Three arrested at Trump inauguration sue DC over ‘police abuse’

File Photo - Protesters demonstrating against U.S. President Donald Trump take cover as they are hit by pepper spray by police on the sidelines of the inauguration in Washington, DC, U.S. on January 20, 2017. REUTERS/Adrees Latif/File Photo

(Reuters) – The American Civil Liberties Union sued police in the nation’s capital on Wednesday on behalf of three people detained during the U.S. presidential inauguration, claiming they were subjected to unconstitutional arrests, excessive force and police abuse.

More than 200 people were arrested in Washington in January after some black-clad activists among those protesting Donald Trump’s swearing-in clashed with police a few blocks from the White House, in an outburst of violence rare for an inauguration.

The lawsuit against the Metropolitan Police Department, the District of Columbia and individual officers claims the plaintiffs broke no laws at the protests and endured abuses including being pepper-sprayed and denied food and water for hours.

The plaintiffs include two individuals who came to the District of Columbia to express their views concerning the inauguration and a photojournalist who covered the demonstrations.

“The MPD’s extreme tactics against members of the public, including journalists, demonstrators, and observers, were unjustifiable and unconstitutional,” Scott Michelman, senior staff attorney for the ACLU-DC, said in a statement.

Since Trump’s election win, a number of demonstrations in U.S. cities have highlighted strong discontent over his comments and policy positions toward a wide range of groups, including Mexican immigrants, Muslims, the disabled and environmentalists.

Washington’s police department said in a statement “all instances of use of force by officers and allegations of misconduct at the inauguration will be fully investigated,” and that it will support the legal process.

It added officers worked diligently to protect the rights of thousands who came to the inauguration to peacefully express their views.

“Unfortunately, there was another group of individuals who chose to engage in criminal acts, destroying property and hurling projectiles, injuring at least six officers. These individuals were ultimately arrested for their criminal actions,” it said.

The lawsuit says photojournalist Shay Horse was pepper-sprayed while taking photographs and subjected to unjustified, invasive body probes.

It also said demonstrator Elizabeth Lagesse was peacefully protesting when she was arrested and handcuffed so tightly that her wrists bled.

(This story corrects number of people suing Washington D.C. in headline and paragraphs 1 and 4.)

(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Matthew Lewis)

Philippines says Islamist fighters trapped in corner of besieged town

Billowing smoke is seen as government troops continue their assault against insurgents from the Maute group, who have taken over parts of Marawi City, Philippines June 22, 2017. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco

By Manuel Mogato and Simon Lewis

MARAWI CITY, Philippines (Reuters) – Islamist militants holed up in a southern Philippines town have been cornered and their firepower is flagging, the military said on Thursday, as the five-week battle for control of Marawi City raged on.

Despite signs that the insurgents are now on the back foot, Southeast Asian governments are worried that the siege could be just the prelude to further violence as the ultra-radical Islamic State group tries to establish a foothold in their region.

Jolted by the May 23 attack on Marawi, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines have launched joint patrols to control the movement of militants across their archipelagic region and their foreign ministers gathered in Manila on Thursday for talks.

Malaysia is worried that militants who are flushed out of Marawi City by the fighting may try to cross from the Philippines to its eastern state of Sabah.

“We fear that they may enter the country disguised as illegal immigrants or foreign fishermen,” said Eastern Sabah Security Command (Esscom) chief Wan Abdul Bari Wan Abdul Khalid, according to state news agency Bernama.

It said Esscom had drawn up a “wanted” list that included two militants who spearheaded the attempt to capture Marawi.

They are Abu Sayyaf group leader Isnilon Hapilon, who was proclaimed by Islamic State last year as its “emir” of Southeast Asia, and Abdullah Maute, whose followers accounted for a large number of the estimated 400-500 fighters who overran part of the town, killing Christians and taking dozens of civilians hostage.

The fighting in Marawi broke out on May 23.

Military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jo-Ar Herrera said on Thursday the number of militants holding out in Marawi had dwindled to “a little over 100”.

Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Tampus said: “Their area has been reduced to 1 km square only.” Tampus’ troops are blocking escape routes across bridges spanning a river to the west of the militants.

“Our forces are coming from the east and the north and we are blocking the three bridges,” he said.

