More downed planes. Ukrainian officials say two of the country’s fighter jets have been shot down as clashes with pro-Russian separatists in the east escalate. The government in Kiev claims its troops have retaken two cities in the Luhansk region, which declared independence earlier this year in what many observers say was a sham referendum. Russia has reportedly increased its troop presence along the border. Slightly to the north, in the government-controlled city of Kharkiv, a Dutch military plane carrying the bodies of some of the victims of the downed Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 took off, headed for Amsterdam. Late yesterday, U.S. officials reiterated their belief that pro-Russian separatists fired the missile that felled the plane. So far, no one seems to have concrete evidence that Moscow was directly involved in the attack.
Positive steps? U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said this morning talks for a cease-fire agreement to stop the fighting in Gaza have taken positive steps forward. Kerry met early in the day with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah and plans to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv later today. The Palestinian death toll rose by 18 overnight, to 649. Another 4,120 have been wounded. Twenty-nine Israeli soldiers and two civilians have also lost their lives since the start of the 16-day campaign that began after a Palestinian teenager was abducted and killed in retaliation for three Israeli teens also abducted and killed. The top human rights official at the UN said both sides may have violated international humanitarian law and possibly committed war crimes.
Contraceptive mandate reset. Obama administration officials said last night they were working on a new accommodation for religious nonprofit organizations that object to providing contraceptive and abortifacient drugs under their health insurance policies. The possible policy change comes after Wheaton College won an emergency injunction from the U.S. Supreme Court in its fight against filling out a form it says makes it complicit in providing the drugs. Officials promise to announce the new accommodation in a month.
Crash landing. A small passenger plane crashed last night in Taiwan, killing 51 of its 58 passengers and crew. The crash happened in the Penghu Islands off the Taiwanese coast, where the plane was trying to make an emergency landing. The flight originated in Taipei. Taiwanese officials believe bad weather left over from Typhoon Matmo likely contributed to the crash.
Bon voyage. Residents on the Italian island of Giglio joined salvage crews to celebrate this morning as the Costa Concordia was cut free from its last tether and began its slow journey toward the scrapyard. The cruise ship capsized just off the tiny island popular with tourists two and a half years ago, killing 32 passengers and crew. Efforts to remove it from the sensitive ecological zone have been called one of the largest maritime salvage efforts in history. Engineers warned the ship’s hull was at risk of breaking apart as it was rolled upright and eventually re-floated. But the operation went off without a hitch.
Holy costumes, Batman! Comic-Con kicks off today in San Diego, where more than 150,000 fans will spend four days wallowing in pop culture excess. Unless you’ve seen every installment of the X-Men series and haven’t missed an episode of The Big Bang Theory, you probably don’t get it.