Aides say Obama will sign a bill authorizing new economic sanctions against Russia in retaliation for its ongoing interference in Ukraine. Russia’s economy is reeling from earlier western sanctions.
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Alan Gross, the American who has spent five years imprisoned in Cuba, has been released.
James L. Berenthal/AP
James L. Berenthal/AP
James L. Berenthal/AP
Updated at 11:03 a.m. ET
The U.S. will start talks with Cuba on normalizing relations and on opening an embassy in Havana, senior administration officials said. The move would mark the resumption of diplomatic relations that were severed in 1961, shortly after Fidel Castro came to power.
President Obama, in Washington, and Cuban President Raul Castro, in Havana, are scheduled at noon to make announcements about relations between the two countries.
The developments come hours after news emerged that Alan Gross, the American contractor who spent five years in a Cuban jail, had been freed on humanitarian grounds.
U.S. officials also said three Cuban spies, part of the so-called Cuban Five spy ring, will be released in exchange for an unnamed U.S. intelligence asset jailed in Cuba for 20 years. That individual, U.S. officials said, identified the Cuban Five, Cuban intelligence agents in the U.S. who were caught in the 1990s. He also identified former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst Ana Belen Montes and former State Department official Kendall Myers and his wife, Gwendolyn, as Cuban agents.
U.S. officials said the two countries will also normalize banking and trade relations. They said the U.S. expects to have differences with Cuba on issues such as democracy and human rights, but the move toward normalization is a “better way of advancing out interests and our values.”
Obama, the officials said, approved high-level talks with Cuba over the spring, and meetings were held in Canada. The Vatican also played an important role, the officials said, with Pope Francis appealing for Gross’ release in letters to both leaders.
The U.S. will also move to remove Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, which it has been on since 1982.
Separately, Cuba also agreed to release 53 detainees whom the U.S. regards as political prisoners.
As we previously reported, Gross, a subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development, had been working on a program to improve Internet access for Jewish Cubans. During several trips to Cuba he had covertly distributed laptops. A Cuban court found him guilty of crimes against the state in 2011, and sentenced him to 15 years in prison.
In December 2013, Peter Wallsten of The Washington Post told NPR Gross was being detained in a 10-by-12-foot room with two other prisoners.
This month, Gross’ wife, Judy, said her husband had lost more than 100 pounds during his detention. “He can barely walk due to chronic pain, and he has lost five teeth and much of the sight in his right eye,” she said in a statement.
In an interview in June with NPR, Judy Gross said her husband was “despondent and very hopeless.” She warned that he had said he would “take drastic measures if he’s not out very shortly.”
Gross had staged a nine-day hunger strike earlier this year.
Signaling what could be a major shift in U.S. relations with Cuba, Gross, who has been jailed in Cuba for five years, will be released, while the U.S. will release three Cubans.
(This post was last updated at 9:47 a.m. ET.)
A Pakistani girl, who was injured in a Taliban attack on a school, is rushed to a hospital in Peshawar, Pakistan, on Tuesday.
Taliban militants stormed a school in northwest Pakistan on Tuesday, leaving scores of students dead.
Quoting Pakistani officials, multiple media outlets put the death toll at 126, including 80 students in grades 1 through 10.
A little before 8 p.m. local time, police announced that the operation had ended, after the gunmen were killed. Security personnel, police official Abdullah Khan told the AFP, were now in the process of sweeping the rest of the building.
The Associated Press reports that six gunmen entered the Army Public School and Degree College in Peshawar, shooting at random. Police quickly moved in and traded gunfire with the militants. The AP adds:
“Pakistani television showed soldiers surrounding the area and pushing people back. Ambulances streamed from the area to local hospitals. …
“It wasn’t clear how many students and staff were still inside the facility. A student who escaped and a police official on the scene earlier said at one point about 200 students were being held hostage.”
The New York Times reports that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif traveled to Peshawar. A spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack.
The spokesman tells The New York Times the Taliban said they were retaliating for a recent military offensive.
