FBI admits mishandling tip about accused Florida gunman

Mourners leave the funeral for Alyssa Aldaheff, 14, one of the victims of the school shooting, in North Fort Lauderdale, Florida, February 16, 2018. REUTERS/Joe Skipper

By Bernie Woodall and Zachary Fagenson

PARKLAND, Fla. (Reuters) – The Federal Bureau of Investigation on Friday said it mishandled a January tip that the 19-year-old accused of killing 17 people in Florida had guns and the potential to carry out a school shooting.

A person close to accused gunman Nikolas Cruz called an FBI tip line on Jan. 5 to report concerns about him, the FBI said in a statement.

(For a graphic on Florida school shooting click http://tmsnrt.rs/2nX8ECo)

“The caller provided information about Cruz’s gun ownership, desire to kill people, erratic behavior, and disturbing social media posts, as well as the potential of him conducting a school shooting,” it said.

The tip appeared unrelated to a previously reported YouTube comment in which a person named Nikolas Cruz said, “I’m going to be a professional school shooter.” The FBI has acknowledged getting that tip as well but failing to connect it to Cruz, who is accused of carrying out the massacre at a high school in Parkland, Florida on Wednesday with an AR-15-style assault rifle.

“Under established protocols, the information provided by the caller should have been assessed as a potential threat to life,” the FBI said in its statement. “The information then should have been forwarded to the FBI Miami field office, where appropriate investigative steps would have been taken. We have determined that these protocols were not followed.”

The second-deadliest shooting at a public school in U.S. history also raised concerns about potential failures in school security and stirred the ongoing U.S. debate about gun rights, which are protected by the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

“We are still investigating the facts,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said in the statement. “We have spoken with victims and families, and deeply regret the additional pain this causes all those affected by this horrific tragedy.”

Leaders including U.S. President Donald Trump have linked mental illness to Wednesday’s violence, suggesting that it was the public’s responsibility to warn officials of such dangers.

“So many signs that the Florida shooter was mentally disturbed, even expelled from school for bad and erratic behavior,” Trump said in a Thursday tweet. “Neighbors and classmates knew he was a big problem. Must always report such instances to authorities, again and again!”

Cruz, who had been expelled from the school where he allegedly staged his attack for undisclosed disciplinary reasons, made a brief court appearance on Thursday and was ordered held without bond.

“He’s a broken human being,” his lawyer, public defender Melissa McNeill, told reporters. “He’s sad, he’s mournful, he’s remorseful.”

Wednesday’s shooting ranks as the greatest loss of life from school gun violence since the 2012 shooting rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, that left 20 first-graders and six adult educators dead.

News of the FBI’s mishandling of the last month’s tip about Cruz came as families of the 17 victims began to bury their dead. The first two funerals were for Alyssa Alhadeff, 14, a high school athlete and Meadow Pollack, an 18-year-old senior who had been headed to Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida.

Brian Gately, a friend of the Alhadeff family, said he attended Alyssa’s funeral and that the synagogue was so packed he had to stand in the rear.

“There was just really a lot of sadness in there,” Gately, a 51-year-old financial adviser who lives in Parkland said. The burial became more emotional, he added, saying, “People were yelling, ‘No, no.’ Kids were yelling, ‘No, no.'”

Trump tweeted on Friday morning that he would leave for Florida later in the day to meet people whose “lives had been totally shattered” by the shooting.

 

(Additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee and Mark Hosenball, Steve Holland, Roberta Rampton and Susan Heavey in Washington; Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Tom Brown and Andrew Hay)

Trump, Israel’s Netanyahu to meet at White House March 5: officials

FILE PHOTO - U.S. President Donald Trump speaks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland January 25, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump will host Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for a meeting at the White House on March 5, two U.S. officials said on Friday.

“The president has a great relationship with the prime minister and looks forward to meeting with him,” a White House official said.

The meeting comes as Netanyahu faces a political firestorm. Police have said they had found sufficient evidence for the prime minister to be charged with bribery in two corruption cases. Netanyahu has denied wrongdoing.

