charges, a year after he was captured in the same Pakistani town where Osama bin Laden was hiding.
Umar Patek is the top remaining suspect in the Bali nightclub bombings, which killed 202 people about a year after the Sept. 11 attacks and brought international attention to an al-Qaida-linked group intent on creating a pan-Islamic state throughout Southeast Asia.
Three masterminds in the attack already have been tried and executed, and authorities have made big strides in dismantling their regional terror group, Jemaah Islamiyah.
But Patek, nicknamed "Demolition Man" by Indonesian investigators, escaped the country after the attack and went on a nine-year flight from justice that took him to the Philippines and Pakistan, allegedly in pursuit of more terror opportunities.
$1 million bounty Patek was captured in January 2011 in Abbottabad, where U.S. Navy Seals would kill Osama bin Laden just a few months later. Patek was then one of Asia's most wanted terror suspects, with a $1 million bounty on his head.
The trial could shed light on what Patek was doing in Abbottabad.
Indonesia's Defense Minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro has said he was believed to be trying to meet with bin Laden, but Patek has denied that, saying he was on way to seek shelter in Afghanistan. U.S. and Pakistan investigators have suggested Patek's stay in Abottabad was pure coincidence.
Patek, who also is accused in a string of Christmas Eve bombings at churches in 2000 that claimed 19 lives, was tightly guarded as he entered the West Jakarta District Court on Monday.
He smiled to reporters and photographers but did not respond to questions shouted by journalists. Wearing a white robe and a white skullcap, Patek, 45, sat quietly as the indictment was read out by state prosecutors, led by Bambang Suharijadi.
"His involvement in the Bali bombing as well as the church attacks were not as big as is being described," Patek's chief lawyer Ashluddin Hatjani told reporters afterward. "We will challenge that in a defense plea next week."
Patek, whose real name is Hisyam Bin Alizein and who has several aliases, could face death by firing squad if convicted of the various charges against him. The indictment includes charges of premeditated murder, hiding information about terrorism, illegal possession of explosives and conspiracy to commit terrorism.
Filing cabinets After the charges were read, presiding judge Lexsy Mamoto adjourned the trial until next Monday. Patek then shook hands will all of the prosecutors except Rini Hartati, the only woman member of the team. Hartati held out her hand but Patek rejected it by putting his right hand on his chest.
In a re-enactment organized by police in Bali while he was in custody there, Patek showed how he and other conspirators stashed a 1,540-pound bomb in four filing cabinets, loaded it in a Mitsubishi L300 van along with a TNT vest bomb.
The van was detonated outside two nightclubs on Bali's famous Kuta beach.
Patek left Bali a few days before the Oct. 12 attacks were carried out, while Imam Samudra and two other masterminds of the Bali attacks — brothers Amrozi Nurhasyim and Ali Ghufron — were caught, tried and executed.
Patek later told interrogators that he and other militants involved in the Bali bombing met a week after the attack to celebrate and assess how they could have done it better.
"The meeting was led by Muklas to evaluate the shortcomings of the execution of the suicide bombings," he was quoted as saying in an interrogation report obtained by The Associated Press. "The meeting was also to thank God and eat together for the success of the bombings that we had carried out in Bali."
'Comrade Artemio', one of the top leaders of Peru's Shining Path guerrilla group, raises his arm as doctors take him away after his arrival at a police airport in Lima on Sunday.
By Terry Wade, Reuters
The most important leader of Peru's leftist Shining Path insurgency has been captured by security forces after being shot in a remote jungle rife with drug trafficking, President Ollanta Humala said on Sunday, announcing his first major victory against what remains of the rebel group.
Artemio, the nom de guerre of Florindo Eleuterio Flores, was seriously wounded and receiving medical attention, Humala said.
The rebel boss led a remnant group of several hundred guerrillas who went into the cocaine trade after the founder of the Maoist insurgency was imprisoned in the 1990s - all but ending a bloody war against the state that killed nearly 70,000 people.