Tampus told reporters that the militants were still using snipers who were firing from “strategic nests” in schools and mosques, and homemade bombs were hampering the progress of Philippine troops as they advanced house by house.

He said he had seen at least five civilians dressed in black who appeared to have been forced to stand in the street as human shields.

According to official estimates late on Wednesday, 369 people have been killed during the month of hostilities, three-quarters of them militants. The number of security forces and civilians killed stood at 67 and 26, respectively.

For graphic on Philippines hostage drama, click: http://tmsnrt.rs/2sOnEp8

(Additional reporting by Karen Lema and Neil Jerome Morales in MANILA and Rozanna Latiff in KUALA LUMPUR; Writing by John Chalmers)

U.S. will take weapons from Kurds after Islamic State defeat: Turkey

U.S. Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis speaks at a press conference at the Australia-United States Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN) at Government House in Sydney, Australia, June 5, 2017. REUTERS/Jason Reed

ANKARA (Reuters) – The United States has told Turkey it will take back weapons supplied to the Kurdish YPG militia in northern Syria after the defeat of Islamic State, Ankara said on Thursday, seeking to address Turkish concerns about arming Kurds on its border.

Turkish defense ministry sources said U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis also promised his Turkish counterpart to provide a monthly list of weapons handed to the YPG, saying the first inventory had already been sent to Ankara.

Turkey sees the YPG as an extension of the outlawed Kurdish PKK, which has been waging an insurgency in the country’s southeast since the mid-1980s. It has said supplies to the YPG have in the past ended up in PKK hands, and described any weapon given to the force as a threat to its security.

The United States sees the YPG as an essential ally in the campaign to defeat Islamic State in Raqqa, the jihadists’ main urban base in Syria. The fight for Raqqa was launched two weeks ago, piling pressure on Islamic State which also faces defeat in its Iraqi stronghold of Mosul.

Mattis told Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Isik that a detailed record of all equipment provided to the YPG was being kept and that all the weapons would be taken back after Islamic State was defeated, the sources said.

In a letter to the minister, Mattis also said that Arab fighters would form 80 percent of the forces which will recapture Raqqa. Once the mainly Sunni Arab city was taken, it would be held by Arab forces, the sources said he told Isik.

Relations between the NATO allies have been strained by President Donald Trump’s decision to arm the YPG, despite protests from President Tayyip Erdogan who set out Turkey’s objections at a White House meeting last month.

Erdogan has said Turkey would retaliate against the YPG if it felt it was threatened by the group.

A Syrian war monitor and Kurdish sources said on Wednesday that Turkey had sent military reinforcements including troops, vehicles and equipment into an area of northern Syria where it has been fighting Islamic State and YPG forces.

Turkish officials have not commented, but the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Turkish reinforcements headed south of Azaz town, which is held by Turkish-backed Syrian rebels and is close YPG-controlled territory.

(Reporting by Ece Toksabay and Tuvan Gumrukcu; Editing by Dominic Evans)

Obamacare replacement bill to take center stage in Senate

U.S. Capitol is seen after the House approved a bill to repeal major parts of Obamacare and replace it with a Republican healthcare plan in Washington, U.S., May 4, 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

By Richard Cowan and Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A seven-year push by U.S. Republicans to dismantle Obamacare and kill the taxes it imposed on the wealthy will reach a critical phase on Thursday when Senate Republican leaders unveil a draft bill they aim to put to a vote, possibly as early as next week.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his lieutenants have worked in secret for weeks on the bill, which is expected to curb Obamacare’s expanded Medicaid help for the poor and reshape subsidies to low-income people for private insurance.

Those subsidies are expected to be linked to recipients’ income in the Senate bill, a “major improvement” from a measure approved last month by the U.S. House of Representatives that tied them solely to age, Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine said.

Some of the Senate bill’s provisions could be political land mines, with individual senators’ reactions to it crucial to determining whether or not the Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare, survives a Republican attack that has been under way since its passage in 2010.

The Washington Post reported on Wednesday that the bill would seek to repeal most of the taxes that pay for Obamacare, give states more latitude to opt out of its regulations and eliminate federal funding for Planned Parenthood, a healthcare provider that offers abortion services.