(Reporting by Roberta Rampton and Steve Holland)

U.S. and Turkey agree to mend ties; Turks propose joint deployment in Syria

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson shakes hands with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu after a news conference in Ankara, Turkey, February 16, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

By Yara Bayoumy, Orhan Coskun and Ece Toksabay

ANKARA (Reuters) – The United States and Turkey agreed on Friday to try to rescue a strategic relationship that Washington acknowledged had reached a crisis point, with Turkey proposing a joint deployment in Syria if a U.S.-backed Kurdish militia leaves a border area.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met President Tayyip Erdogan during a two-day visit that followed weeks of escalating anti-American rhetoric from the Turkish government.

While relations between Washington and its main Muslim ally in NATO have been strained by a number of issues, Turkey has been particularly infuriated by U.S. support for the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, which it sees as terrorists.

Turkey launched an air and ground assault last month in Syria’s northwest Afrin region to sweep the YPG away from its southern border. The United States has armed, trained and aided YPG fighters with air support and special forces, as the main ground force in its campaign against Islamic State.

“We find ourselves at a bit of a crisis point in the relationship,” Tillerson told a news conference after meeting with Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on Friday morning. He had met with Erdogan for a more than three-hour discussion on Thursday night.

“We’re going to act together from this point forward. We’re going to lock arms. We’re going to work through the issues that are causing difficulties for us and we’re going to resolve them.”

The United States has no troops on the ground in Afrin, where the Turkish offensive has so far taken place. But Turkey has proposed extending its campaign further east to the town of Manbij, where U.S. troops are based, potentially leading to direct confrontation with U.S.-backed units.

In a proposal that could signal an important breakthrough in efforts to overcome the allies’ stark differences over Syria, a Turkish official told Reuters that Turkey had proposed that Turkish and U.S. forces could deploy jointly in Manbij.

Such a joint deployment could take place if YPG fighters first withdrew to positions east of the Euphrates river, long a Turkish demand.

Neither Tillerson nor Cavusoglu, the Turkish foreign minister, directly responded to a question about Reuters’ report of a possible joint deployment to Manbij.

MANBIJ

Turkey would be able to take joint steps with the United States in Syria once the YPG left the vicinity of Manbij, Cavusoglu told reporters.

“What is important is who will govern and provide security to these areas,” he said. “We will coordinate to restore stability in Manbij and other cities. We will start with Manbij. After YPG leaves there, we can take steps with the U.S. based on trust.”

He also said the two countries had created a “mechanism” for further talks and would meet again by mid-March to further hash out their differences. Tillerson said issues around Manbij would receive priority in the talks, acknowledging Washington had not fufilled some of its promises to Turkey on Manbij.

“The United States made commitments to Turkey previously, we’ve not completed fulfilling those commitments. Through the working group, we’re going to address that and Manbij is going to receive priority,” he said.

Turkey’s pro-government media has been particularly scathing of the United States over its failure to keep a promise that the YPG would leave the town once Islamic State was defeated there.

“But it’s not just Manbij. We have to think about all of northern Syria,” Tillerson said.

Tillerson said he recognized Turkey’s legitimate right to defend its borders, but called on Ankara to show restraint in the Afrin operation and avoid actions that would escalate tensions in the area.

He also said the United States had serious concerns about local employees at its missions in Turkey and called on Ankara to release a U.S. pastor and other Americans detained in Turkey.

(Additional reporting by Ezgi Erkoyun in Istanbul; Writing by David Dolan; Editing by Gareth Jones, Peter Graff and Andrew Heavens)

Malicious cyber activity cost U.S. economy $57 billion – $109 billion in 2016: White House report

A hooded man holds a laptop computer as blue screen with an exclamation mark is projected on him in this illustration picture taken on May 13, 2017. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel/Illustration -

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A White House report estimated on Friday that malicious cyber activity cost the U.S. economy between $57 billion and $109 billion in 2016.

The estimate was contained in a report by the White House Council of Economic Advisers on the economic costs of cyber threats.

The report quoted the U.S. intelligence community as saying the main foreign culprits responsible for much cyber activity are Russia, China, Iran and North Korea.

(Reporting By Steve HollandEditing by Chizu Nomiyama)

Pakistan could face economic pain from return to terrorist financing ‘gray list’

: Vehicles run past the Centaurus mall in Islamabad, Pakistan November 23, 2017. REUTERS/Faisal Mahmood

By Drazen Jorgic, Michelle Price and Sumeet Chatterjee

ISLAMABAD/WASHINGTON/HONG KONG (Reuters) – The prospect of Pakistan being placed back on a global terrorist financing watchlist could endanger its handful of remaining banking links to the outside world, causing real financial pain to the economy just as a general election looms.