Though the rebels no longer pose a potent risk to the stability of the state, Artemio still claims allegiance to jailed Shining Path founder Abimael Guzman.
"We can tell the country today that the terrorists in the Huallaga Valley have been defeated, having captured alive Artemio," Humala said at a military base in the jungle.
Humala initially had said Artemio was dead.
Artemio was wounded early on Thursday and suffered a punctured lung and a severe wound to one of his hands that caused heavy bleeding.
Defense Minister Alberto Otarola said special forces attacked Artemio but gave no details about the operation. One local media outlet said Artemio had been shot by one or more members of the Shining Path who conspired with the government to turn against him.
After the shooting, some of Artemio's aides took him to a medical clinic and a nurse who was forced at gunpoint to bandage his wounds later said he was mortally wounded. His aides fled with Artemio as army helicopters chased them, but eventually they abandoned him on a riverbank, to weak to go on.
Peruvian anti-drug police tried for years to arrest Artemio and the United States two years ago offered a multimillion dollar reward for information leading to his capture.
Peru is the world's top grower of coca, the raw ingredient for cocaine.
Humala, who fought against the Shining Path when he was a military officer in the 1990s, has vowed to step up efforts to catch what the government calls "narco-terrorists." His predecessor, former President Alan Garcia, failed to stamp out several hundred rebels, who have yet to surrender their arms.
"With this, I think we can now begin to pacify the Huallaga," Humala said referring to the major cocaine trafficking area.
Humala's approval rating rose 7 percentage points to 54 percent in January after he shuffled his cabinet to give it a more law-and-order bent and to crack down on protests against big mining projects.
Besides the Shining Path group in the Huallaga Valley, another faction of the rebels is active in a knotted bundle of river valleys in southeastern Peru known as the VRAE, which is the world's most densely-planted coca-growing region.
Security analysts say the group in the VRAE no longer espouses Maoist ideology and is basically a criminal enterprise engaged in the drug trade.
CAIRO -- The Arab League called Sunday for the U.N. Security Council to create a joint peacekeeping force for Syria, the latest effort by the regional group to end the 11-month old crisis that has killed more than 5,000 people.
The new effort was spelled out in a resolution adopted by League foreign ministers meeting in Cairo. However, Syria immediately rejected the idea.
Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal conveyed the League's deep frustration with Syria by telling delegates at the start of the meeting that it was no longer appropriate for the 22-member League to stand by and watch the bloodshed in Syria.
"Until when will we remain spectators?" he said. "It is a disgrace for us as Muslims and Arabs to accept" the bloodshed in Syria, he said.
Syria's state news agency said the regime rejected the Arab League decisions, which were taken without a Syrian representative present. Syrian Ambassador to the Arab League and to Egypt, Ahmed Youssef, was quoted as saying that Qatar and Saudi Arabia were "living in a state of hysteria after their last failure at the U.N. Security Council to call for outside interference in Syria's affairs and to impose sanctions on the Syrian people."
The Arab League has been at the forefront of regional efforts to end 11 months of bloodshed in Syria. The group put forward a plan that President Bashar Assad agreed to in December, then sent in monitors to check whether the Syrian regime was complying. But when it became clear that Assad's regime was flouting the terms of the agreement and killings went on, the League pulled the observers out last month.
"The time has come for a decisive action to stop the bloodshed suffered by the Syrian people since the start of last year," Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby told the Arab foreign ministers. "We must move quickly in all directions ... to end or break the ongoing cycle of violence in Syria."
The League called for the U.N. Security Council to adopt its own resolution that provides for an immediate cease-fire in Syria, the protection of civilians and overseeing a humanitarian effort for victims of the violence. It demanded that regime forces lift the siege on neighborhoods and villages and pull troops and their heavy weapons back to their barracks.
It urged Syrian opposition groups to unite ahead of a Feb. 24 meeting in Tunisia of the "Friends of Syria" group," which includes the United States, its European allies and Arab nations working to end the uprising against Assad's authoritarian rule.
