TIME Venezuela

Venezuelan President Calls Obama’s Outreach to Cuba ‘Courageous’

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro gestures during the Southern Common Market (MERCOSUR) trade bloc annual presidential 47th summit in Parana
Venezuela's President Nicolás Maduro, right, gestures during the Southern Common Market trade bloc's annual presidential 47th summit in Paraná, Argentina, on Dec. 17, 2014 Enrique Marcarian—Reuters

Cuba’s staunch Latin American ally approves of the renewal of diplomatic relations between the old foes

U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision to normalize relations with Cuba was nothing short of “courageous,” according to Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.

Following dual announcements in Washington and Havana on Wednesday, the Venezuelan head of state openly lauded the new chapter in American-Cuba relations during a trade summit in Argentina’s southern city of Paraná.

“You have to recognize the gesture of Barack Obama, a gesture that is courageous and necessary,” said Maduro, according to Reuters.

Caracas has been one of the most outspoken supporters of Cuba since late President Hugo Chávez first rose to power in the country during the late 1990s.

[Reuters]

TIME Pakistan

Pakistani Military Strikes Back at Taliban Following Peshawar Massacre

An army soldier stands guard inside the Army Public School, which was attacked by Taliban gunmen, in Peshawar
An army soldier stands guard inside the Army Public School, which was attacked by Taliban gunmen earlier this week, in Peshawar, Pakistan, on Dec. 17, 2014 Zohra Bensemra—Reuters

Spokesperson says more than a dozen operations have been carried out since Tuesday

The Pakistani military claims to have struck back hard against Taliban militants days after the group launched one the deadliest single-day attacks in their seven-year insurgency against the state.

In the two days since Taliban forces indiscriminately murdered more than 140 people, including 132 children, at a school in Peshawar, Pakistani security forces have launched 20 air strikes, killing an estimated 57 terrorists in the process, according to a tweet from military spokesperson Major General Asim Bajwa.

The armed forces’ representative added that operations are ongoing. Pakistan is currently in its second day of official mourning for the massacre, which sent shock waves through the country and brought renewed scrutiny to the military’s past dealings with militants within the country’s borders.

TIME Pakistan

Pakistan Begins 3 Days of Mourning After Peshawar Massacre

But persistent questions remain over the military’s relationship with extremist groups

Pakistanis were in mourning Wednesday after a brutal attack on an army-run school in Peshawar by Taliban militants claimed more than 140 lives, 132 of them children.

Islamabad announced the commencement of a three-day mourning period. Vigils were held across the country as the nation struggled to come to terms with the brutality exhibited in one of the deadliest single-day attacks in the country since the Pakistani Taliban launched its insurgency seven years ago.

In Peshawar, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif called on officials from all parties to attend a multiparty conference this week, where they hope to present a unified front against terrorism.

Opposition stalwart Imran Khan, who has previously sought reconciliation with the Taliban, joined the litany of voices on Tuesday condemning the indiscriminate slaughter.

“Fight with men, not innocent children,” said the former cricket star, according to the New York Times.

The deliberate targeting of children appears to have affected even some of the Pakistani Taliban’s most steadfast supporters.

“The intentional killing of innocent people, children and women are against the basics of Islam and this criteria has to be considered by every Islamic party and government,” Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesperson for the Afghan Taliban, said in a statement, according to Reuters.

But as the nation grieves, tough questions have begun to resurface regarding the Pakistani military’s track record of incubating militancy within the country’s borders.

During an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, Pakistani Defense Minister Khawaja Asif rejected the notion that the country’s security establishment maintained relations with extremist groups.

“[These] terrorists are the biggest threat to the peace in this region, to peace in Pakistan, to the existence of Pakistan,” said Asif. “We do not classify between different groups of Taliban — that there are good Taliban or bad Taliban. They are all bad.”

However, analysts contend that factions within the security services continue to see militant groups inside Pakistan as valuable proxies in the battle for influence in neighboring Afghanistan and Kashmir.

“It seems to me that there are elements within the military establishment who are willing to sustain or willing to endure civilian causalities and even military casualties as long as some broader strategic objective is met,” Hassan Javid, associate professor of political science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, tells TIME.

But as Javid argues, the country’s brutal experience with insurgency has long demonstrated that these groups can never be controlled.

“Given the ideologies that motivate these groups, and given the links they have to other such groups, I think its inevitable that they will turn their guns on Pakistan,” says Javid. “Even if they’re working with them today, there’s always the possibility they will turn around and bite the hand that’s been feeding them a few years down the line.”