Washington and its European allies have co-sponsored a motion calling for the nuclear-armed nation to be placed on a “gray list” of countries deemed to be doing too little to comply with anti-terrorist financing and anti-money laundering regulations, with a decision expected next week when member states of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) meet in Paris.

The move is part of a broader U.S. strategy to pressure Pakistan to cut its alleged links to Islamist militants waging chaos in Afghanistan.

Pakistan, which denies such links, last month shrugged off a U.S. aid suspension worth $2 billion. But inclusion on the FATF watchlist could inflict real damage, bankers and government officials say.

Islamabad has sought to head off the motion by amending its anti-terrorism laws and by taking over organizations controlled by Hafiz Saeed, a Pakistan-based Islamist whom Washington blames for the 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed 166 people.

But there are concerns Pakistan’s nearly $300 billion economy, expanding at its fastest rate in a decade at above 5 percent, could lose steam if it ends up on the FATF watchlist, from which it was removed in 2015 after three years.

“We don’t think the consequences are going to be drastic but it’s definitely not good,” said one senior finance ministry official.

Military successes against militants and massive Chinese infrastructure investments have restored some vim to an economy hobbled by a long-running Islamist insurgency and wrecked by the 2008/09 global financial crisis.

Officials are aiming for economic expansion to hit 6 percent this fiscal year (July-June) and Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi’s ruling party will want to avert a slowdown in the lead up to a general election due in about six months.

Being placed on the FATF watchlist carries no direct legal implications, but brings extra scrutiny from regulators and financial institutions that can chill trade and investment and increase transaction costs, according to experts.

Mike Casey, a partner at law firm Kirkland & Ellis in London, said being put back on the gray list would heighten Pakistan’s risk profile and some financial institutions would be wary of transacting with Pakistani banks and counterparties.

“Others might elect to avoid Pakistan altogether, viewing the legal risks associated with doing business there to outweigh any economic benefits,” he said.

CURRENT ACCOUNT DEFICIT

A decline in foreign transactions and a drop in foreign currency inflows could further widen Pakistan’s large current account deficit, the Achilles heel of an economy that required an IMF bailout in 2013 following a balance of payments crisis.

Another major worry is that the likes of Standard Chartered, the largest international bank in Pakistan with 116 branches, or Citibank and Deutsche Bank, who mostly deal with corporate clients, would pull out.

Banks have been retreating from high-risk countries in recent years amid intense pressure from global regulators to guard against money laundering and terrorist financing.

“The level of due diligence is already high in countries like Pakistan, but if this goes ahead then the banks will really have to reassess the risk-reward scenario,” said a senior executive with a large foreign bank, which has business interests in Pakistan.

In September, Pakistan’s biggest lender, Habib Bank, was fined $225 million and effectively forced to shut its U.S. operations by the New York regulator due to compliance failures over money laundering and terrorist financing.

U.S. watchdogs have dished out more than $16 billion in fines for anti-money laundering (AML) compliance failings since the end of 2009, according to data compiled by Hong Kong consultancy Quinlan & Associates.

“No one wants to be get caught in a situation where for a few million dollars of business the bank will have to pay billions in fines,” added the foreign bank executive.

There is no immediate indication the handful of international banks that remain are considering leaving Pakistan, and banking sources point out that these banks are well-versed with the risks of operating in the country.

Citibank, in a statement, said: “Citi complies with all applicable U.S. and international anti-money laundering requirements and economic sanctions.”

Standard Chartered said it was “closely monitoring the situation and as a matter of policy, we do not comment on market speculation”. Deutsche declined to comment.

RAISING MONEY

The FATF threat has begun to weigh on Pakistan’s stock market, although local businessmen say the country’s companies are accustomed to operating in tough conditions.

Yet some are unnerved.

One Pakistani money manager launching an alternative investment fund said he fears his new venture could now struggle to attract U.S and European investment.

“It’s already tough to raise money in Pakistan and anything to do with a ‘terror financing’ watchlist will just scare people,” said the fund manager. “There will be more scrutiny and some foreign funds will back away.”

A Pakistani finance ministry source said the government also fears a downgrade by the credit ratings agencies, making it harder or more expensive for Pakistan to raise debt on the international markets.

“It reduces our credibility in the world, which is unfair,” added Pakistan’s State Minister for Finance, Rana Afzal.

