PRE-CEASEFIRE, SYRIA FIGHTING ESCALATES
Fighting has intensified in Syria just days after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov announced that an agreed ceasefire would begin by the end of this week. According to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an airstrike on a Doctors Without Borders hospital 70 kilometers south of Aleppo killed at least nine people, including one child. The group said it believed the strike had been executed by a Russian warplane, Middle East Eye reports.
- Turkey is also blaming Russia for a hospital attack in the Syrian town of Azaz, close to the Turkish border, which reportedly killed 14 people and wounded 30 this morning. But because of continued hostility between Turkey and Russia over the downing of a Russian warplane in November, the claim is being regarded as suspicious. It is even more so because the Turkish military shelled the same area over the weekend to prevent Kurdish militias from gaining ground so close to its borders, provoking criticism from the EU.
- Saudi Arabia and Turkey are considering sending a ground force to Syria, a move that would further complicate a potential end to hostilities, Turkish newspaper Today's Zaman writes. Speaking to CNN Saturday, Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said, "Bashar al-Assad will leave — have no doubt about it. He will either leave by a political process or he will be removed by force." Saudi Arabia has launched the largest military drill in the region's history and has already sent aircraft to Turkey, officially to fight ISIS, though it hasn't been participating in the U.S.-led coalition for months.
- The Syrian army, backed by Russian planes, and the Kurdish YPG militia continue to gain ground around Aleppo, and Assad's forces are now turning their sights eastwards to the so-called ISIS capital, Raqqa, "apparently to pre-empt any move by Saudi Arabia to send ground forces into Syria," Reuters reports.
POPE SLAMS MEXICO'S "MERCHANTS OF DEATH"
Speaking to more than 300,000 people gathered for an open-air mass just outside Mexico City, Pope Francis tackled the topic of drug violence, urging Mexicans to turn their country into a "land of opportunity," where "there will be no need to emigrate in order to dream," and where they will "not have to mourn men and women, young people and children who are destroyed at the hands of the merchants of death." Read more from Telesur.
JOHN PAUL II HAD CLOSE FEMALE FRIEND
The BBC has accessed hundreds of letters and photographs that tell the story of Pope John Paull II's "close relationship with a married woman," revealing what it characterizes as "a rarely seen side of the pontiff." Though one expert suggests the woman may have fallen in love with the pope at one point, there is nothing to suggest he ever broke his vow of celibacy or that the relationship was anything more than a very special friendship.
NIKKEI UP DESPITE ECONOMIC CONTRACTION
Japan's Nikkei jumped by more than 7%, the index's biggest surge since 2008, despite data released today showing that the Japanese economy contracted by 1.4% in the last quarter of 2015, compared to the same period for 2014. According to The Guardian, this apparently contradictory reaction from the market is probably based on the belief that the Bank of Japan will once again boost its money-printing policy, another suggestion that stock markets are addicted to stimulus. European stocks rallied in morning trading.
Australian police have seized 720 liters of liquid methamphetamine, worth $900 million, one of the biggest busts ever "down under," ABC reports. The drugs were found in a shipment from Asia, hidden inside bras and painting sets. Four people have been charged.
ISRAEL FOILS ATTACKS, KILLS FIVE PALESTINIANS
Israeli security forces shot dead five Palestinians, three of them teenagers, as they attempted to attack Israelis, Al Jazeera reports. According to the Palestinian Health Ministry, at least 176 Palestinians have been killed in similar circumstances since a wave of attacks that started in October 2015, killing 27 Israelis.
On the eve of its 500th anniversary, La Stampa visits the Venice neighborhood where Jews were forced to live, the place that gave the world the culture, confinement and the indignity of the ghetto. "There are only a few traces left of the Jewish population that made the quarter their home for hundreds of years," Maurizio Assalto writes. "There are some street signs here and there; the odd menorah jutting out from a facade; a kosher restaurant; a bakery selling traditional breads and sweets; an art gallery with paintings depicting the daily life of a bygone era. You may see the rare traditionally dressed Hasidic Jew passing by, but today there are only around 40 Jewish residents left in the quarter, out of about 500 in the entire city of 260,000."
Read the full article, The First Ghetto, Lost Beauty In Venice's Jewish Quarter.
MY GRAND-PERE'S WORLD
RUSSIA'S EX ANTI-DOPING CHIEF DIES
Nikita Kamaev, the former executive director of Russia's anti-doping agency, has died two months after a doping and corruption scandal involving Russian athletes forced him to resign, news agency Tass reports. The official cause of death is a heart attack.
ON THIS DAY
Socrates, FDR and the men's world pole vault record. Check out that and more in today's 57-second shot of history.