Former Democratic President Barack Obama’s signature domestic policy achievement has been a target of Republican wrath for years. But even with control of both chambers of Congress and the White House since January, the party has struggled to make good on its bold campaign promises to repeal and replace Obamacare.

The law is credited with expanding health insurance to millions of Americans. Republicans say it costs too much and involves the federal government too much in healthcare. President Donald Trump made Obamacare repeal a centerpiece of his 2016 campaign and celebrated the House-passed bill.

Democrats accuse Republicans of sabotaging Obamacare, and say the Republican bill will make healthcare unaffordable for poorer Americans while cutting taxes for the wealthy.

TOUGH SELL

But McConnell may have a tough job convincing enough Republican senators that the Senate bill improves on the House version. A Reuters/Ipsos poll found nearly 60 percent of adults believed the House bill would make insurance costlier for low-income Americans and people with pre-existing conditions. Only 13 percent said it would improve healthcare quality.

The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office estimated the House bill would kick 23 million people off their healthcare plans. Healthcare is a top priority for voters and many Republicans fear a legislative misstep could hurt them.

Collins said she would weigh the CBO’s upcoming assessment of the Senate bill’s impact on costs and coverage.

Conservative Republican Senator Rand Paul, who wants a full repeal of Obamacare, said he feared that with the legislation being developed, “we’re actually going to be replacing Obamacare with Obamacare,” referring to the continuing role of government.

If legislation is to prevail in the Senate, McConnell can lose the support of only two of his 52 Republicans, assuming all 48 Democrats and independents oppose the bill, as expected.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan and Susan Cornwell; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Peter Cooney)

Exclusive: South Korea president calls on China’s Xi to do more on North Korea nuclear program

South Korean President Moon Jae-in attends an interview with Reuters at the Presidential Blue House in Seoul, South Korea, June 22, 2017. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

By Jean Yoon and Soyoung Kim

SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korean President Moon Jae-in said on Thursday China should do more to rein in North Korea’s nuclear program and he would call on President Xi Jinping to lift measures against South Korean companies taken in retaliation against Seoul’s decision to host a U.S. anti-missile defense system.

In an interview with Reuters ahead of his trip to Washington next week for a summit with U.S. President Donald Trump, Moon said ‘strong’ sanctions should be imposed if North Korea tests an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) or conducts a sixth nuclear test.

“It must be sufficiently strong enough that it would prevent North Korea from making any additional provocations, and also strong enough that it will make North Korea realize that they are going down the wrong path,” Moon said.

The comments mark the toughest warning yet by the liberal former human rights lawyer, who was elected in May after campaigning for a more moderate approach to the North and engaging the reclusive country in dialogue. As a candidate, he said, sanctions alone have failed to impede Pyongyang’s defiant pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.

North Korea will acquire the technology to deploy a nuclear-tipped ballistic missile capable of hitting the mainland United States “in the not too distant future,” Moon said.

EXERT MORE PRESSURE

“I believe China is making efforts to stop North Korea from making additional provocations, yet there are no tangible results as of yet,” Moon told Reuters at the sprawling Blue House presidential compound.

“China is North Korea’s only ally and China is the country that provides the most economic assistance to North Korea,” Moon said. “Without the assistance of China, sanctions won’t be effective at all.”

Moon’s remarks echoed that of U.S. President Donald Trump, who said in a tweet on Tuesday Chinese efforts to persuade North Korea to rein in its nuclear program have failed. Top U.S. officials pressed China on Wednesday to exert more economic and diplomatic pressure on North Korea-level in talks with their counterparts in Washington on Wednesday.

“Maybe President Trump believes that there is more room for China to engage North Korea and it seems that he is urging China to do more. I can also sympathize with that message,” Moon said.

China accounts for 90 percent of world trade with North Korea. Diplomats say Beijing has not been fully enforcing existing international sanctions on its neighbor, and has resisted tougher measures, such as an oil embargo and bans on the North Korean airline and guest workers.

Washington has considered imposing “secondary sanctions” against Chinese banks and other firms doing business with North Korea.

G20 MEETING

South Korea and the United States agreed to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in response to the growing missile threat from North Korea.