Some Pakistani officials say there is growing confidence in the country that recent efforts against Saeed, who was the focus of the FATF motion, will be enough to stave off further action.

“We’ve taken the wind out of their sails,” said one senior Pakistani government official. “If we now get punished, it would be a political move and vengeful.”

(Reporting by Drazen Jorgic in Islamabad, Michelle Price in Washington and Sumeet Chatterjee in Hong Kong; Additional reporting by Catherine Ngai and Anna Irrera in New York and Thomas William Arnold in Dubai; Writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Alex Richardson)

U.N. urges Iran to stop executions of juveniles on death row

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein talks to reporters in Jakarta, Indonesia February 7, 2018. REUTERS/Beawihart

GENEVA (Reuters) – The top United Nations human rights official called on Iran on Friday to halt executions of young people convicted of carrying out crimes when they were under the age of 18.

In a “surge” in January, three people were executed for murders committed at 15 or 16, while some of the 80 juvenile offenders on death row are in danger of “imminent execution”, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein said.

“The execution of juvenile offenders is unequivocally prohibited under international law, regardless of the circumstances and nature of the crime committed,” Zeid said in a statement.

There was no immediate reaction from authorities in Iran, which has signed an international treaty strictly banning the execution of people who commit crimes under the age of 18.

In 2017, Iran is known to have executed five juvenile offenders, the U.N. statement said.

“I am sad to say that Iran violates this absolute prohibition under international human rights law far more often than any other state,” Zeid said, decrying the practice that has gone on for decades.

Among the latest criminals executed was Mahboubeh Mofidi, 20, who was convicted of killing her husband when she was 16, three years after their marriage, the statement said.

A fourth juvenile offender, believed to have been on the point of being executed on Wednesday, has reportedly received a temporary reprieve of two months, it said.

“There are appeal processes, but sometimes it’s rather opaque as to exactly what’s happening,” U.N. human rights spokesman Rupert Colville told a news briefing.

“Often you do get these kind of negotiations going on between the family of the convicted person and the family of the victim in murder cases,” he said, referring to “diyah” or blood money paid to halt an execution.

On Jan. 3, independent U.N. human rights experts called on Iran to spare the life of Amir Hossein Pourjafar, who was convicted of raping and killing a child when he was 15. He is among the three listed in Zeid’s statement as having been executed so far this year.

Zeid welcomed a bill passed in Oct. 2017 under which some drug offences previously punishable by the death penalty were now subject to a prison term, but said that the mandatory death sentence has been retained for a wide range of drug-related offences.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay, editing by Larry King)

Russian toll in Syria battle was 300 killed and wounded: sources

Russian President Vladimir Putin (C), Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu (R) and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visit the Hmeymim air base in Latakia Province, Syria December 11, 2017. Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik via REUTERS

By Maria Tsvetkova

MOSCOW (Reuters) – About 300 men working for a Kremlin-linked Russian private military firm were either killed or injured in Syria last week, according to three sources familiar with the matter.

A Russian military doctor said around 100 had been killed, and a source who knows several of the fighters said the death toll was in excess of 80 men.

The timing of the casualties coincided with a battle on Feb. 7 near the Syrian city of Deir al-Zor where, according to U.S. officials and associates of the fighters involved, U.S.-led coalition forces attacked forces aligned with Moscow’s ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Russian officials said five citizens may have been killed but they had no relation to Russia’s armed forces.

The clashes show Moscow is more deeply involved in Syria militarily than it has said, and risks being drawn into direct confrontation with the United States in Syria.

The casualties are the highest that Russia has suffered in a single battle since fierce clashes in Ukraine in 2014 claimed more than 100 fighters’ lives. Moscow denies sending soldiers and volunteers to Ukraine and has never confirmed that figure.

The wounded, who have been medically evacuated from Syria in the past few days, have been sent to four Russian military hospitals, according to five sources familiar with the matter.

The military doctor, who works in a Moscow military hospital and was directly involved in the treatment of wounded men evacuated from Syria, said that as of Saturday evening there were more than 50 such patients in his hospital, of which around 30 percent were seriously wounded.

The doctor, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not allowed to disclose information about casualties, said at least three planeloads of injured fighters were flown to Moscow between last Friday and Monday morning.

He said they were flown back on specially equipped military cargo planes which can each accommodate two or three intensive care cases and several dozen less severely wounded patients.

Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the Russian foreign ministry, said initial information was that five Russian citizens in the area of the battle may have been killed, but they were not Russian troops. She said reports of tens or hundreds of Russian casualties were disinformation inspired by Russia’s opponents.

The Russian defense ministry did not respond to Reuters questions about casualties in Syria. A Kremlin spokesman, asked about Russian casualties on Thursday, said he had nothing to add to previous statements. The Kremlin said earlier this week it had no information on any casualties.

Reuters was unable to make direct contact with the contractors’ employers, the Wagner group, whose fallen fighters have in the past received medals from the Kremlin.

The military doctor said that a fellow doctor who flew to Syria on one of the recent medevac flights told him that around 100 people in the Russian force had been killed as of the end of last week, and 200 injured.

The doctor who spoke to Reuters said most of the casualties were Russian private military contractors.

Yevgeny Shabayev, leader of a local chapter of a paramilitary Cossack organization who has ties to Russian military contractors, said he had visited acquaintances injured in Syria at the defense ministry’s Central Hospital in Khimki, on the outskirts of Moscow, on Wednesday.

He said the wounded men had told him that the two units of Russian contractors involved in the battle near Deir al-Zor numbered 550 men. Of those, there are now about 200 who are not either dead or wounded, the wounded men had told him.

Shabayev said the ward he visited contained eight patients, all evacuated from Syria in the past few days, and there were more in other wards in the hospital.

“If you understand anything about military action and combat injuries then you can imagine what’s going on there. That’s to say, constant screams, shouts,” Shabayev told Reuters. “It’s a tough scene.”

A source with ties to the Wagner organization, and who has spoken to people who took part in the Feb. 7 clashes, told Reuters his contacts told him more than 80 Russian contractors were killed.

The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the total of about 300 killed or injured was broadly correct.

He said many of the injured had shrapnel in their bodies that was not showing up on X-rays, making treatment difficult. “The prognosis for most of the wounded is dismal,” he said.

PROXY WAR

Other military hospitals treating the contractors are the Third Vishnevskiy hospital in Krasnogorsk, near Moscow, the Burdenko hospital near Moscow city center, and the Military Medical Academy in St. Petersburg, according to the doctor, Shabayev, and three other people who know dead or wounded fighters.

When Reuters contacted those hospitals by phone on Thursday, staff either declined to comment or denied having any patients evacuated from Syria.

A Reuters reporter visited the Burdenko hospital on Wednesday and spoke briefly to patients who said they knew nothing about anyone evacuated from Syria. Reporters also visited the hospital in Krasnogorsk, and a fifth military hospital, at Balashikha near Moscow, but were denied entry.

Russia launched a military operation in Syria in September 2015 which has turned the tide of the conflict in favor of Assad.

Russian officials deny they deploy private military contractors in Syria, saying Moscow’s only military presence is a campaign of air strikes, a naval base, military instructors training Syrian forces, and limited numbers of special forces troops.

But according to people familiar with the deployment, Russia is using large numbers of the contractors in Syria because that allows Moscow to put more boots on the ground without risking regular soldiers whose deaths have to be accounted for.

The contractors, mostly ex-military, carry out missions assigned to them by the Russian military, the people familiar with the deployment said. Most are Russian citizens, though some have Ukrainian and Serbian passports.

The United States and Russia, while backing opposite sides in the Syria conflict, have taken pains to make sure that their forces do not accidentally collide. But the presence of the Russian contractors adds an element of unpredictability.

PROBING MISSION

A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said last week that a force aligned with Assad, backed with artillery, tanks, rockets and mortars, had on Feb. 7 attacked fighters with the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces near Deir al-Zor.

U.S. special forces were accompanying the SDF forces that came under attack, officials in Washington said.

The U.S.-led coalition in Syria retaliated, killing about 100 of the pro-Assad forces, according to the official.

Since the battle, associates of Russian military contractors have said Russians were part of the pro-Assad force involved in the battle, and among the casualties.

Shabayev, the Cossack leader, said casualties were so high because the force had no air cover, and because they were attacked not by poorly equipped rebels, their usual adversaries, but by a well-armed force that could launch air strikes.

“First of all the bombers attacked, and then they cleaned up using Apaches (U.S.-made attack helicopters),” Shabayev said, citing the wounded men he visited in hospital.