Following the attacks, a spokesperson with the Pakistani Taliban, or Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, said the assault on the school was retaliation against the ongoing offensive in the country’s tribal belt.

“We selected the army’s school for the attack because the government is targeting our families and females,” said Taliban spokesman Muhammad Umar Khorasani. “We want them to feel the pain.”

In June, the Pakistani military launched a full-scale assault on Taliban sanctuaries in North Waziristan, days after militants allied with the group overran a terminal at Karachi’s Jinnah International Airport in the heart of the country’s commercial capital

The ongoing military operation in North Warziristan is believed to have been largely successful in uprooting a majority of the militant forces based there, but experts say these extremists are now dispersed throughout the country.

“Over time this militancy has spread into the cities and these kinds of people are hiding and have melted into society,” says Hasan Askari Rizvi, a prominent Pakistani defense analyst. “The military operations can only take place in places like the tribal areas, but not necessarily in urban centers.”

TIME Crime

66 Journalists Killed in 2014: Report

MYANMAR-MEDIA-RIGHTS-POLITICS-COURT
Burmese journalists wear T-shirts that say "Stop Killing Press" during a silent protest for five journalists who were jailed for 10 years on July 10, near the Myanmar Peace Center where Burmese President Thein Sein was scheduled to meet with local artists in Rangoon on July 12, 2014. Soe Than Win—AFP/Getty Images

Media activists say attacks on journalists are becoming increasingly barbaric

At least 66 journalists were killed across the globe this year while another 178 media workers were imprisoned, according to industry monitoring outlet Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

While the number of journalists’ deaths fell slightly when compared to 2013 figures, the high-profile beheadings of Western and Arab reporters by militant Jihadists in the Middle East marked a gruesome escalation in the types of violence employed against the Fourth Estate.

“Rarely have reporters been murdered with such a barbaric sense of propaganda, shocking the entire world,” said the watchdog organization in their annual report published on Tuesday.

RSF also noted that the number of kidnapping cases skyrocketed dramatically in 2014 with 119 journalists reportedly being abducted, a 37% increase year-on-year.

TIME Australia

A Stunned Australia Asks How the Sydney Siege Could Have Happened

How was a man accused of being an accessory to the murder of his ex-wife, and facing 40 charges of sexual assault, able to obtain a gun and be at liberty?

Australian officials offered words of comfort and sympathy to a shocked nation after a 16-hour siege at a café in central Sydney ended with the death of two hostages on Tuesday.

Three people died, including the armed perpetrator, when police commandos stormed the Lindt café in Martin Place in the early hours of Tuesday morning. Six people, including hostages and police officers, were injured during the raid; however, all are in stable condition according to authorities.

“Those poor people who went into get a cup of coffee or buy some chocolates for a friend for Christmas got caught up in this terrible situation,” Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore told CNN’s Anderson Cooper on Tuesday. “It’s a truly shocking thing to happen in our city because our city is a very harmonious, socially diverse, welcoming and inclusive city.”

Prime Minister Tony Abbott extended condolence to the victims’ families during a national address on Tuesday morning and also commended the public for being “resilient” and “ready to respond” during the crisis.

Earlier in the day, Abbott ordered flags across the country to be flown at half-mast.

Australian officials are meanwhile faced with daunting questions about how the gunman, Man Haron Monis, was able to obtain a firearm and remain at liberty after having several run-ins with the law. The self-declared sheik had reportedly been charged with committing an estimated 40 sexual assaults while being a so-called “spiritual healer.” Monis was also on bail and facing charges of being an accessory to the murder of his ex-wife.

“There will need to be tough questions about whether our systems for identifying potential perpetrators of terrorist crimes like this are good enough,” Rory Medcalf, security-program director at Australian think tank the Lowy Institute, tells TIME. “Questions will be asked why this particular individual was able to commit this act while on bail for serious crimes.”

The Australian Broadcasting Corp. (ABC) reports that a recently passed bail law in New South Wales, which could have prevented an individual with a record on par with the gunman from remaining on the streets, is set to go in effect early next year.

The fact that it was not in force to prevent this tragedy is “frustrating for me as attorney general, frustrating for the premier, frustrating for the entire government, frustrating for the entire NSW community,” said Brad Hazzard, the New South Wales attorney general, according to ABC.