But the move has angered China, which says the system’s powerful radar will look deep into its territory and undermine regional security. China has pressured South Korean businesses via boycotts and bans, such as ending Chinese group tours to South Korea and closing most of South Korean conglomerate Lotte Group’s Lotte Mart retail stores in China.

Lotte handed over a golf course it owned in southern South Korea so the THAAD battery could be installed there.

Moon said that while China has never officially acknowledged economic retaliation, many South Korean businesses face difficulties in China, and he hopes to hold talks with Xi at the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany next month to address the issue.

“If I have the chance to meet President Xi, I will ask for him to lift these measures. This is the agenda that we cannot evade,” Moon said.

“If we were to link political and military issues to economic and cultural exchanges, this could lead to some hindrance to the development of our friendly relationship between our two countries.”

Moon said he wants to sit down with as many world leaders as possible in Hamburg — including Xi, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin — where he expects the North’s nuclear program will top the agenda.

THAAD MYSTERIOUSLY ACCELERATED

Moon, who pledged to review the controversial decision to deploy THAAD during his election campaign and delayed full deployment of the system this month to review how the system will affect the area’s environment, said it was important to ensure domestic law and regulations are properly enforced.

“But for some reason that I do not know, this entire THAAD process was accelerated.”

In the first disclosure of the details of the schedule of the THAAD deployment agreed by the two countries last year, Moon said the original agreement was to deploy one launcher by the end of 2017 and the remaining five launchers next year.

In a surprise pre-dawn operation, the U.S. military moved two launchers into the deployment site in late April just days before the election. In addition, four more launchers had been brought into the country, which Moon called “very shocking.”

JAPAN’S WARTIME PAST

Japan is an important partner in the effort to resolve the North Korean crisis but Tokyo’s refusal to fully own up to its wartime past, its claims to the disputed islands between the two countries as well as its growing military spending are concerning, Moon said.

“If Japan were to show its strong resolve in looking back on its past history and sending a message that such actions will never happen again… then I believe that this will go a long way in further developing its relations with not only Korea but also with many other Asian nations,” he said.

Moon has said many South Koreans did not accept a deal reached by his conservative predecessor and Japan’s Abe in 2015 to resolve the issue of Korean “comfort women” — a euphemism for women forced to work in the Japanese military’s wartime brothels.

“Japan does not make full efforts to resolve issues of history between our two countries, including the comfort women issue,” Moon said.

Moon said he has “high expectations” for the upcoming summit with Trump next week and said the priority the two leaders have placed on North Korea has raised the possibility the nuclear issue will be resolved.

“I’m very glad that President Trump has made the resolution of North Korea’s nuclear issue as top of his priority list on his foreign affairs agenda.”

(Additional reporting by Jack Kim, Christine Kim, Heekyong Yang and Haejin Choi in Seoul; Editing by Bill Tarrant)

Tropical storm Cindy heads inland in Louisiana; one dead in Alabama

This graphic shows an approximate representation of coastal areas under a hurricane warning (red), hurricane watch (pink), tropical storm warning (blue) and tropical storm watch (yellow). The orange circle indicates the current position of the center of the tropical cyclone. The black line, when selected, and dots show the National Hurricane Center (NHC) forecast track of the center at the times indicated. The dot indicating the forecast center location will be black if the cyclone is forecast to be tropical and will be white with a black outline if the cyclone is forecast to be extratropical. Courtesy of NOAA and the National Weather Service

(Reuters) – Tropical storm Cindy was headed inland near the Louisiana-Texas border on Thursday morning and continued producing heavy rainfall and life-threatening conditions over the northern Gulf Coast, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.

The storm caused its first reported fatality on Wednesday when a 10-year-old boy struck by a log that a large wave dislodged while he stood near shore in Fort Morgan, Alabama, the Baldwin County coroner said.

Cindy is about 30 miles (45 km) west-southwest of Lake Charles, Louisiana, with maximum sustained winds of 40 miles per hour (65 km/h), is expected to weaken into a tropical depression later on Thursday, the Miami-based weather forecaster said.

“Now is the time to hide from the wind. Remain sheltered until the hazardous wind subsides,” the National Weather Service said in an advisory early on Thursday warning.