The source with ties to Wagner said they told him the force struck by the U.S.-led coalition was made up mainly of Russian contractors, with a few Syrians and Iranians in support roles.

He said that on Feb. 7 the force had advanced toward the settlement of Khusham, in Deir al-Zor province, into a zone designated as neutral under a deal between the Russian military and the U.S.-led coalition.

The aim was to test if the U.S.-led coalition would react. The force advanced to within less than 5 km (3 miles) of the SDF and American positions, he said.

He said that the U.S.-led forces, in line with procedure agreed with the Russians, warned Russian regular forces that they were preparing to strike. He does not know if the warning was passed on to the contractors.

“The warning was 20 minutes beforehand, in that time it was not feasible to turn the column around,” said the source.

He said once the strikes began, the contractors did not return fire because they believed that would provoke even more strikes from the U.S.-led coalition.

(Additional reporting by Anton Zverev in MOSCOW; Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Giles Elgood)

U.S. officials warn ‘intense’ flu season to continue, urge shots

: A box of masks is shown in the emergency room at Palomar Medical Center in Escondido, California, U.S., January 18, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Blake

(Reuters) – Adults who get a flu shot are 36 percent less likely to get the disease, while for children the figure was an unexpectedly high 59 percent, U.S. health officials said on Thursday, predicting that the current “intense” season could continue for weeks.

Anyone not already immunized should get a flu shot despite the lateness of the season, because “some protection is better than none,” one of the officials told a news briefing.

A total of 63 children in the United States have died of influenza this season, and three-quarters of them did not get a vaccine, said Anne Schuchat, acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“This flu season continues to be extremely challenging and intense, with very high levels of office visits for flu and hospitalization rates, all indications that flu activity is high and likely to continue for several more weeks,” Schuchat said.

Flu symptom rates are close to those seen in the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic and for the past few weeks the whole country has been experiencing the flu, she said.

The current vaccine’s effectiveness rate is based on an interim study conducted nationally through Feb. 3 covering thousands of people, Schuchat said.

Effectiveness against the season’s dominant strain, the H3N2 strain, was lower at about 25 percent. It was better against the other viruses, at 67 percent against H1N1 and 42 percent against influenza B viruses, she said.

Getting the shot can mean the difference between a mild illness and a hospital stay, Schuchat said, particularly for people at higher risk such as children and the aged.

“There’s still plenty of time. Go get a flu shot. Do it for yourself, your family and your community,” Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told the briefing.

As many as 646,000 people are dying globally from seasonal influenza each year, U.S. health officials said in December, a rise from earlier assessments of the disease’s death toll.

(Reporting by Eric Walsh in Washington and Stephanie Kelly in New York; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

Grief and anger as Florida prepares to bury victims of school massacre

A handwritten note to a lost friend is surrounded by candles and flowers at a candlelight vigil the day after a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, February 15, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake

By Bernie Woodall and Zachary Fagenson

PARKLAND, Fla. (Reuters) – As families prepared on Friday to bury victims of another U.S. mass shooting, grief mixed with anger amid signs of possible lapses in school security and indications that law enforcement may have missed clues about the suspected gunman’s plans.

One distraught mother who said she had just spent two hours making funeral preparations for her 14-year-old child expressed disbelief that a gunman could just stroll into school and open fire, and she appealed to President Donald Trump to take action.

Bob Ossler, chaplain with the Cape Coral volunteer fire department, places seventeen crosses for the victims of yesterday's shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on a fence a short distance from the school in Parkland, Florida, February 15, 2018.

Bob Ossler, chaplain with the Cape Coral volunteer fire department, places seventeen crosses for the victims of yesterday’s shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on a fence a short distance from the school in Parkland, Florida, February 15, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake

Nikolas Cruz, 19, identified as a former student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, who had been expelled for disciplinary problems, walked into the school on Wednesday and opened fire with an assault rifle, killing 17 students and facility members and injuring 15 others, police said.

The shooting has raised questions among anguished parents about the adequacy of school security measures and renewed a national debate on Capitol Hill and elsewhere about the epidemic of gun violence in American schools.

“How do we allow a gunman to come into our children’s school? How did they get through security? What security is there?” Lori Alhadeff shouted into the camera in an emotionally raw appearance on CNN.

“The gunman, the crazy person, just walks right into the school, knocks down the window to my child’s door and starts shooting, shooting her …,” cried Alhadeff, whose daughter Alyssa was among the dead.