Update at 10:15 a.m. ET. U.S. Condemns Attacks:
President Obama issued this statement on the situation in Pakistan:
“The United States condemns in the strongest possible terms today’s horrific attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar, Pakistan. Our hearts and prayers go out to the victims, their families, and loved ones. By targeting students and teachers in this heinous attack, terrorists have once again shown their depravity. We stand with the people of Pakistan, and reiterate the commitment of the United States to support the Government of Pakistan in its efforts to combat terrorism and extremism and to promote peace and stability in the region.”
Update at 9:39 a.m. ET. Siege Is Over:
The AP, Reuters and Dawn and the Express Tribune are reporting that the siege is over, after all six attackers were killed.
The AFP quotes police official Abdullah Khan as saying “security personnel are carrying out clearance operation and hopefully they will clear the building in a while.”
Update at 7:50 a.m. ET. The Heart-wrenching Scene:
“Witnesses described how gunmen went from classroom to classroom, shooting children, after a huge blast shook the Army Public School, while some described police struggling to hold back distraught parents trying to break past a cordon and get to the school when three loud explosions went off.
“Ninth grader Kashan, son of Zaheerudin, told our correspondent, ‘We were sitting in the hall and a colonel was giving a lecture when we heard firing from the back.’
“Kashan said, ‘The sound of the firing kept moving closer when suddenly the door behind us was kicked down and two people started firing indiscriminately.’
“The ninth-grader said chaos ensued and the last thing he remembers is children and people falling to the ground. Kashan escaped but with injuries on his feet.”
Update at 7:19 a.m. ET. 6 Suspected Gunmen Killed:
Gen. Asim Bajwa, a Pakistani military spokesman, has been tweeting updates of the standoff. In his latest missive, Bajwa says that six terrorists have been killed, and children and teachers continue to be rescued.
“IEDs planted by terrorists hamper speed of clearance,” Bajwa says.
Update at 7:12 a.m. ET. Country Should Not Lose Its Strength:
Dawn newspaper reports that as Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif arrived in Peshawar, he said the country is now experiencing the blowback of its offensive against the Taliban and other militant groups in North Waziristan.
“I feel that until and unless this country is cleansed from terrorism, this war and effort will not stop, no one should be doubtful of this. We have also spoken to Afghanistan about this and we will fight terrorism together,” Sharif said. “Such attacks are expected in the wake of a war, and the country should not lose its strength.”
Officials in Pakistan say Taliban gunmen stormed a military school in the northwestern city of Peshawar. Steve Inskeep talks to Katherine Houreld, a reporter with Reuters.
Russia’s ruble plunged to a record low against the dollar on Tuesday despite some bold measures taken by the country’s central bank to halt its slide.
“By early afternoon in Moscow, the ruble was dropping sharply, reaching 74 a dollar, a record low. It had rallied briefly in early trade — reaching less than 59 a dollar — but fell back into negative territory less than two hours after trading began Tuesday, slipping below the 64.44 level at which the Moscow Exchange had limited trading late Monday after the Russian currency lost more than 10% of its value.”
This is news for two reasons: First, it means that Western sanctions and falling oil prices are continuing to squeeze Russia. Second, it means that the central bank’s decision to hike interest rates to 17 percent from 10.5 percent early this morning had little effect on the world’s worst-performing major currency.
“Russian central bank Governor Elvira Nabiullina may resort to capital controls as she runs out of options to revive a currency wrecked by the oil-price slump and international sanctions, money managers from Schroder Investment Management Ltd. to Skandinaviska Enskilda Banken AB said. The ruble has plummeted 58 percent this year even after an 11.5 percentage-point increase in rates and interventions exceeding $80 billion.
“‘I am speechless,’ Jean-David Haddad, an emerging-market strategist at OTCex Group in Paris, said in a message. ‘What a failure for the central bank. Russia would need to announce capital controls today. That is the last solution.’”
By capital controls, Bloomberg means Russia may resort to limiting the buying and selling of the ruble.
Chinese social network site YY originally allowed customers to watch other people play video games, but users realized that the site had more potential. It could be a place to perform virtual karaoke.
Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe’s resignation may be too late to repair the political damage to the president. Protests have increased over long overdue elections and allegations of corruption.
Uber’s troubles are mounting. The ride-sharing service was criticized in Australia after its “surge pricing” kicked in, quadrupling fares for some customers trying to flee the area in Sydney where a gunman took hostages in a café.
