Depardieu goes Russian: The French actor and tax exile Gérard Depardieu has accepted Russian citizenship from his friend, Russian President Vladimir Putin. In a meeting at the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Putin gave Depardieu a Russian passport and a residence permit. Depardieu, recently jailed for drunk driving in Paris just months after he was kicked off an airplane in Dublin for drunkenly urinating in the aisle, renounced his citizenship because of France’s new higher taxes. He may be followed by another French actor: Animal-rights activist Brigitte Bardot has threatened to request Russian citizenship if the city of Lyon euthanizes two circus elephants rather than giving them to her animal sanctuary.
Pyongyang, North Korea
Private trip: Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson traveled to North Korea this week to try to negotiate the release of a jailed American and brought along an odd choice of companion—Google CEO Eric Schmidt. Richardson, a seasoned diplomat who has secured the release of Americans in the past, said he would visit Kenneth Bae, an American tourist arrested in November and charged with “hostile acts” against North Korea. Richardson said Schmidt accompanied him because he was “interested in some of the economic issues there, the social media aspect.” Only a few top elites in North Korea are allowed to access the Internet. The U.S. government had advised against the trip.
Protesting censorship: The Communist government’s censorship of a newspaper editorial has sparked protests and a national debate over press freedom. Guangzhou’s Southern Weekend newspaper wrote an editorial calling for respect for constitutional rights, but the censors changed it to a bland endorsement of the Communist Party. After 100 protesters demonstrated at the paper’s office and democracy activists sent out pleas for freedom on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, the government ordered all news outlets to run an editorial explaining that China wasn’t ready for a free press. The Global Times newspaper, which is close to the ruling party, warned readers not to expect “the ‘absolutely free media’ that is dreamed of by those activists.”
Assad digs in: As the death toll in Syria’s civil war passed 60,000, President Bashar al-Assad appeared on TV for the first time in six months and vowed never to surrender. In a rambling speech, Assad said he would continue the battle “as long as there is one terrorist left.” He offered a national reconciliation conference, but said he would only negotiate with those who had not committed treason. The White House said Assad’s offer was “detached from reality.” The Syrian army has escalated attacks on rebels in recent weeks, using new, Iranian-made missiles, and it is believed to have assembled chemical weapons. Israel, meanwhile, announced it would build a fortified fence on the Syrian border to prevent radical Islamists from smuggling weapons to Palestinian militants.
Ramallah, West Bank
It’s official: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has ordered his government to officially change the name of the Palestinian National Authority to “State of Palestine.” All official Palestinian documents, including stamps, will use the new name, and countries that recognize Palestine are encouraged to follow suit. Abbas’s office said the change was intended to promote Palestinian “sovereignty on the ground” and was a step on the way to “real independence.” Last November, the U.N. effectively recognized Palestine by upgrading its observer status to “non-member observer state.” Israel had no comment.
New South Wales, Australia
Scorched earth: Blistering heat and high winds across Australia have created the worst fire and drought conditions in the country’s modern history. Temperatures soared above 115 degrees, and in the bone-dry timber and grass, more than 100 fires blazed across tens of thousands of acres. Meteorologists added two new color bands to the weather map—neon purple and dark violet—to accommodate the unprecedented temperatures. Parts of New South Wales were rated “catastrophic” for fire danger, meaning that the fires can’t be controlled at all. Such fires can launch ember showers 15 miles away, and generate heat so intense it can kill people a mile away.