Cruz, charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder, made a brief initial court appearance on Thursday, in which he was ordered held without bond.

“He’s a broken human being,” his lawyer, public defender Melissa McNeill, told reporters. “He’s sad, he’s mournful, he’s remorseful.”

Daniel Journey (C), an 18-year-old senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, attends a community prayer vigil for victims of yesterday's shooting at his school, at Parkridge Church in Pompano Beach, Florida, February 15, 2018. Journey said he lost two friends he had known and grown up with since they were seven years old in the shooting. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake

Daniel Journey (C), an 18-year-old senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, attends a community prayer vigil for victims of yesterday’s shooting at his school, at Parkridge Church in Pompano Beach, Florida, February 15, 2018. Journey said he lost two friends he had known and grown up with since they were seven years old in the shooting. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake

“PROFESSIONAL SCHOOL SHOOTER”

Cruz may have foreshadowed the attack in a comment on YouTube, investigated by the FBI. The Federal Bureau of Investigation disclosed it received a tip in September about the message that read: “I’m going to be a professional school shooter,” by a user named Nikolas Cruz.

However, FBI agents had no information pointing to the “time, location or true identity” of the person behind the message, Robert Lasky, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Jacksonville office, told reporters.

YouTube ultimately removed the material in question, and the FBI’s inquiry was dropped until the name Nikolas Cruz surfaced again in connection with Wednesday’s massacre.

Authorities say Cruz, identified as a former student at Stoneman Douglas High who had been expelled for disciplinary problems, walked into the school shortly before dismissal time, pulled a fire alarm and opened fire as students and teachers streamed out of classrooms into the halls.

The sheriff said Cruz arrived at the school by way of the Uber ride-sharing service and left the scene on foot, mixing in “with a group that were running away, fearing for their lives.”

He walked into a Walmart, bought a beverage at a Subway outlet inside the store, then visited a McDonald’s before he was spotted and detained by a police officer in the adjacent town of Coconut Creek, Israel said.

Former classmates have described Cruz as a social outcast with a reputation as a trouble-maker, as well as someone who was “crazy about guns.” The sheriff has said some of the online and social media activity Cruz engaged in was “very, very disturbing.”

Wednesday’s shooting ranks as the greatest loss of life from school gun violence after the 2012 shooting rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, that left 20 first-graders and six adult educators dead.

People attend a candlelight vigil for victims of the shooting at nearby Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Florida, February 15, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

People attend a candlelight vigil for victims of the shooting at nearby Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Florida, February 15, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

“It is not enough to simply take actions that make us feel like we are making a difference,” Trump said at the White House in a speech that emphasized school safety and mental health while avoiding any mention of gun policy. “We must actually make that difference.”

Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives criticized the Republican leadership on Wednesday for refusing to take up legislation on tightening background checks for prospective gun buyers.

Some gun control proponents and legal experts said Wednesday’s shooting might have been averted if Florida were among the handful of U.S. states with laws allowing police and family members to obtain restraining orders barring people suspected of being a threat from possessing guns.

Cruz had recently moved in with another family after his mother’s November death, said Jim Lewis, a lawyer representing the family, bringing his AR-15 along with other belongings.

The family believed Cruz was depressed, but attributed that to his mother’s death, not mental illness, Lewis said.

For graphic on Florida school shooting, click: http://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/rngs/FLORIDA-SHOOTING/010060XH1SW/shooting.jpg

(Additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee)

FBI was warned about Florida man accused of killing 17 at school

By Bernie Woodall and Zachary Fagenson

PARKLAND, Fla. (Reuters) – The Federal Bureau of Investigation was warned in September about an ominous online comment by the 19-year-old man accused of killing 17 people at his former high school but was unable to locate him, an agent said on Thursday.

Authorities said the ex-student, identified as Nikolas Cruz, walked into the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, near Miami, on Wednesday and opened fire with an AR-15-style assault rifle in the second-deadliest shooting at a public school in U.S. history.

Students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School attend a memorial following a school shooting in Parkland, Florida, U.S., February 15, 2018. REUTERS/Thom Bau

Students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School attend a memorial following a school shooting in Parkland, Florida, U.S., February 15, 2018. REUTERS/Thom Baur

Cruz may have left warning signs on social media in the form of a comment on a YouTube video that read “I’m going to be a professional school shooter.” That comment troubled the person whose video Cruz commented on, Mississippi bail bondsman Ben Bennight, who passed it on to the FBI, according to a video he posted online late Wednesday.

