Sunday, February 12, 2012

Rockets hit Homs opposition as Arab ministers meet

Sporadic rocket and gunfire broke a respite in Syrian government attacks on opposition-held districts of Homs city on Sunday as Arab League officials in Cairo discussed ways to halt the crackdown and shift President Bashar al-Assad from power.

The activist Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said four people were been killed in Baba Amro on Sunday morning and at least 34 rockets had rained down on the neighborhood.

Earlier, traumatized residents had straggled from their homes after Syrian forces eased a week-long bombardment that has killed hundreds and caused a humanitarian crisis.

A few families were allowed to leave mostly Sunni Muslim opposition districts where people had been trapped indoors for days by relentless artillery and sniper fire, residents said.

International efforts to resolve the crisis, the longest of the Arab Spring revolts which saw the overthrow of leaders in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia last year, picked up in Cairo.

The Arab League meeting opened with the resignation of the Sudanese general who led the monitoring mission to Syria, Mohammed al-Dabi. He had been a controversial figure because of his country's own poor human rights record.

The League proposed that former Jordanian foreign minister Abdel Elah al-Khatib, the U.N.'s troubleshooter for the Libya crisis last year, was made special envoy for the Syria crisis.

The League, which suspended Syria over a crackdown that has killed thousands since March, was also to discuss a possible joint United Nations-Arab monitoring team to replace a League mission called off last month as violence intensified.

A Syrian opposition leader said Gulf ministers would also discuss a proposal to recognize the exiled Syrian National Council (SNC) in a move to further isolate Assad.

Senior SNC official 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.


In Homs, shelling had eased during Saturday night and Sunday morning before Assad's forces renewed their rocket barrages.

About 15 families were allowed to leave the battered Baba Amro and Inshaat neighborhoods, opposition campaigner Mohammad al-Hassan told Reuters by telephone from Homs.

Electricity and telephone lines were working in several districts of Homs after being cut off more than two weeks ago.

YouTube footage showed several thousand people rallying in Deir Baalba district. Youths with their arms around each others' shoulders danced and waved the green and white flags of the republic overthrown by Assad's Baath Party in a 1963 coup.

"God damn your soul, to hell with you Bashar. Our martyrs are going to heaven, Hafez and Bashar,"...More.

Pop Vocal Legend Whitney Houston Found Dead

Too many of us—myself included—are guilty of making insensitive jokes about the demise of Whitney Houston, her frail frame, loss of one of pop's purest voices, and battle with drugs.

On Saturday, Houston's publicist confirmed to the Associated Press that the award-winning "I Will Always Love You" singer died. She was 48. The timing of her death, the eve of the Grammys, the biggest music event of the year, makes the horrible news even more tragic. According to CNN, Houston was pronounced dead at 3:55 p.m. PT at the Beverly Hilton Hotel.

The Beverly Hilton is the venue for the music industry's most prestigious pre-Grammy party hosted by veteran executive Clive Davis, who discovered Houston.

In an industry flooded with novelty artists, who disappear after scoring one hit, Houston's longevity was unquestioned when she released her debut single, the ballad "You Give Good Love" in February 1985. The song's soothing opening ad-libs displayed her soulful roots while also celebrating her pop sensibilities.

Houston's sound was distinct, and clearly separated her from the funk-laden stylings of the era's other female R&B singers. Plus, she was a model who appeared in "Glamour" and "Cosmopolitan" magazines.

Houston's sound made sense when considering her pedigree. She was the perfect melding of the styles of her mother, gospel singer Cissy Houston; cousin, 1960s pop singer Dionne Warwick; and godmother, queen of soul Aretha Franklin.

Houston's self-titled debut album topped the charts and was certified diamond. Her career was impenetrable throughout the release of several follow up albums, 1987's "Whitney," 1990's "I'm Your Baby Tonight," and 1992's "The Bodyguard" soundtrack.More...

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Roman Abramovich's Chelsea spending surpasses 1 billion euros despite club announcement of record turnover

Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich’s total spending since taking over the west London club in 2003 has surpassed 1 billion euros.

Just hours before the transfer window closed the club announced a record turnover of 267 million euros for the year ending June 2011.

However, the Blues have still announced a loss of 81.4m euros, meaning Abramovich himself has lost 758m euros since buying the club from Ken Bates.

When the decision of the Russian billionaire to covert 410m euros of loans into equity is taken into account, it means Abramovich has spent around 1,165 billion euros

With the signings of Juan Mata, Raul Meireles, Romelu Lukaku, Thibaut Courtois, Gary Cahill and Kevin De Bruyne yet to be taken into account, that 1,165b euros will be added to with a further 84m euros, meaning the Russian’s spending easily surpasses the 1b euros bracket.

However, Chelsea chairman Bruce Buck is remaining calm about the club’s financial situation and says they know the steps that need to be taken to ensure stability off the field at the club.

Buck told reporters: "The club is focused on complying with the requirements of UEFA's financial fair play regulations while maintaining its ability to challenge for major trophies."

“We would expect this to be reflected in our results for the current financial year."

