Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley

Oct. 23 2014 7:53 PM

Boko Haram Reportedly Kidnaps Dozens More Girls in Nigeria

The Islamist militant group Boko Haram has conducted another mass kidnapping of dozens of women and girls in Nigeria, according to local residents. Nigerian officials have not confirmed the abductions in the northeastern region of the country, where the group has a stronghold. Local journalists, news reports, and a Catholic bishop in the area corroborated the attack took place over the weekend, according to the New York Times.

Here’s more on the kidnappings from the Times:

The kidnappings took place last Saturday in a mountain village near the border with Cameroon, a Boko Haram stronghold, said Bishop Stephen Mamza, who is from the area but now officiates in the state capital, Yola. In the latest kidnapping, residents told the bishop that scores of gunmen on motorcycles stormed their village, Garta, on Saturday. Boko Haram has operated with near impunity for months in the mountainous region, with occasional reprisals from Nigeria’s military. The gunmen torched houses in the village, slit the throats of four men and went house-to-house searching for young women, eventually taking away around 60, according to the bishop and local news reports.

“The heavily armed fighters left 1,500 naira, or about $9, and kola nuts as a bride price for each of the women abducted Saturday, suggesting that they would be taken as sex slaves,” residents told CNN. The latest round of abductions comes shortly after the Nigerian government announced a ceasefire had been agreed to with the group and a deal had been reached to secure the release of the some 200 schoolgirls kidnapped by the group earlier this year. Boko Haram, however, never confirmed the existence of the announced negotiated settlements and, the Times reports, the government announcement was “greeted with broad skepticism in Nigeria.”

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Oct. 23 2014 5:46 PM

Head of Assembly That Will Pick Next Supreme Leader of Iran Dies

83-year-old Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Mahdavi Kani died on Tuesday in Iran. And while Kani was not necessarily a well-known figure outside of his own country, his death may have international significance: he was the chairman of Iran's Assembly of Experts, the body that will choose the next Supreme Leader of Iran. With the inconsistent health of 75-year-old Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who recently underwent prostate surgery, that could be a that's made sooner rather than later.

The Assembly of Experts, a group that's been described as roughly analagous to the Vatican's College of Cardinals, is a body of 86 religious leaders. They're elected—but must be chosen from among the clergy and be pre-approved by a separate council of 12 legal experts appointed by the Supreme Leader and the Parliament. Although Kani's death is unlikely to cause any obviously visible unrest or conflict, the composition of the Assembly of Experts has been a key indicator of Iran's political landscape and a litmus test of who holds relative political power. Kani—a "moderate conservative," per the AP—became chairman of the Assembly in 2011 when moderate Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani withdrew his bid for reelection as chairman following intense pressure and threats of violence from hardline supporters of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Earlier this year, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, one of the most powerful right-wing clerics in Iran and the head of the Guardian Council that vets Assembly candidates, claimed vaguely that a (presumably non-conservative) plot to seize the Assembly was afoot.

With rumors of Khamenei's ailing health and impending death swirling pervasively enough that his surgery earlier this year was accompanied with an aggressive PR push perceived to be a preemptive strike against gossip, it's not unlikely a leadership transition will take place in the near future. If and when that happens, the old-guard clerics of the Assembly of Experts and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard are expected to compete for power. The latter group, which is powerful in the more earthly realms of the military and the economy, has played an increasingly expansive role under Khamenei, with whom it has a close and mutually dependent relationship, and is not expected to relinquish that power easily.

Kani, who was 83, had been in a coma since suffering a heart attack in June. Since then, Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi has assumed the role of acting chairman, and is expected to continue on in that capacity until the election of the next assembly in early 2016. Although Shahroudi is not considered particularly hardline by Iranian standards, Al-Monitor writes that in general Kani's death leaves Iran's more moderate clergy "at the mercy of more extreme leaders."