The creation of the group came after last weekend's veto at the U.N. by Russia and China of a Western and Arab draft resolution that would have pressured Assad to step down. That resolution also would have demanded that Assad halt the crackdown on dissent and implement the Arab League peace plan that calls for him to hand over power to his vice president and allow creation of a unity government to clear the way for elections.
Elaraby told the Cairo meeting that Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov wrote him a letter Saturday that conveyed what he called a partial change in Moscow's stand on the Syrian crisis. He quoted Lavrov as saying Russia would agree to a joint U.N.-Arab League peacekeeping force.
The League also said it wanted to provide the opposition groups with political and material support. It called for a halt to all diplomatic contacts with Syria and for referring officials responsible for crimes against the Syrian people to international criminal tribunals. It urged a tightening of trade sanctions previously adopted by the League but not been fully implemented.
The foreign ministers were also expected to consider a proposal by Gulf States to expel Syrian ambassadors from Arab capitals, but the resolution made no mention of that.
Meanwhile, Washington piled more pressure on Syria.
President Barack Obama's Chief of Staff Jacob Lew said it was only a matter of time before Assad's regime collapsed.
"The brutality of the Assad regime is unacceptable and has to end," he told "Fox News Sunday." The U.S. is pursuing "all avenues that we can" and that "there is no question that this regime will come to an end. The only question is when," he said.
Late Saturday, al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahri threw the terror network's support behind Syrian rebels trying to topple President Bashar Assad, raising fears that Islamic extremists are exploiting the uprising that began peacefully but is quickly transforming into an armed insurgency.
The regime has long blamed terrorists for the revolt, and al-Qaida's endorsement creates new difficulties for Western and Arab states trying to figure out a way to help force Assad out of power.
Foreign ministers from the Gulf Cooperation Council — Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Qatar and Bahrain — are also proposing the expulsion of Syrian ambassadors from all Arab League nations during the meeting in Cairo. The GCC ministers also proposed that Arab nations withdraw their ambassadors from Damascus, according to the officials.
The GCC proposals, reported by Arab League officials, were not mentioned in the resolution, but the clause calling for a halt to all diplomatic contacts in Syria appeared to reflect a compromise.
The six nations, particularly Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have been campaigning for a tougher stand against Assad's regime and may offer formal recognition of the National Syrian Council, the largest of Syria's opposition groups, at Sunday's meeting.
Assad's regime has pursued a harsh crackdown against the uprising since it began last March. The U.N. estimates that 5,400 people have been killed since March, but that figure is from January, when the world body stopped counting because the chaos in Syria has made it all but impossible to check the figures. Hundreds are reported to have been killed since.
Elaraby said he had accepted the resignation of Gen. Mohammed Ahmed Al-Dabi, the head of the Syrian observer mission, and nominated former Jordanian Foreign Minister Abdul-Illah al-Khatib as the new envoy. Al-Khatib's nomination was ratified by the Arab ministers.
"He (Al-Dabi) asked me yesterday to end his mandate because it no longed suited the present stage," Elaraby said without elaboration. The Sudanese general was harshly criticized for his management of the monitors mission, which was perceived by the Syrian opposition and many protesters to have provided a cover for the regime's continued crackdown.
Al-Dabi was also criticized for being a longtime aide of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, himself indicted by the Hague-based International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity in Sudan's western Darfur region, where a revolt against the Khartoum government began in 2003 but has petered out about five years later.
"The new mission must be totally different from the previous one," Elaraby told the foreign ministers as he proposed a joint Arab League-U.N. mission to Syria. "The previous experience has shown that there can be no stop to violence and restoration of security without an agreed upon vision on the components of the sought-after political settlement."
Mohammed al-Dabi (center), the Sudanese general who had led an Arab observer mission to Syria, offered his resignation on Sunday.
By news services
Al-Qaida's chief Ayman al-Zawahri has called on Muslims from other countries to support rebels in Syria seeking to overthrow President Bashar Assad, saying they cannot depend on the West for help.