Chief executive Ron Gourlay added: "Achieving a record level of turnover is satisfying given the economic background against which we are operating."

Pavlyuchenko poised to join Lokomotiv Moscow

Striker urged Spurs to sell him in this transfer window

* Third Russian to return home from England in last six months (Adds quotes)

MOSCOW, Feb 1 (Reuters) - Russia striker Roman Pavlyuchenko is poised to join Lokomotiv Moscow from Tottenham Hotspur, the Russian Premier League club said on Wednesday.

“Pavlyuchenko will arrive in Moscow on Thursday to have a medical,” Lokomotiv said on their website (

“He had already agreed the terms of his personal contract which should be signed after completing the medical.”

The transfer window in Russia is open until Feb. 25.

The little-used Pavlyuchenko has struggled to adapt to English soccer since joining the north London club from Spartak Moscow for 17 million euros ($24.92 million) in August 2008.

Pavlyuchenko, whose Tottenham contract was extended for another year last month, said he had urged Spurs chairman Daniel Levy to sell him in this transfer window.

“Indeed, I did tell him (Levy) if he didn’t let me go now I wouldn’t even discuss leaving the club over the summer. Instead, I would finish the final year of my contract, then leave as a free agent, for nothing,” he told Russian media.

“I need to play on a regular basis especially with the Euro 2012 finals coming up.”

The 30-year-old would become the third Russia international to return home from the English Premier League in the last six months.

Yuri Zhirkov left Chelsea for wealthy Anzhi Makhachkala last August while midfielder Diniyar Bilyaletdinov signed with Spartak from Everton last week. (Reporting by Gennady Fyodorov; Editing by Sonia Oxley; To query or comment on this story email

Mozambican trio get 25 years in S.Africa for rhino poaching

Three young Mozambican poachers will spend 25 years behind bars after they were found with two fresh rhino horns in South Africa's Kruger Park, the national parks agency said Wednesday.

A regional court sentenced the trio almost two years after they were arrested, said South African National Parks spokesman Reynold Thakhuli.

"We welcome the decision which is the harshest sentence in the country" for rhino poaching, Thakhuli told AFP.

The Phalaborwa Regional Court in northern province Limpopo convicted Aselmo Baloyi, Jawaki Nkuna and Ismael Baloyi of poaching and the possession of illegal firearms. They had an AK47 and a shotgun among others.

"They pleaded guilty. They were caught with two freshly-cut horns," said Thakhuli.

"They were arrested in July 2010."

A fourth man who had also been arrested died when he tried to escape from police custody.

Thakhuli did not give further details about the poachers' identities.

The sentence aims to scare off other poachers as authorities try to curb the massive killing of the animals, especially in the world-famous Kruger Park which borders Mozambique.

Last year a record 450 rhinos were poached in South Africa, a crushing blow for a country home to more than 70 percent of the animal's global population.

The dramatic spike in rhino killings -- up from 13 in 2007 -- feeds the Asian traditional medicine market, despite scientific evidence that the horns have no medicinal value. They are made of the same substance as human fingernails.

The increase is driven by highly organised syndicates who deploy shooters with night-vision goggles, high-powered rifles and sometimes even helicopters to make their kills.

Gun fight erupts near Kadhafi beach house in Tripoli

A gunbattle erupted Wednesday near the beach house of slain Libyan dictator Moamer Kadhafi's son, Saadi, in central Tripoli, AFP correspondents reported.

Thick smoke billowed from near the house as rival militias, using heavy machineguns, clashed in the mostly business district not far from luxurious hotels like Corinthia Bab al-Africa and the yet-to-open J W Mariott.

The cause was unclear, but some witnesses said the militias were fighting for control of the house.

Saadi fled Libya across its southern frontier to Niger in August during the fall of Tripoli that ended his authoritarian father's 42-year regime.

Morocco wants consensus resolution on Syria

Morocco, the only Arab country currently sitting on the UN Security Council, vowed Wednesday to push for a consensus resolution on the deadly crisis in Syria.

"We are committed with all our partners to achieving a consensus on this resolution," Foreign Minister Youssef Amrani was quoted as saying by the official MAP news agency.

Western powers and the Arab League are demanding immediate Security Council action to stop the bloodshed in Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad's repression of pro-democracy protests has killed some 6,000 people since March.

"What is important today is to stop the violence and support the Arab plan which will allow us to stabilise the country," Amrani said.

The Arab League plan, which envisages Assad transferring power to his deputy and the formation of a national unity government within two months, has been rejected by Syria.

Russia, which has staunchly supported Assad in recent years, has warned however it would use its veto in the Security Council against any resolution it deems "unacceptable".

South African lesbian's killers get 18 years

A South African judge sentenced four men convicted of murdering a Cape Town lesbian to 18 years in prison Wednesday, six years after her killing cast a spotlight on homophobic crimes.

The four men were convicted in October of stoning, kicking and stabbing to death Zoliswa Nkonyana just metres (yards) from her home in 2006. The 19-year-old had lived openly as a lesbian.

Prosecutors welcomed the sentence and said it sent a message that hate crimes would not be tolerated in South Africa, where violence against gays is common despite a liberal constitution, the only in Africa to allow same-sex marriage.