Analysts warned that the acts of a crazed lone gunman should not be used as political fodder to tighten the current government’s stringent policy toward asylum seekers trying to enter the country. (Monis was granted political asylum by Australia in 1996 after fleeing Iran.)

“Australia was founded by foreigners,” said Clarke Jones, a terrorism expert at the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific. “I hope we continue to take other nationalities into Australia. It makes it a much more interesting and healthy, wealthy place.”

TIME Australia

3 Dead After Police Storm Sydney Café to End Hostage Crisis

Hours-long standoff ends in chaotic scene

Heavily armed police in Australia stormed a Sydney café where a gunman had held more than a dozen people hostage early Tuesday, ending a tense standoff that lasted more than 16 hours and saw at least three people die, including the gunman.

Police could be seen entering the café at about 2:30 a.m. local time on Tuesday, after a gunman held at 17 people in the central business district of Australia’s largest city. Gunshots could be heard ringing out on video feeds from the scene, and local media reports indicated injuries were sustained by both hostages and police.

The gunman died in the police raid, authorities said, and he was identified as Man Haron Monis, an Iranian-born man and a self-described cleric who has been on authorities’ radar in the past. A chaotic scene unfolded as police raided the café, with hostages running outside and an officer carrying out at least one ailing hostage.

New South Wales Premier Mike Baird said the gunman had carried out “horrendous vicious attacks.”

“We are a peaceful society which is the envy of the world,” he said in a televised news conference. “Today we must come together like never before.”

Two hostages died, five escaped and six were uninjured, police said. At least one police officer suffered a minor gunshot wound to the face, but was alive. Police wouldn’t say whether the hostages were killed by the gunman or in crossfire during the raid, the Associated Press reports.

“They believed if they didn’t enter there would have been many more lives lost,” New South Wales Police commissioner Andrew Scipione said of the officers’ decision to raid the café. “Events that were unfolding inside of the premises led them to the belief that now was the time to deploy.”

It started Monday morning, when hostages were seen displaying a black-and-white flag in the window of the Lindt café in Martin Place — a major commercial precinct usually crowded with office workers and tourists and, at this time of year, Christmas shoppers.

The flag bore, in Arabic text, what was thought to be the shahada, or Muslim testimony of faith. The flag, which is commonly flown by Islamist terrorist groups, sparked fears that a terrorist attack was unfolding. But Sydney police had not said if it is a terrorist attack, and an official later described it as an “isolated incident.” Authorities confirmed earlier they had made contact with the perpetrator and were in negotiations. Several hostages had left the scene late Monday before the chaos that unfolded early Tuesday.

U.S. President Barack Obama was briefed overnight on the crisis.

“This is a very disturbing incident,” Prime Minister Tony Abbott said in a televised address earlier Monday. “It is profoundly shocking that innocent people should be held hostage by an armed person claiming political motivation.

“We are a free, open and generous people, and today we have responded to this in character,” he added. “Yes, it has been a difficult day. Yes, it has been a day which has tested us, but so far, like Australians in all sorts of situations, we have risen to the challenge.”

Australia’s paramount figure on Islamic law, the Grand Mufti Ibrahim Abu Mohamed, issued a statement “unequivocally” condemning the action. He said the Muslim community was “devastated” by the incident and said such actions are “denounced in part and in whole in Islam.”

Buildings in the area, including the famed Sydney Opera House and the U.S. consulate, had been evacuated, with office workers taken to nearby Hyde Park. Martin Place train station, one of Sydney’s busiest, was closed, as were major nearby roads.

“Sometimes here in Australia you think something like this would never happen so it’s pretty shocking to see,” Kristina Ryan, who works nearby at Circular Quay, said Monday. “It’s been really frustrating with the lack of information and how much longer can they expect us to just sit here without understanding why this is happening? I think that’s really adding to the fear people are feeling in the city.”

Ryan said that fear was amplified as she and her co-workers watched as authorities evacuated the Opera House.

“There are lots of government buildings around. It’s a very busy place, especially on a Monday morning,” Clarke Jones, a terrorism expert at the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific, tells TIME.

The unfolding hostage crisis comes more than two months after Australian authorities foiled a terrorist plot by local supporters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), who were reportedly planning to behead members of the public in Martin Place.

Days later, on Sept. 21, forces affiliated with ISIS released a 42-minute audio recording calling on followers to attack non-Muslims in Australia. The call to arms appears to have been made in retaliation for Canberra’s deployment of military personnel and fighter jets to the Middle East to fight in the international coalition against ISIS and al-Qaeda-affiliated groups in Syria and Iraq.

