North African Challenges — The New York Times reports that Western countries face challenges in containing increasingly powerful militants in northern Africa. Last week, Islamic extremists seized a gas plant in Algeria for four days, which led to the death of at least 23 hostages. The well-armed militants have “many inviting targets to choose from [because] the region is rich with oil, gas, uranium and other international ventures that clearly represent Western interests and in some cases are poorly defended,” writes the Times. Another challenge is that Western countries have to rely heavily on the military of local nations, such as Mali and Algeria, who are allegedly not keen on taking outside advice.
The Cost of Revolution — Although Burma is on the cusp of a mobile revolution, the slow pace of progress and high costs of adding connections are leaving many unhappy, according to Reuters. Last week, the Burmese government invited expressions of interest for two mobile licenses and many foreign telecommunications firms are likely to reply before the deadline of Jan. 25. Still, there is growing public frustration over prices because phones start at around $285 and SIM cards start at $233, well out of the reach of most Burmese who make roughly $27 per month, writes the Quartz. SIM card prices were supposed to drop to $116 starting Jan. 4 but the plan was cancelled after a few had been sold.
Mercury Rising — More than 140 nations agreed on legally-binding regulations to fight global mercury pollution at a U.N. meeting in Geneva, reports the BBC. The rules, know as the Minamata Convention (named after the Japanese town that suffered from one of the world’s worst cases of mercury poisoning) will open for countries to sign at a conference later this year. The convention aims to decrease the amount of mercury released into the environment. Small-scale mining and coal burning are the two main reasons behind increasing mercury emissions. Mercury, a highly toxic metal, harms human health in various ways, including muscle weakness and permanent damage to the nervous system.
Iran Executions — Iran is stepping up its number of public hangings in a bid to cut crime, reports the New York Times. Iranian authorities have reported a rise in violent crime, mostly knifepoint robberies perpetrated by young men, and said they’re trying to prevent crime rates from getting out of hand by setting severe examples. On Sunday, two men in their early 20s, who were convicted of stabbing a man in November and stealing his bag and the equivalent of $20, were executed in a Tehran park. Hundreds of convicts are hanged in the country every year, but most of these executions take place inside prisons, notes the Times, with a public hanging generally seen as a rare occurrence.
Taking Flight — China has given the go-ahead for more flights between the mainland and Taiwan, with 58 flights to be added to the present 558, reports Channel NewsAsia and the AP. Air links between the two countries, which split in 1949 amid a civil war, have grown in recent years, as well as closer travel and trade. Mainland Chinese made 2.23 million visits to Taiwan in 2012, according to Taiwan’s National Immigration Agency, a growth of nearly 50% from the previous year.
Portugal Fraudster — A Portuguese economics expert and television personality has been exposed as a convicted fraudster who faked his credentials, reports the Independent. Artur Baptista da Silva had risen to become one of the country’s leading media pundits, known for his outspoken attacks on Portugal’s austerity cuts. But he was exposed when the U.N. confirmed to a Portuguese TV station last month that he had never worked for the organization, as he had previously stated. A media investigation subsequently revealed that he’d served a prison term for fraud, and that the university at which he claimed to be a professor actually closed in 1982. Baptista da Silva could soon face fraud charges, reports the daily.