"We are happy that the court agreed with us that these gentlemen did not show any remorse and had a slim chance of being rehabilitated," National Prosecuting Authority spokesman Eric Ntabazalila told the Sapa news agency.

Lesbians in South Africa are commonly targeted for attacks known as "corrective rape" by men trying to "cure" their homosexuality.

Three years ago a man was sentenced to life in prison and another to 32 years for the gang rape, robbery and murder of Eudy Simelane, a lesbian activist who had been a midfielder on the national football team.

In December, Human Rights Watch issued a report accusing South Africa of "desperately failing lesbian and transgender people" by not doing enough to stop attacks against them.

Students clash with police in Senegal

College students set fire to a bus and threatened to march on Senegal's presidential palace on Wednesday, a day after one of their classmates was killed during a demonstration against the 85-year-old president.

Police Superintendent Harona Sy, who is the head of security for the capital, said that his officers had pushed the demonstrators back with tear gas, forcing them off of the main avenue outside the capital's largest university. Reached by telephone, he said he had asked his officers to show restraint because the students were mourning the death of one of their own.

"I understand them," Sy said.

The clashes mark the third day of back-to-back protests stemming from the decision of the nation's highest court to allow President Abdoulaye Wade to run for a third term. The constitution was revised to impose a two-term maximum, and many Senegalese as well as international experts see the court's decision as politically motivated.

On Tuesday, thousands of protesters gathered at a downtown square to call for Wade's departure. Sy said that his men stormed the square when the demonstrators attempted to set fire to a petrol station, which if lit could have caused a dangerous explosion. An AP reporter saw the police speed an anti-riot truck into the knot of people, and saw a young man fall.

It's unclear if the college student who was identified in local media as Mamadou Diop was run over, or if he fell and was killed by the stampede that followed. Sy said police had opened an investigation, but added that it was highly unlikely that he was run over by the truck.

"The truck weighs more than 30 tons. If he was run over, his body would have been crushed," he said. "But there were no traces on his body. The doctor that treated him said that he died of internal hemorrhaging."

Senegal has long been a model of democracy and stability on a continent plagued by coups and civil war. Analysts say that Wade's decision to run for a third term after more than 11 years in office is threatening to drag the country into unrest.

Wade, who will turn 86 this spring, argues that the constitutional amendment which imposed a two-term maximum was passed after he took office. He claims the law is not retroactive, and since he was elected under the previous constitution which had no term limits, he should be allowed to run for another seven-year term.

Mounting corruption has soured Senegal on Wade, who was the country's opposition leader for 25 years and who ran and lost in four elections before finally winning the 2000 ballot.

In New York, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon issued a warning to Senegal, saying in a statement on Wednesday that he was concerned about the uptick of violence. In addition to the college student, three others have been killed, including a woman in her 60s, a youth in his 20s and a police officer who was stoned to death by the mob.

Ban said that authorities "must act in a manner that preserves and consolidates Senegal's democratic traditions, which have laid the foundations for its long history of stability."

Nigerian oil workers call off strike that caused fuel panic

A Nigerian oil workers union Wednesday called off a two-day strike over a dispute with Shell that had sparked fears of petrol shortages and caused long lines at stations in Africa's largest crude producer.

NUPENG -- the National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers -- is the smaller of Nigeria's two oil industry unions and represents blue-collar workers, including tanker drivers.

The strike launched on Tuesday had been limited to petrol deliveries and did not affect oil production.

A statement distributed by state oil firm NNPC said that the union had "suspended its two-day old strike called in solidarity with its members in Shell over an industrial dispute with management of the company."

It said the decision followed negotiations in the capital Abuja under the mediation of the head of NNPC. The general secretary of NUPENG, Elijah Okougbo, confirmed the strike had been called off.

Details were not provided, but the dispute was believed to have centred on a union official's alleged anti-union activities and Shell's refusal to recognise a caretaker committee set up to replace him following his expulsion.

Earlier on Wednesday, Shell's Nigerian joint venture SPDC said in a statement "we are aware that there is a dispute between national NUPENG and the Shell branch of the union which is the subject of a court case."

The company said "allegations of interference and intimidation of union officials made in some media reports against SPDC by some members of the union outside its employment are false."

The NUPENG action came more than two weeks after a week-long general strike and street protests over soaring fuel prices.

The strike was called off on January 16 after President Goodluck Jonathan reduced the price of petrol per litre to 97 naira (0.47 euros, $0.60).

The government had scrapped fuel subsidies on January 1, causing petrol prices to more than double from 65 naira per litre.

Most in the country of some 160 million people live on less than two dollars a day, and Nigerians, weary after years of blatant corruption, viewed the subsidies as their only benefit from the nation's oil wealth.

Tuareg rebels take Mali town after army pullout

Mali's Tuareg rebels took over the northern town of Menaka Wednesday after the government forces stationed there pulled out overnight, officials and witnesses said.

"The Malian army contingent that was in Menaka left the town overnight. Around 40 armed rebels entered it in the afternoon," a local official said on condition of anonymity.