According to Jones, officials believe that up to 60 Australian nationals and residents are currently fighting in jihadist ranks in the Middle East. Dozens are believed to have already returned to Australia.

“They haven’t been prosecuted, but we don’t know at this stage if they’ve come back with an added intent to continue the fight here in Australia,” says Jones. “It’s hard to know.”

As darkness fell on Monday evening, a crowd of around 200 people remained milling around the scene. “Everyone was quite calm,” says Victor Domni, who works at Macquarie Bank directly across from the Lindt café and was among the first to be evacuated this morning. “I wasn’t in a position to do anymore work so I was ready to go home. I’m quite hesitant to go into work tomorrow because it’s quite scary.”

“We’ve seen this on the news happening in other places and it’s finally hit home so it’s a bit shocking,” he adds.

Abbott urged his fellow Australians to remain coolheaded.

“The whole point of politically motivated violence is to scare people out of being themselves. Australia is a peaceful, open and generous society,” he said on Monday morning. “Nothing should ever change that.”

— With reporting by Courtney Subramanian / Sydney

Read next: Australians Use #IllRideWithYou Hashtag in Solidarity With Muslims During Sydney Siege

TIME faith

Pope Francis Says There’s a Place for Pets in Paradise

Pope Francis leads his Wednesday general audience in Saint Peter's square at the Vatican
Pope Francis leads his Wednesday general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on Dec. 10, 2014 Stefano Rellandini—Reuters

The head of the Catholic Church promises that some dogs, at least, do go to heaven

Pope Francis confirmed during his weekly address in the Vatican’s St. Peter’s Square that canines, along with “all of God’s creatures,” can make it to heaven.

The leader of the Catholic Church made the remark in order to comfort a young boy who was mourning the death of his dog, according to the New York Times.

“One day, we will see our animals again in the eternity of Christ. Paradise is open to all of God’s creatures,” said the 77-year-old Pontiff, according to Italian news sources.

Pope Francis has been cast as a much more liberal figure compared with his predecessors. Since ascending to the church’s helm last year, he has attempted to engage with homosexuals and unwed couples and backed the Big Bang Theory.

[NYT]

Correction: The original version of this story misattributed a quotation from Pope Paul VI, who died in 1978, to Pope Francis. It was Pope Paul VI who said, “One day, we will see our animals again in the eternity of Christ.” The original version of this story misinterpreted comments made by Francis who said in recent remarks, according to Vatican Radio, “The Holy Scripture teaches us that the fulfillment of this wonderful design also affects everything around us.” This quotation was interpreted in press accounts to mean that the Pope believes all animals go to heaven. A Vatican spokesman told Reuters on Dec. 13 that this was not the Pope’s intended message.

Read next: The Pope Just Received a Fly Pair of Custom Diesel Sweatpants

TIME Drugs

U.S. Justice Department Allows Native American Tribes to Grow, Sell Marijuana

Marijuana Tribes
A sample of cannabis appears on display at Shango Premium Cannabis dispensary in Portland, Ore. Don Ryan—AP

The ruling may spur help new waves of economic growth

The U.S. Justice Department announced Thursday that Native American tribes would be allowed to grow and sell marijuana on their sovereign territories if they abide by the federal statutes laid out for the respective states that have already legalized the drug.

Analysts say the ruling could provide a financial bonanza for the 556 federally recognized tribes across the U.S., according to the Associated Press.

“If tribes can balance all the potential social issues, it could be a really huge opportunity,” Seattle attorney Anthony Broadman told the AP.

[AP]

TIME Companies

SeaWorld Chief Resigns After Blackfish Film Damages Firm’s Reputation

Killler Whale Calf At SeaWorld San Diego
A baby killer whale calf nurses from its mother at SeaWorld San Diego's Shamu Stadium on Dec. 4, 2014 in San Diego Getty Images

The enterprise’s share price dropped by more than 40% in 2014

SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment’s chief executive Jim Atchison announced plans to resign this week as the company struggles to attract visitors to their parks since the release of the 2013 film Blackfish, according to the BBC.

The critically acclaimed documentary revolves around the alleged mistreatment of the amusement park’s orcas and the gruesome deaths of several of the animals’ trainers.

SeaWorld’s current board chairman David D’Alessandro is set to serve as the corporation’s interim chief executive and will help manage a reorganization that aims to save $50 million by the end of next year.