Oct. 23 2014 4:15 PM

Billionaire Paul Allen Will Donate $100 Million to Ebola Battle

Paul Allen—the Microsoft co-founder who's worth about $17 billion, owns the Seattle Seahawks and Portland Trail Blazers, and has a yacht so large it carries two helicopters and a submarine—will give $100 million to organizations battling the Ebola outbreak, he says. Among the intended uses of the money, per the New York Times:

  • A University of Massachusetts Medical School program providing "training, medical workers and lab equipment" to Liberia.
  • The development, in partnership with the State Department, of evacuation and containment units.
  • Funding the World Health Organization's coordination of medical personnel deployment.
  • Funding the evacuation of infected medical personnel.

Allen has made previous donations to public health causes, including an attemt to develop an Ebola vaccine at Kansas State University. He's also created a website called TackleEbola that directs small donations to current projects in need of funding.

Oct. 23 2014 3:05 PM

Mexican Mayor and Wife Suspected in Disappearance of 43 Students

Mexico's attorney general says the mayor of the town of Iguala and his wife are suspected of involvement in the disappearance of 43 student protesters in the area last month. From NPR:

On Wednesday, Mexico's attorney general said an arrest warrant has been issued for Mayor Jose Luis Abarca and his wife, Maria de los Angeles Pineda.
Jesus Murillo Karam, the country's top prosecutor, also named the mayor's wife as the "principal operator" of the trafficking group known as the Guerreros Unidos, and that she together with her husband ran the group's illegal activities right out of Iguala's City Hall.

The students were apparently headed toward Iguala when they were intercepted and attacked by police acting on the instructions of the mayor; six students were killed outright, and 43 are still missing. It's still unclear exactly why the traffickers felt these students—who were protesting education reforms and trying to raise money—were a threat, although Mexican student movements' traditionally leftist, democratic politics certainly don't align with the kind of quasi-military narco-oligarchy that the cartels prefer.

The mayor and his wife have not been located and are considered fugitives.

Oct. 23 2014 1:02 PM

Pittsburgh NHL Fans Honor Canada by Singing “O Canada” National Anthem

NHL fans in Pittsburgh paid tribute to Canada on Wednesday night by singing the Canadian national anthem before facing off against the Philadelphia Flyers. The Canadian flag was projected on the ice during the playing of “O Canada” to honor the U.S.’s northern neighbor grappling with Wednesday’s deadly attack on the parliament building in Ottawa.

“The NHL postponed the scheduled game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Ottawa Senators following the attack,” the Associated Press reports. “The Penguins and Flyers feature rosters filled with Canadian players, including reigning league MVP Sidney Crosby.”

Oct. 23 2014 12:06 PM

Swiss Company Makes Hitler Creamer Packets; Apologizes for Not Noticing It Was a Bad Idea

“You cannot put Pol Pot or a terrorist on a milk creamer.” That truism comes courtesy of a spokesman for the Swiss retail giant Migros, via the New York Times. That seems like a pretty easy rule to live by—unless you're Migros, apparently. The company apologized this week for shocking Swiss coffee drinkers by distributing coffee creamer containers with pictures of Hitler on them. Oh, and there was also one dedicated to Italian fascist Benito Mussolini.

“In coffee-loving Switzerland, labels from the mini-cream containers are cult collectibles, and producers often seek new and inventive ways to enhance their appeal,” the Times reports. The dictatorial tributes were part of a series of containers based on vintage cigar labels. Migros said one of its subsidiaries was responsible for supplying the cream, and the series was developed by a firm that—somehow—specializes in cream container design. In the understatement of the year, a company spokesman told the Times: “Whoever made this mistake was not thinking properly, as these aren’t images accompanying a book about World War II, but rather something meant to be enjoyed with coffee and a chocolate cake.”

Oct. 23 2014 9:47 AM

North Korea Quarantines Itself to Join Global Community on Ebola Panic, Bans All Tourists

North Korea isn’t exactly Italy when it comes to its tourism industry, but apparently that doesn’t mean it’s not concerned about Ebola arriving on its shores. And since the country is no stranger to going way over the top on just about anything, North Korea announced it is banning all foreign tourists from entering the country starting Friday, Reuters reports. While there is no official tally of how many travelers this will affect, my unofficial count of disappointed tourists is 12.