He said no violence was reported but added that residents were leaving the town, located near the border with Niger.

"The town is emptying," one resident also told AFP by phone.

A military official in the northeastern city of Gao said the pullback was a tactical move while another army source said government forces were concentrating their efforts on larger towns.

"It appears that the strategy is to beef up larger urban areas and using them as launchpads for attacks and reprisals using helicopters or ground troops," a Bamako-based military expert explained.

Menaka was the first town attacked by rebels from the Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA) on January 17. The rebels have since attacked towns near the borders with Algeria and Mauritania.

The ongoing offensive is the largest since 2009 by Tuareg rebels, whose ranks have been boosted by the recent return of men who fought in Libya alongside Moamer Kadhafi.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Niamey said Wednesday that around 1,000 people, including 30 members of the military, had fled northern Mali in recent days and found refuge in neighbouring Niger.

Taliban "poised to retake Afghanistan" after NATO pullout

The U.S. military said in a secret report that the Taliban, backed by Pakistan, are set to retake control of Afghanistan after NATO-led forces withdraw, raising the prospect of a major failure of Western policy after a costly war.

Lieutenant Colonel Jimmie Cummings, a spokesman for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, confirmed the existence of the document, reported on Wednesday by Britain's Times newspaper and the BBC.

But he said it was not a strategic study.

"The classified document in question is a compilation of Taliban detainee opinions," he said. "It's not an analysis, nor is it meant to be considered an analysis."

Nevertheless, it could be interpreted as a damning assessment of the war, dragging into its 11th year and aimed at blocking a Taliban return to power.

It could also be seen as an admission of defeat and could reinforce the view of Taliban hardliners that they should not negotiate with the United States and President Hamid Karzai's unpopular government while in a position of strength.

The U.S. military report could boost the Taliban's confidence and make its leaders less willing to make concessions on demands for a ceasefire, and for the insurgency to renounce violence and break ties to al Qaeda.

But Britain's Kabul Ambassador William Patey wrote on his Twitter feed that "if elements of the Taliban think that in 2015 they can take control of Afghanistan they will be in for a shock." He did not say if he was referring to the document.

Hours after the Times report, the Afghan Taliban said that no peace negotiation process had been agreed with the international community, "particularly the Americans."

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a statement that prior to any negotiations, confidence building measures must be completed, putting pressure on Washington to meet demands for the release of five Taliban in U.S. custody.

The hardline Islamist movement also said it had no plans to hold preliminary peace talks with Afghanistan's government in Saudi Arabia, dismissing media reports of talks in the kingdom.

The U.S. military said in the document that Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) security agency was assisting the Taliban in directing attacks against foreign forces.

Reasserting control over the country would be more difficult a second time for the Taliban, however, with Afghan police and soldiers expected to number about 350,000 beyond 2014 and some foreign troops likely to remain, including elite forces.

Close U.S. ally Australia said on Wednesday that its special forces could be in the country for years beyond the handover, with other allies likely to take a similar stance.

The report overshadowed a visit to Kabul by Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar designed to repair ties and raise the issue of peace talks with the Taliban with Karzai.

"I can disregard this as a potentially strategic leak ... This is old wine in an even older bottle," she told reporters, reiterating Pakistan's denials it backs militant groups.

Khar, whose visit was the first high-level meeting in months between officials from both countries, added that the neighbors should stop blaming each other for strained cross-border ties.

The Times said the "highly classified" report was put together by the U.S. military at Bagram air base, near Kabul, for top NATO officers last month. It was based on interrogations of more than 4,000 Taliban and al Qaeda detainees, it said.

Large swathes of Afghanistan have been handed back to Afghan security forces, with the last foreign combat troops due to leave by the end of 2014. But many Afghans doubt their security forces will take firm control once the foreign troops leave.

The document may leave some U.S. policymakers wondering whether the war was worth the cost in human lives and funding.

But NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu, speaking in Brussels, played down the implications and said a surge offensive had seen the Taliban suffer "tremendous setbacks."

"We know that they have lost a lot of ground and a lot of leaders, and we also know that support for the Taliban is at an all time low," she said.

As of January, 1,889 U.S. soldiers had been killed in a conflict that was launched after the September 11, 2001 attacks and has drained almost half a trillion dollars from U.S. coffers.


New accusations of Pakistani collusion with the Taliban will likely further strain ties between Western powers and Islamabad.

Critics say Pakistan uses militants as proxies to counter the growing influence of India in Afghanistan. The belief that Pakistan supports the insurgents is widely held in Afghanistan.

"It would be a mistake now for the international community to leave Afghanistan, and drop us in a dark ocean," said Afghan telecommunications worker Farid Ahmad Totakhil.

Pakistan is reviewing ties with the United States which have suffered a series of setbacks since a U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden on Pakistani soil in May last year humiliated Pakistan's powerful generals.

A November 26 cross-border NATO air attack that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers deepened the crisis, prompting Pakistan to close supply routes to NATO forces in Afghanistan.

Pakistan is seen as critical to U.S. efforts to stabilize Afghanistan, a feat one foreign power after another has failed to accomplish over the country's turbulent history.