Cindy could drop six to nine inches (15-23 cm) of rain and bring as much as 15 inches to some parts of southeastern Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, the NHC said.

The storm could cause a surge of up to three feet (1 meter) in isolated areas and possibly spawn tornados from southern Louisiana to the Florida Panhandle, the NHC said.

Two tornados were reported about four miles (6.4 km northwest of Biloxi, Mississippi. Two more were reported on the northwest coast of Florida, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The Louisiana Offshore Oil Port, the largest privately owned crude storage terminal in the United States, suspended vessel offloadings but expected no interruptions to deliveries from its hub in Clovelly, Louisiana.

Energy companies with operations in the Gulf of Mexico reported little impact on production. Shell suspended some well operations and Anadarko Petroleum, ENI and Enbridge said they had evacuated non-essential personnel.

The Gulf of Mexico region is home to about 17 percent of U.S. crude and 5 percent of dry natural gas output, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee, editing by Larry King)

Trump’s son-in-law launches Middle East peace effort

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas meets with White House senior advisor Jared Kushner in the West Bank City of Ramallah June 21, 2017. Thaer Ghanaim/PPO/Handout via REUTERS

By Luke Baker

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, met Israeli and Palestinian leaders on Wednesday to try to revive long-fractured Middle East peacemaking that Washington acknowledged will take some time.

Kushner, a 36-year-old real estate developer with little experience of international diplomacy or political negotiation, arrived in Israel on Wednesday morning and was due to spend barely 20 hours on the ground.

Video showed him giving Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a friend of Kushner’s father, a handshake and a hug as they prepared to sit down with the Israeli ambassador to Washington, the U.S. ambassador to Israel and other senior officials for preliminary discussions.

“This is an opportunity to pursue our common goals of security, prosperity and peace,” Netanyahu said. “Jared, I welcome you here in that spirit. I know of your efforts, the president’s efforts, and I look forward to working with you to achieve these common goals.”

Kushner replied: “The president sends his best regards and it’s an honor to be here with you.”

Kushner did not speak to the media or take questions, maintaining the circumspect profile he has established since Trump took office in January.

U.S. officials and Israeli leaders “underscored that forging peace will take time and stressed the importance of doing everything possible to create an environment conducive to peacemaking,” the White House later said in a statement.

Kushner traveled to Ramallah, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, for two hours of talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas after iftar, the evening meal that breaks the daily Ramadan fast.

Abbas spokesman Nabil Abu Rdainah said all major issues at the heart of the conflict were discussed.

U.S. officials called the trip part of an effort to keep the conversation going rather than the launching of a new phase in the peace process, saying that Kushner and Jason Greenblatt, the president’s special representative for international negotiations, are likely to return often.

Trump has described peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians as “the ultimate deal” and made it a priority. As well as receiving both Netanyahu and Abbas in the White House, he visited the region last month.

But it remains unclear what approach Trump, via Kushner and Greenblatt, plans to take on resolving one of the world’s most intractable conflicts.

For at least two decades, the goal of U.S.-led diplomacy has been a “two-state solution”, meaning an independent Palestinian state living side-by-side and at peace with Israel.

But when Trump met Netanyahu in Washington in February, he said he was not fixed on two states saying, “I’m looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like”.

12 ‘BULLET POINTS’

Netanyahu has in the past given conditional backing to two states. But ahead of his last election victory in 2015, he promised there would never be a Palestinian state on his watch, a remark seen as an attempt to shore up right-wing support.

In discussions with Greenblatt before Kushner’s visit, Palestinian sources said the phrase “two-state solution” had not been used.

Palestinian sources said that ahead of Kushner’s meeting with Abbas, they had been asked to draw up a list of 12 “bullet point” demands they would want met in any negotiations.

They saw it as a helpful exercise in focusing on core elements rather than an oversimplification of a complex issue.

Trump administration officials have said that if they are going to make progress on peace, they do not want to get bogged down in process but to move rapidly on tackling what are known as “final status” issues, the complexities around Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees, water resources, security and borders.

Those have long been thorny problems in the multiple rounds of peace negotiations launched by both Republican and Democratic presidents since the mid-1990s. It remains unclear what new approach Trump’s administration may have to untangling disputes that blend politics, land, religion and ethnicity and have defied resolution for 70 years.