[BBC]

TIME Hong Kong

The Final Countdown for Hong Kong’s Protest Camps Has Begun

But demonstrators say that they will fight on elsewhere

The 74-day occupation by pro-democracy protesters of Hong Kong’s Admiralty district — home to the Central Government Offices as well as military headquarters and several high-end office towers — will likely end Thursday, but demonstrators vow that the battle for the city’s political future will continue.

During a press conference on Tuesday afternoon, Hong Kong’s assistant police commissioner Cheung Tak-keung said officers would be accompanying bailiffs on Thursday to clear several intersections in Admiralty in accordance with a court order that went into effect this week. He added that police would remove all remaining barricades and tents, regardless of whether they were located at the intersections that are the subject of the order.

“I hope that the illegal road occupiers [will] leave the area in a peaceful and orderly manner as soon as possible and not resist,” Cheung told reporters.

The euphoria that gripped the encampment at the start of the so-called Umbrella Revolution in September has largely given way to exhaustion and hardened pragmatism. After more than two months of civil disobedience, protesters readily admit that myriad rallies, hunger strikes and the takeover of some of the city’s major thoroughfares have failed to incite a broader uprising. Neither have political concessions been won: the government refused to hold any talks besides an initial meeting with student leaders on Oct. 21 and Beijing has not backed down from its insistence that candidates for Hong Kong’s top political post must be screened by a pro-establishment committee.

However, some say that the mostly student protesters have succeeded in politicizing an entire generation and giving them the courage to defy Beijing instead of seeking accommodation with China as earlier generations have done.

“They successfully made Beijing and the Hong Kong government hear the Hong Kong’s people’s voice,” said Han Dongfang, a labor activist, who was jailed for helping organize the ill-fated democracy rallies in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square 25 years ago. “The next generation is also hearing their own voice.”

On Tuesday afternoon, the thousands of tents at the Admiralty site appeared to be mostly empty, with remaining demonstrators in a reflective mood. “We’ve been fighting for 30 years,” said 21-year-old student activist Michelle. “It’s very likely we’ll have to fight for another 30 years.”

She asked that her full name be withheld, like many young protesters who fear that they will be punished for their political activity by being forbidden to enter mainland China. Such travel bans have already been imposed on protest leaders and they are a sanction that could easily cripple the career prospects of anyone in a city that economically depends on its porous border with the mainland, located just 90 minutes away from the Admiralty camp.

After the occupation ends, one man surnamed Cheung, who has spent the better part of the past two and a half months patrolling Admiralty’s barricades, says he hopes to hold workshops and lectures in parks and at food courts to continue the discussions that first bloomed here.

“Most of the people joining here are between 20 years old and 30 years old,” says Cheung. “In about 10 years, we will be a major force in the society.”

As demonstrators prepared for their inevitable eviction, office workers descended from the district’s glass towers on an unusually sunny December day to eat takeout lunches and enjoy a last quiet stroll through roads that, soon, will be choked with traffic once again.

Gowned university graduates, fresh from their commencement ceremonies, congregated to take final selfies in front of the Lennon Wall — a sweeping expanse of concrete by the legislature that, since the protests began, has become covered with thousands upon thousands of fluorescent Post-it notes inscribed with messages of support from all over the world.

The crowds kept coming into the early hours of Wednesday morning to bid farewell to a tented village that has marked a dramatic turning point in the history of China’s most open city.

Sui Lai, a social-sciences lecturer from Hong Kong Polytechnic University who has spent most nights delivering speeches near Hong Kong’s Legco offices, says the Umbrella Movement will continue with different forms of protest.

“I will continue my teaching forum at the weekends. I may set up some indoor venue to keep teaching [the students] maybe twice a week,” she says.

Two subway stops away, at a smaller protest camp in the shopping district of Causeway Bay, demonstrators thanked their fellow protesters for standing firm and apologized to local business over loud speakers for the inconveniences caused by the occupation.

In preparation for the Thursday’s police action, first-aid worker volunteer Man Law said she had scheduled a day off from her normal job as a product designer so that she can be ready to treat anybody injured during the clearance.

Over the course of the protests, Law estimates that she had provided care to more than 50 people, who had everything from scrapes and bruises to head lacerations caused by police batons strikes. Like many, she plans to channel the enthusiasm of the past 74 days into future action.

“After the protest, we will continue to let the government know what we want,” she says. “This is just the start.”

— With reporting by Helen Regan and Rishi Iyengar / Hong Kong

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