Islamabad has resisted U.S. pressure to go after insurgent groups like the Taliban, and argues Washington's approach overlooks complex realities on the ground.

Pakistan says the United States should attempt to bring all militant groups into a peace process and(...)More.

Reforms in Myanmar may spark refugee return

The pastor stood before more than 300 young Burmese refugees gathered for morning prayers in a weathered, jungle church.

"There's a time for war, and a time for peace. Sixty-three years is long enough for killing," he told them. "Hope to see you all soon in our beautiful land."

Simon Htoo's buoyant words would have been unlikely just a few months ago, but surprisingly rapid reforms and cease-fires under way in Myanmar are opening the prospects for the return of one of the world's largest refugee populations — some 1 million Burmese huddled in frontier camps and hideouts across five countries.

The looming task for the international community will be massive. One of the least known Diaspora of recent times includes an array of ethnic groups and religions — Buddhist, Christian and Muslim — driven from their homeland by oppression of political dissidents and brutal military campaigns against Myanmar's minorities.

The fighting and human rights abuses still persist in some areas, and even if stopped, many refugees say the hatreds, suspicions and double-crosses of past decades must be overcome before they feel safe enough to return.

One of the ethnic groups, the Karen, has been waging a guerrilla war for greater autonomy for 63 years from iron-fisted military regimes. The Kachin took up arms again last year.

"Signing a cease-fire is very easy — you can do it in a few minutes — but implementation is a different matter. That depends not on the smiles on their faces, but their sincerity, what is really in their hearts. Maybe it's another trick," Htoo, a Karen Baptist pastor, said after his sermon in this camp sheltering more than 50,000 refugees.

When they do return, the refugees will emerge from Bangladesh, India, Thailand, Malaysia and China, a refugee mass that with the Iraqis and Afghans ranks among the largest in the world.

Their living conditions vary vastly. In the fetid settlements of Bangladesh, as many as 400,000 illegal Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority, hover on the edge of existence. Others live in a well-established string of U.N.-recognized camps along the Thai border, home to three generations who have known no other life.

Most would be returning to border regions of razed villages, minefields, traumatized people and almost nonexistent support systems in a country that is already among the world's poorest. Many fear that with the world quick to applaud Myanmar's reforms, pressure will mount to force them back before conditions are right.

"People in the refugees camps must be given a choice: to go home, stay in Thailand or be resettled abroad. We don't trust Burmese politics because things are still very unclear," says Dr. Cynthia Maung, a refugee doctor they call "Mother Theresa of Burma" whose Thai border clinic has treated thousands. "Nobody is going back now."

Although preliminary plans for repatriation are being discussed among aid organizations and refugee leaders, roughly 1,000 are still fleeing into Thailand every month, says Jack Dunford, veteran head of the Thai Burma Border Consortium, which provides basic food and supplies to the Thai camps.

Thailand insists that there will be no forceful repatriation "until the situation is safe," Thai Foreign Ministry spokesman Thani Thongphakdi told The Associated Press. "No time frame has been set for their return."

But in Bangladesh, more than 10,000 are set for repatriation, and negotiations are under way with Myanmar for the rest to follow.

"Right now we are motivating the refugees to return home since we believe the human rights situation has improved," said Firoz Salahuddin, the Bangladesh government official in charge of the repatriation. "But it's a difficult task. Refugees are still fearful and need a lot of persuasion."

Those who qualify can seek resettlement in third countries, which have taken 114,000 from the Asian region since 2005, according to the International Organization for Migration. Of these, 90,000 have gone to the United States, with the others spread among 12 other nations, including Australia, Canada, Sweden and Japan. Up to 18,000 will be resettled this year.

The U.S. government intends to continue supporting both the refugees and increasing aid to Myanmar if reforms continue. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who visited Myanmar in December, said Washington was committed to "helping the refugees for the future in their homeland, so they can become self-reliant after two decades of just being dependent on aid in the camps."

But other donors enthusiastic about the recent changes, notably the European Union, are shifting(...)More.

Syrians face crackdown with creativity, humor

Throughout 40 years of Assad family dictatorship, one thing united Syrians — the culture of self-censorship, fear and paranoia.

But the uprising against President Bashar Assad has unleashed a burst of blunt irreverence and black humor that would have been unthinkable before, when any satire had to be indirect or hidden.

"The type of expression has now shifted, the subtlety has gone," said Rime Allaf, associate fellow at London's Chatham House. "Today, for the first time in recent Syrian history, people are able to get out and say it openly."

Opposition Syrians are pouring contempt on Assad using whatever medium they can, with a humor that also helps them get through the death and destruction in a crackdown that has killed more than 5,400, according to the U.N. The Internet provides a layer of anonymity, which is vital when retribution is a real danger, but the creativity has also spilled into the streets in the banners, signs and songs of the protesters.

"Top Goon: Diaries of a Little Dictator" is one of several new online shows. It was created by 10 young professional artists inside Syria. It uses finger puppets that impersonate Bashar Assad — nicknamed Beeshu in the series — and his inner circle.