“We have just received official news from our partners in [North Korea] that, as of tomorrow, tourists from any country, regardless of where they have recently visited, will not be permitted to enter,” a travel company operator that runs tours in the country told Reuters.

“North Korean state media on Thursday said it was stepping up quarantine efforts to detect foreigners and tourists who might be carrying the virus, but did not confirm the tourist ban,” according to Reuters. This is not the first time North Korea has closed its already pretty airtight borders. In 2003, the country quarantined itself over fears of the spread of SARS. North Korean state media said there have been no reported cases of Ebola in the country, according to the Associated Press. While transparency and public awareness have never really been North Korea’s thing, the country is making an effort to heighten awareness of Ebola and its symptoms. “Television news on Wednesday evening showed a video of Ebola patients and explained the dangers of the disease,” according to the AP.

Oct. 22 2014 8:20 PM

Man Jumps White House Fence, Is Attacked By Secret Service Dogs and Arrested

The White House was put on lockdown Wednesday evening after a man jumped the White House fence. The Secret Service apprehended the man, who was first attacked by Secret Service dogs. "Dogs got him," a Secret Service spokesman told Reuters. Video showed the man kicking the oncoming dogs before being surrounded by Secret Service agents on the north lawn of the White House.  

Here’s more on the video from The Hill:

Video of the incident shows a man wearing a dark shirt and white gym shorts on the lawn outside the White House being yelled at by Secret Service officers. He briefly lifted his shirt to show his chest before a pair of Secret Service dogs rushed to the man and pounced. The fence jumper struggled with the animals, landing repeated punches and kicks. Eventually, a Secret Service officer grabbed the man to lead him away. Officers cleared the North Lawn of journalists and began conducting a search of the premises. 

“The incident comes roughly a month after an intruder armed with a knife scaled the White House fence and made it inside the executive mansion, raising questions about security levels at the heavily guarded complex and spurring the resignation of then Secret Service Director Julia Pierson,” Reuters reports.

Oct. 22 2014 7:46 PM

Family of Dallas Nurse With Ebola Says She’s Now Virus-Free

One of the two Dallas nurses who contracted Ebola at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital is now virus-free, her family said in a statement on Wednesday evening. “We are overjoyed to announce that, as of yesterday [Tuesday] evening, officials at Emory University Hospital and the Centers for Disease Control are no longer able to detect virus in her body," the family said in the statement Wednesday, ABC News reports.

The news has yet to be confirmed by the CDC. The Dallas Morning News spoke to a spokesperson at Emory University Hospital, where Vinson has been receiving treatment since last week, who said she was “not aware of that at all.” Vinson is one of two nurses that were infected with Ebola while treating Thomas Eric Duncan at the Dallas hospital. The other nurse, Nina Pham, is currently being treated at NIH. Vinson created a scare by flying from Dallas to Cleveland and back shortly before she was diagnosed with the virus.

Oct. 22 2014 6:36 PM

Reaganomics Tax Experiment Still Going Poorly in Kansas

In 2012, Kansas passed large tax cuts championed by Republican governor Sam Brownback and Ronald Reagan-affiliated economist Arthur Laffer, who said the move would create tens of thousands of jobs and result in "enormous prosperity." But the state has subsequently added jobs at a slower rate than neighboring states (and the country as a whole) while coming up against significant revenue shortfalls. These shortages have been even more severe than the state projected, and the New York Times' Josh Barro writes today that new numbers indicate the problem is only going to get worse:

Revenue numbers for July through September, the first three months of fiscal year 2015, suggest Kansas’ revenue gap is permanent, not temporary. The state anticipated $578 million in personal income tax collections over the summer, but it took in just $524 million, a miss of more than 10 percent. That was nationally atypical; according to the Rockefeller Institute of Government, 14 states have published projected and actual monthly personal income tax receipts through September, and the other 13 all came within 5 percent of expectations.

By the end of this fiscal year, Barro estimates, the state—which spends about $14 billion annually—could be as much as $500 million short of its income tax projections. The gap has become an issue in Brownback's gubernatorial campaign against Democrat Paul Davis, which is currently considered a toss-up by Real Clear Politics despite Kansans' typically conservative voting patterns.

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