Here’s a screenshot that one customer sent to Mashable with details of the increased fare:
The backlash was immediate, and Uber’s initial response drew more.
We are all concerned with events in CBD. Fares have increased to encourage more drivers to come online pick up passengers in the area.
— Uber Sydney (@Uber_Sydney) December 15, 2014
This is typical of the response to Uber’s tweet:
The company backtracked. In a statement on its website, it said it will “be providing free rides out of the CBD to help Sydneysiders get home safely.”
Uber said it was in the process of refunding those who had been charged for their rides. And, it once again noted, that “surge pricing is used to encourage more drivers to come online and pick up passengers from the area.”
It responded to complaints on Twitter, saying, “Surge pricing is automated. We took action to cap surge made trips free for riders.” And, it added, that it was “still paying drivers the higher fares.”
The events in Sydney capped a bad day for Uber.
France banned Uber’s low cost UberPop because the service’s drivers don’t have professional licenses.
Under a new French law, set to go into effect, those who operate without professional licenses will be fined more than $350,000 and face up to two years in prison. Uber said UberPop will continue to operate until a judge rules that the new law applies to it. The Wall Street Journal adds:
“The declaration of a French crackdown is a big blow to Uber, which is already facing bans and stiff opposition from incumbent taxi operators in cities across the world.
“Uber claims more than half a million users in France and operates in seven cities in here, more than in any other country in Europe. Paris is the first city where Uber launched outside the U.S., and is still the company’s second-largest market in Europe after London.”
It’s the latest blow to Uber, which last week saw its drivers accused of rapes in New Delhi and Chicago. The attorneys general of Los Angeles and San Francisco counties sued the company, accusing it of misrepresenting and exaggerating how extensively it performs background checks on its drivers.
Authorities in Portland, Ore., Spain, the Netherlands, Thailand and Brazil have also ordered Uber to stop or suspend its services. Their concerns, like France, are over Uber’s lack of permits that give it an advantage over traditional taxis.
The company’s troubles come soon after it was valued at more than $40 billion.
Manuel Pulgar-Vidal (center), Peru’s environment minister applauds after delegates to the Lima climate conference agreed on a deal to cut greenhouse gas emissions on Saturday.
Representatives from around the world have reached the first-ever deal committing all nations to cut greenhouse gas emissions, but rejected a rigorous overview to monitor compliance.
The United Nations agreement was salvaged from talks that went into overtime and wrapped up 30 hours behind schedule, as negotiators from 196 countries struggled with determining who needed to cut and by how much.
Many developing countries accuse richer nations of ignoring the damage they’ve already inflicted on the climate. Small, low-lying island nations have also demanded financial compensation for losses they’re experienced as a result of rising sea levels.
According to The Associated Press, delegates: “argued all day Saturday over the wording of the decision, with developing nations worried that the text blurred the distinction between what rich and poor countries can be expected to do. The AP says:
“The final draft alleviated those concerns with language saying countries have ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ to deal with global warming.”
“The agreement requires every nation to put forward, over the next six months, a detailed domestic policy plan to limit its emissions of planet-warming greenhouse gases from burning coal, gas and oil. Those plans, which would be published on a United Nations website, would form the basis of the accord to be signed next December and enacted by 2020.
“That basic structure represents a breakthrough in the impasse that has plagued the United Nations’ 20 years of efforts to create a serious global warming deal. Until now, negotiations had followed a divide put in place by the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which required developed countries to act but did not demand anything of developing nations, including China and India, two of the largest greenhouse gas polluters.”
However, the BBC notes: “Environmental groups have criticised the deal as a weak and ineffectual compromise, saying it weakens international climate rules.
The draft, for instance, weakened language that would have required nations to include quantifiable targets for reducing emissions. The document now says they “may” provide such data, instead of “shall,” according to AP.
Also, China — the world’s top carbon polluter — successfully opposed wording that would have committed it and other major developing countries to a review process.
“As a text it’s not perfect, but it includes the positions of the parties,” Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, the Peruvian environment minister who presided over the talks, acknowledged.
The five-page agreement, known as the Lima Call for Climate Action, represents the broad brush-strokes of a final deal to be hammered out in Paris a year from now.