In one episode, Beeshu competes against Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and Libya's Moammar Gadhafi on "Who wants to Kill a Million," a play on the game show "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." His final question: Will you be able to crush the protests? He answers yes. When he's told that's the wrong answer, he flies into a petty rage, wrecking the set.

In another, he consults with two devils about how to deal with the uprising. They suggest he kill a single protester to scare the others. He proclaims he will kill 30 protesters a day, torture children and shell cities.

"You are completely insane," the devils shriek, running away. "I want to get the hell out of here."

The director of the series, who goes by the online name of Jameel, says the idea is to "break down the wall of fear."

"When you see the shabih (pro-government militiaman) or the president as puppets, you can't take them seriously anymore," he said, asking that his name and location not be used to protect him from retaliation.

More simply, it "elicits a little laugh" from people who are suffering from the crackdown, he said.

Even in the darkest places, Syrians seem to try to extract some fun. The central city of Homs has been one of the worst hit by the regime's crackdown. But as in many rallies, giant protests there often saw crowds dancing, linking arm in arm and doing a sort of joyous simultaneous hop, along with circles of the traditional "debke" dance.

The song "Yalla Irhal, ya Bashar!" — a simple yet powerful rendition which translates into "Come on, Bashar, leave" — is often heard shouted by exultant protesters to the beat of a drum. It's the most popular, but an entire catalogue of protest songs has arisen, full of puns and references to members of Assad's inner circle.

"We are discovering ourselves for the first time," said a 28-year-old Syrian who goes by the name of Samer Lathkani, from the coastal town of Lattakia. "The uprising has awakened patriotic sentiments among young people, now every protest is a thrill."

Kfarnebel, a rebellious village in northern Syria, has become famous for coming up with colorful, amusing banners.

"Aleppo will not rise even if it took Viagra," said one recent banner, criticizing Syria's second largest city, where anti-government protests have yet to take hold.

Some have paid the price for taking it too far.

In August, Syria's renowned political cartoonist Ali Ferzat, 60, was beaten by gunmen who broke his fingers and dumped him on a road outside Damascus after he posted cartoons satirizing Assad on his website.

Ibrahim Qashoush, a Syrian firefighter who wrote the "Come on, Leave, Bashar" song, was murdered in July, his vocal cords cut out and his body dumped in the river in the city of Hama.

Syria had a flourishing theater and comedy scene in the 1970s and 1980s, despite the autocratic(...)More.

4 UK men admit London Stock Exchange bomb plot

Four British men fueled by the words of a U.S.-born Muslim cleric pleaded guilty Wednesday to involvement in an al-Qaida inspired plot to spread terror and cause economic damage by bombing the London Stock Exchange at Christmastime.

The nine men, from several parts of the country, were brought together through radical Islamist groups and nurtured plans to attack the stock exchange and other high-profile targets. Unbeknownst to them, British authorities learned of the plot and put them under surveillance.

They were arrested in raids in December 2010 and all initially denied all the charges against them.

But on Wednesday, as their trial was due to start, four of the defendants pleaded guilty at Woolwich Crown Court to involvement in the Stock Exchange plan, and the five other British Muslims to lesser charges.

Mohammed Chowdhury, 21; Shah Rahman, 28; Gurukanth Desai, 30; and Abdul Miah, 25, all admitted preparing for acts of terrorism by planning to plant an improvised explosive device in the toilets of the London Stock Exchange.

Prosecution lawyer Andrew Edis accepted that the men had not planned to kill anyone.

"Their intention was to cause terror and economic harm and disruption," he said. "But their chosen method meant there was a risk people would be maimed or killed."

Chowdhury, from London, was described by prosecutors as the "lynchpin" of the plot. His lawyer, Christopher Blaxland, said Chowdhury admitted planning to plant the bomb, "with the obvious attendant risk but without any intention to cause death or even injury but with the intention to terrorize, damage property and to cause economic damage."

The other five defendants admitted attending planning meetings, fundraising for terrorism or possessing copies of the al-Qaida magazine, Inspire, which contained a feature headlined "Make A Bomb In The Kitchen Of Your Mom."

Prosecutors said they had not made any bombs or set dates for the attacks.

They said the men were not members of al-Qaida but had been inspired by the terror network and the sermons of its Yemen-based American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed last year in a U.S. drone strike.

Edis said the nine defendants "were implementing the published strategy of AQAP" — al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.

The suspects, then aged between 20 and 30, were arrested in London, Cardiff and Stoke-on-Trent in central England, in what police called the biggest anti-terror raid for two years.

Prosecutors said they plotted to send mail bombs to various targets in the run-up to Christmas 2010 and had discussed launching a "Mumbai-style" atrocity — referring to the bomb blasts that killed 166 people in India's financial center in 2008.

The nine defendants were accused of agreeing on targets, discussing materials and methods, and researching files "containing practical instruction for a terrorist attack."

The men held planning meetings, researched bomb-making and scouted out locations including Parliament, Westminster Abbey and the London Eye Ferris wheel — not knowing that they were under police surveillance and their homes and cars had been bugged.

A handwritten target list found at one of the defendant's homes listed the names and addresses of London Mayor Boris Johnson, two rabbis, the American Embassy and the Stock Exchange.