“No other information was included with that comment which would indicate a time, location or the true identity of the person who made the comment,” FBI Special Agent in Charge Robert Lasky told reporters. Investigators were unable to find the commenter, he added.

The FBI is conducting an extensive review of how it handled that tip to see if mistakes were made, a federal law enforcement official told Reuters.

Wednesday’s shooting was the 18th in a U.S. school this year, according to gun control group Everytown for Gun Safety. It stirred the long-simmering U.S. debate on the right to bear arms, which is protected by the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

President Donald Trump addressed the shooting in a White House speech that emphasized school safety and mental health while avoiding any mention of gun policy.

“It is not enough to simply take actions that make us feel like we are making a difference,” Trump said at the White House. “We must actually make that difference.”

Broward County schools superintendent Robert Runcie called for action on gun laws.

“Now is the time for this country to have a real conversation on sensible gun control laws,” Runcie told a news conference.

Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives criticized the Republican leadership for refusing to take up legislation on tightening background checks for prospective gun buyers.

Mourners react during a community prayer vigil for victims of yesterday's shooting at nearby Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, at Parkridge Church in Pompano Beach, Florida, U.S., February 15, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake

Mourners react during a community prayer vigil for victims of yesterday’s shooting at nearby Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, at Parkridge Church in Pompano Beach, Florida, U.S., February 15, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake

“It’s appalling,” Representative Mike Thompson told reporters. “Thirty people every day are killed by someone using a gun, and the best we can do is say we need more information?”

The Republican-controlled Congress last year revoked Obama-era regulations meant to make it harder for those with severe mental illness to pass FBI background checks for guns, saying the rule deprived the mentally ill of their gun rights.

At least one member of Trump’s cabinet called for action.

“Personally I think the gun violence, it’s a tragedy what we’ve seen yesterday, and I urge Congress to look at these issues,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told lawmakers.

Fifteen people were injured in Wednesday’s shooting, according to local hospital officials.

‘BROKEN HUMAN BEING’

Cruz’s court-appointed lawyer said he had expressed remorse for his crimes.

“He’s a broken human being,” public defender Melisa McNeill told reporters. “He’s sad, he’s mournful he’s remorseful.”

Nikolas Cruz (C) appears via video monitor with Melisa McNeill (R), his public defender, at a bond court hearing after being charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, U.S., February 15, 2018. REUTERS/Susan Stocker/Pool

Nikolas Cruz (C) appears via video monitor with Melisa McNeill (R), his public defender, at a bond court hearing after being charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, U.S., February 15, 2018. REUTERS/Susan Stocker/Pool

Cruz had done paramilitary training with a white nationalist militia called the Republic of Florida, a leader of the group said.

“He had some involvement with the Clearwater Republic of Florida cell at some point,” Jordan Jereb said in a telephone interview. Reuters could not immediately verify the claim.

Cruz loved guns and had been expelled from high school for disciplinary reasons, police and former classmates said.

Authorities said he marched into the school wearing a gas mask and tossed smoke grenades, as well as pulling a fire alarm that sent students and staff pouring from classrooms as he began his rampage, according to Florida’s two U.S. senators, who were briefed by federal authorities.

In a brief court appearance, Cruz spoke only two words, “Yes ma’am,” when a judge asked him to confirm his name. He was ordered held without bond.

Cruz had recently moved in with another family after his mother’s death in November, according to Jim Lewis, a lawyer representing the family and local media, bringing his AR-15 along with his other belongings.

The family believed Cruz was depressed, but attributed that to his mother’s death, not mental illness.

Victims included an assistant football coach who sheltered students, a social science teacher and multiple students.

People who live on same street as Cruz said he alarmed them by shooting squirrels and rabbits in the neighborhood as well as chickens being raised in a nearby backyard. Several times a year, they observed law enforcement officials at his house.

“Killing animals was no problem for this young man,” said Rhoda Roxburgh, 45, who lived on the block for several years and whose parents continue to live there.

(Additional reporting by Jonathan Allen and Peter Szekely in New York, David Alexander, Lindsay Dunsmuir, Mark Hosenball and Susan Heavey in Washington, Jon Herskovitz in Austin and Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Tom Brown)