Meanwhile, the Arab League accepted the resignation of the Sudanese general who had led an Arab monitoring mission to Syria, and proposed appointing a former Jordanian foreign minister as a special envoy for the Syrian crisis, Egypt's state news agency reported on Sunday. Arab ministers were meeting in Cairo to discuss efforts to end the bloodshed in Syria after Russia and China vetoed a Western-backed Arab League peace plan at the U.N. Security Council.
Al-Zawahri, in a videotaped statement released late Saturday, asked Muslims in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey to join the uprising against Assad's "pernicious, cancerous regime." All four states border Syria.
Egyptian-born al-Zawahri took over al-Qaida after Osama bin Laden was killed last May by a U.S. special forces raid on his hideout in Pakistan.
This frame grabbed image from video provided by the SITE Intel Group, an American private terrorist threat analysis company, purports to show al-Qaida's leader Ayman al-Zawahri in a still image from a web posting by al-Qaida's media arm, as-Sahab, on Sunday.
A senior Iraqi security official also told the Associated Press on Saturday that intelligence over the last four months has revealed a flow of al-Qaida-linked fighters from the northern Iraqi city of Mosul into Syria.
"There is no treatment for (the Assad regime) other than removal," al-Zawahri says in the eight-minute video posted on jihadist websites, according to U.S.-based SITE Intel Group, which monitors militant messages.
"Don't depend on the West and Turkey, which had deals, mutual understanding and sharing with this regime for decades and only began to abandon it after they saw it faltering," he said. "Instead, depend on Allah alone and then on your sacrifices, resistance, and steadfastness."
The Syrian government pushes ahead with its military crackdown while mourners gather daily to mark the passing of new victims. NBC News' Ayman Mohyeldin reports from Cairo.
He urged Syrians to oppose help from the Arab League and "its corrupt agent governments." The League has put forth a plan to try to end violence in Syria but it suspended an observers mission to the country after the regime flouted its agreement to the terms of the plan.
Arab ministers meet Abdel Elah al-Khatib, the former Jordanian minister and U.N. envoy to Libya, was proposed as the special envoy to Syria by Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby during an Arab ministerial meeting in Cairo, the agency reported. He also accepted the resignation of Mohammed al-Dabi, the Sudanese general who had led an Arab observer mission to Syria and offered his resignation to ministers meeting on Sunday.
A Syrian opposition official said Gulf ministers would discuss a proposal to recognize the opposition Syrian National Council, a move that would further isolate Assad. League officials said such an idea was not formally on the agenda but could be raised during talks.
The Russian and Chinese veto at the Security Council drew criticism from Arab states which had sought U.N. backing for an initiative that called on Assad to step aside and hand powers to a deputy as part of a political transition to democracy.
The Arab drive to isolate Syria has been led by Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Gulf Arab ministers began talks in Cairo on Sunday ahead of broader Arab ministerial meetings later in the day.
Gulf states announced last week that they were recalling their ambassadors from Syria and expelling Syria's envoys. Libya and Tunisia, both countries where popular revolts toppled authoritarian rulers last year, have taken similar steps.
"There are Gulf states that will propose recognizing the Syrian National Council as the representative of the Syrian people during the meeting of ministers from the Gulf Cooperation Council (on Sunday) in Cairo," said Abdel Baset Seda, a member of the SBC's executive committee, told Reuters in Cairo.
Abdel Baset, who has been meeting Arab ministers and officials, said ministers were also expected to discuss proposals for a "Friends of Syria" contact group of Arab, Western and other countries to press for action over Syria.
The plan was proposed by France and the United States after Russia and China blocked the Security Council resolution.
Diplomats at the United Nations said Saudi Arabia had circulated a new draft resolution backing the Arab plan for the General Assembly rather than the Security Council to consider. Assembly resolutions are non-binding but cannot be vetoed.
However, Riyadh denied on Sunday reports that it had formally presented the resolution to the assembly.