The men, who had Bangladeshi and Pakistani backgrounds, also were overheard discussing how to make a pipe bomb, and talked about traveling abroad for terror training.

The four suspects from Stoke-on-Trent discussed leaving homemade bombs in the toilets of their city's pubs — but noted that as Muslims they would not be able to go into the pubs to plant them.

The defendants will be sentenced next week, but the judge has already told Chowdhury he will receive 13 1/2 years and Rahman 12 years. Each will also receive five years on probation. They are likely to serve half that time before being eligible for parole.

When police swooped on the suspects in three cities in the early morning of Dec. 20, 2010, they said it was the most significant anti-terror raid for two years.

London has been targeted several times by violent Islamists affiliated with or inspired by al-Qaida.

In July 2005, four suicide bombers killed 52 commuters on three London subway trains and a bus. A year later, U.S. and British intelligence officials thwarted one of the largest plots yet — a plan to explode bombs on nearly a dozen trans-Atlantic airliners.

Al-Awlaki, who was killed in September, is thought to have orchestrated an unsuccessful October 2010 plot to send mail bombs on planes from Yemen to the U.S. hidden in the toner cartridges of computer printers.

'Soul Train' host Don Cornelius dead of suicide

Don Cornelius, who with the creation of "Soul Train" helped break down racial barriers and broaden the reach of black culture with funky music, groovy dance steps and cutting edge style, died early Wednesday of an apparent suicide. He was 75.

Los Angeles Police Department officers responding to a report of a shooting found Cornelius at his Mulholland Drive home at around 4 a.m. He was pronounced dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound about an hour later at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, said Los Angeles County Assistant Chief Coroner Ed Winter.

A police cruiser sat parked in the entryway of Cornelius' home on a two-lane stretch of Mulholland Drive in the hills above Los Angeles. News cameras camped outside as drivers on their morning commute drove by.

"He was a transformer," the Rev. Jesse Jackson told KNX-Los Angeles. "'Soul Train' became the outlet for African-Americans."

Jackson said he talked to Cornelius a few days ago and there were no signs Cornelius was upset.

Others also expressed their grief.

"I am shocked and deeply saddened at the sudden passing of my friend, colleague, and business partner Don Cornelius," said Quincy Jones. "Don was a visionary pioneer and a giant in our business. Before MTV there was 'Soul Train,' that will be the great legacy of Don Cornelius. His contributions to television, music and our culture as a whole will never be matched. My heart goes out to Don's family and loved ones."

"I have known him since I was19-years-old and James Brown had me speak on Soul Train," the Rev. Al Sharpton said in a statement from New York. "He brought soul music and dance to the world in a way that it had never been shown and he was a cultural game changer on a global level."

"Don Cornelius' legacy to music, especially black music, will be forever cemented in history," said Clarence Avant, former chairman of Motown Records. "'Soul Train' was the first and only television show to showcase and put a spotlight on black artists at a time when there were few African-Americans on television at all, and that was the great vision of Don."

"Soul Train" began in 1970 in Chicago on WCIU-TV as a local program and aired nationally from 1971 to 2006.

It showcased such legendary artists as Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye and Barry White and brought the best R&B, soul and later hip-hop acts to TV and had teenagers dance to them. It was one of the first shows to showcase African-Americans prominently, although the dance group was racially mixed. Cornelius was the first host and executive producer.

"There was not programming that targeted any particular ethnicity," he said in 2006, then added: "I'm trying to use euphemisms here, trying to avoid saying there was no television for black folks, which they knew was for them."

"Soul Train," with its trademark opening of an animated chugging train, was not, however, an immediate success for Cornelius, an ex-disc jockey with a baritone rumble and cool manner.

Only a handful of stations initially were receptive.

"When we rolled it out, there were only eight takers," he recalled in a 2006 interview with The Associated Press. "Which was somewhere between a little disappointing and a whole lot disappointing."

The reasons he heard? "There was just, 'We don't want it. We pass,'" he said, with race going unmentioned. "No one was blatant enough to say that."

"Soul Train" had arrived on the scene at a time when the country was still reeling from the civil rights movement, political upheaval and cultural swings. It also arrived when black faces on TV were an event, not a regular occurrence.

"Soul Train" was seen by some at first as the black "American Bandstand," the mainstay TV music show hosted by Dick Clark. While "American Bandstand" featured black artists, it was more of a showcase for white artists and very mainstream black performers.

"Soul Train" followed some of the "Bandstand" format, as it had an audience and young dancers, and Cornelius was its host.

But that's where the comparisons stopped. Cornelius, the suave, ultra-cool emcee, made "Soul Train" appointment viewing by creating a show that showed another side of black music and culture.

When it started, glistening Afros dominated the set, as young blacks boogied and shimmied to the music of the likes of Earth Wind & Fire and other acts perhaps less likely to get on "American Bandstand."

People tuned into to see the musical acts, but the dancers soon became as much of a main attraction. They introduced Americans to new dances and fashion styles, and made the "Soul Train" dance line — where people stand line up on each side while others sashay down to show their moves — a cultural flashpoint.

