Obama signs Sandy aid bill
President Barack Obama signed a bill on Sunday approving US$9.7 billion in emergency disaster aid for victims of Hurricane Sandy, after a delay sparked outrage among East Coast Republicans against their own party leadership. The new law provides the Federal Emergency Management Agency with funds to pay the flood insurance claims of thousands of victims of last year’s killer storm. It also boosts the borrowing authority of the depleted National Flood Insurance Program, which is meant to cover the roughly 120,000 Sandy-related claims filed to date. Yet it is just a small wedge of the comprehensive US$60.4 billion package sought by the White House for victims of the storm. The Senate approved a larger bill on Dec. 28, but House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, stung by negotiations over the “fiscal cliff,” refused to bring it to the floor. The remaining US$51 billion in aid is to be put to a vote on Tuesday next week.
Lizard smuggler convicted
A court has convicted a German tourist of trying to smuggle four threatened iguanas out of the Galapagos Islands in his luggage, authorities said on Sunday. Dirk Bender was convicted “of having altered the local ecosystem of the archipelago,” park authorities said. The Galapagos National Park has requested the maximum four-year jail term for Bender, who should be sentenced in the coming days. Bender was arrested at the airport on Baltra Island on July 8 last year after park officials noticed him carrying a suspicious package. The reptiles in the package were Galapagos Land Iguanas (conolophus subcristatus), which the International Union for Conservation of Nature ranks as “vulnerable” on its Red List of Threatened Species. The yellowish lizards can grow to be more than 1m long, and weigh up to 13kg.
Riots continue in Belfast
Violence flared for the fourth night running in Northern Ireland on Sunday, hours after politicians and church leaders held talks in a bid to quell a row over Belfast Council’s decision to limit the days it flies the British flag each year. The ruling is viewed by pro-British groups as a concession too far to republicans. After three nights of rioting and attacks on police, Northern Irish chief police officer Matt Baggott said 52 officers had been injured, but warned that his force would deal firmly with the violence for as long as it was necessary. The discussions aimed at ending the violence took place at a Belfast church, but Robin Newton of the Democratic Unionist Party said a lack of engagement from protest organizers was making it difficult to see an end to the unrest.
Putin celebrates Christmas
President Vladimir Putin visited a convent as millions of Russians celebrated Orthodox Christmas overnight from Sunday. The Orthodox Church still follows the Julian calendar, meaning that Christmas Day falls on Jan. 7 instead of Dec. 25. In a televised Christmas message to Russians, Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill called on followers to preserve their faith “to ensure a progressive development of history, to prevent ruptures, disintegration and breaches of the historic fabric.” Putin lit a candle bare-headed and in an open-collared shirt along with parishioners in an icon-lined church outside of Sochi. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and his wife, Svetlana, attended the main Christmas service led by Patriarch Kirill in Moscow’s Christ the Saviour cathedral, along with more than 5,000 worshipers.