Though "Soul Train" became the longest-running syndicated show in TV history, its power began to wane in the 1980s and '90s as the American pop culture began folding in black culture instead of keeping it segregated. By that time, there were more options for black artists to appear on mainstream shows, and on shows like "American Bandstand," blacks could be seen dancing along with whites.

But even when Michael Jackson became the King of Pop, there was still a need to highlight the achievements of African-Americans, whose achievements were still marginalized at mainstream events. So Cornelius created the "Soul Train Awards," which would become a key honor for (...)More.

Obama to detail broader housing refinance plan

The Obama administration is trying to fix a stubborn drag on the economy by making it easier for millions of additional homeowners to refinance their mortgages at lower interest rates even if they owe more than their homes are worth, tackling a difficult issue of vital concern in states key to President Barack Obama's re-election.

Obama on Wednesday was to draw attention to a proposal he outlined in his State of the Union address to give homeowners with privately held mortgages a shot at record low rates, for an annual savings of about $3,000 for the average borrower. Obama was detailing his plan during a visit to a Northern Virginia community center.

The program is the latest administration effort to help homeowners in the face of a massive number of foreclosures and plunging home values that have left millions of borrowers owing more than their homes are worth. The administration plan aims to ease the way toward refinancing for borrowers, who despite good credit have been unable to take advantage of lower rates because they are underwater on their loans or because banks fear they will be left taking losses.

The administration proposal faces a major hurdle in Congress. The program would cost between $5 billion and $10 billion, depending on participation, and the administration proposes to pay for it with a fee on large banks. The administration has tried unsuccessfully before to win support for such a tax on large banks.

The plan would expand the administration's Home Affordable Refinance Program, which allows borrowers with loans backed by government-affiliated mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to refinance at lower rates. About 1 million homeowners have used it, well short of the 4 million to 5 million the Obama administration had expected. Moreover, many "underwater" borrowers — those who owe more than their homes are worth — couldn't qualify.

The administration estimates that 3.5 million borrowers with privately held mortgages have high enough interest rates that they would have incentive to refinance under the new plan. That's in addition to 11 million borrowers who have Fannie- or Freddie-guaranteed loans who could be eligible for refinancing under the administration's proposed changes.

The new administration plan would permit homeowners to refinance their mortgages into loans backed by the Federal Housing Administration. To qualify, borrowers with privately held mortgages would have to have no more than one delinquency in the six months preceding refinancing. Their loans would have to fall within the mortgage limits set by the FHA in their home counties.

Under the program, banks would have to reduce mortgage balances for homeowners who owe more than 140 percent of the value of their homes.

The features of the new proposal were confirmed Wednesday by a senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the program ahead of Obama's remarks. The Wall Street Journal first reported the details Wednesday.

The Obama administration also plans to announce new industry standards for mortgage servicers, a sort of "bill of rights" for borrowers that would protect them in their transactions.

Obama also is expected to announce a program that would allow the sale of foreclosed homes by Fannie Mae to investors who would then offer the properties for rental. Administration officials say there is a high demand for rental housing and such a program would also sustain neighborhoods by keeping foreclosed homes from falling into disrepair.

Though the administration's preferred means of paying for the program would be through a fee on large banks, administration officials say Obama would consider other means of paying for it.

A punctured housing bubble was at the center of the recession, prompting widespread foreclosures and leaving millions of homeowners with houses valued at less than their mortgages. Hit hardest were Nevada and Florida, two states that figure prominently in the presidential campaign and that Obama is counting on winning to secure re-election.

Under the refinancing plan, any homeowner current on his or her mortgage could take advantage of historically low lending rates. The average rate for a 30-year mortgage is 3.88 percent.

About 11 million Americans — roughly 1 in 4 with a mortgage — are underwater, according to CoreLogic, a real estate data firm.

Half of all U.S. mortgages — about 30 million home loans — are owned by nongovernment lenders.

Japan Snowstorm Kills 52, Crushes Steel Bridge

Heavy snowfall has crippled much of Japan's western coast, killing more than 50 people and injuring nearly 600. The worst snowstorm in six years has dumped more than 10 feet of snow in the hardest-hit regions, causing at least one bridge to collapse and forcing school closures across the region.

An avalanche today buried three people for more than an hour near a hot springs in Akita Prefecture in northwest Japan. The women were later found unconscious but survived.

Western Japan has been battered by one snowstorm after another since the beginning of the year, overwhelming cash-strapped cities struggling to keep up with cleanup efforts. In the Niigata Prefecture, officials said nearly half of their 30 cities had run out of funds set aside snow removal. Further north in the Aomori Prefecture, the government had already applied for additional funds from Tokyo, after draining its budget.

Residents, frustrated by the slow response, have taken it upon themselves to clean up the winter mess, resulting in deadly consequences. Nearly all the storm-related deaths have been a direct result of snow removal.

Meanwhile, in Nagano, the weight of all the snow proved to be too much for a 310-foot steel bridge. It collapsed early this week, although no one was injured.

The Japan Meteorological Agency forecasts more snowfall in the next 24 hours.