(Additional reporting by Jeffrey Heller and Ali Sawafta; Editing by Howard Goller)

Exclusive: Fake online stores reveal gamblers’ shadow banking system

A screen grab of the home page of website www.myfabricfactory.com taken June 20, 2017. www.myfabricfactory.com via Reuters

By Alasdair Pal

LONDON (Reuters) – A network of dummy online stores offering household goods has been used as a front for internet gambling payments, a Reuters examination has found.

The seven sites, operated out of Europe, purport to sell items including fabric, DVD cases, maps, gift wrap, mechanical tape, pin badges and flags. In fact, they are fake outlets, part of a multinational system to disguise payments for the $40 billion global online gambling industry, which is illegal in many countries and some U.S. states.

The findings raise questions about how e-commerce is policed worldwide. They also underline a strategy which fraud specialists say regulators, card issuers and banks have yet to tackle head-on.

That strategy is “transaction laundering” – when one online merchant processes payment card transactions on behalf of another, which can help disguise the true nature of payments.

Credit card companies including Visa and Mastercard require all online purchases to be coded so they can see what type of purchase is being processed and block it if it is illegal in a particular country. The codes are known as Merchant Category Codes. Gambling transactions, for example, are given the code of 7995 and subject to extra scrutiny.

The scheme found by Reuters involved websites which accepted payments for household items from a reporter but did not deliver any products. Instead, staff who answered helpdesk numbers on the sites said the outlets did not sell the product advertised, but that they were used to help process gambling payments, mostly for Americans.

Categorising a gambling transaction as a purchase of something else is against the rules of card issuers including Visa and Mastercard, the card companies said in response to Reuters’ findings.

“Transaction laundering is serious misconduct – often criminal,” said Dan Frechtling, head of product at G2 Web Services, a financial compliance company which works with leading banks and card issuers. “It violates the merchant’s agreement with its acquirer, allows prohibited goods and services to enter the payment system, and may flout anti-money laundering laws.”

Three other fraud experts consulted by Reuters said transaction laundering helps online merchants trade in areas that credit card issuers and banks may otherwise bar as “high risk,” such as gaming, pornography or drugs. Some of them say thousands of online merchants may be using similar techniques to move billions of dollars that card companies would otherwise block.

“It is the digital evolution of money laundering,” said Ron Teicher, CEO of Evercompliant, a cyber-intelligence firm that works with banks to identify suspect sites. “The only thing is it is much easier to do, and much harder to get caught.”

GATEWAY FOR GAMBLERS

The dummy stores came to Reuters’ attention in late 2016, when an anonymous document posted on the internet pointed to three online outlets that advertised products but did not actually deliver any. In December, a reporter placed an order for a yard of burlap cloth on one of the sites, myfabricfactory.com, a website run by a UK company called Sarphone Ltd. The fabric, advertised in U.S. dollars at $6.48 per yard, has “many uses including lightweight drapes,” the website says. Sarphone did not respond to requests for comment.

This order went unmet. After a few weeks an email from My Fabric Factory arrived saying the product was out of stock. The payment was refunded.

When a reporter called the helpline number given on the site, the call was answered by someone who gave her name as Anna Richardson. She said she was employed by Agora Online Services, a payment services provider. Payment services providers (PSPs) verify, process and code card transactions.

Richardson said Agora processes payments for poker and works with “hundreds” of online gambling sites. Asked which references on the reporter’s card statement would be for online gambling, Richardson said, “If you have been using a betting site of any sort … they are normally processed by us.”

It was not possible to verify Richardson’s identity. The My Fabric Factory email came from Agora’s email address, info@agrsupport.net. Agora, headquartered in Iceland and linked to companies from the UK to Germany, is owned by a Mauritius-based company, DueXX Ltd, according to Orbis, a company database. Andrej Brandt, one of two directors of Agora and listed as the sole point of contact on DueXX’s website, declined to comment.

“Thank you very much for your interest but I don’t like to share my views and insights,” he said via text message after Reuters presented its findings. “I presume you understand.”

The other director of Agora, Joerg Henning, could not be reached.

Reuters placed orders for household products on six other websites, all owned by companies in the UK. All the orders went unfilled and payment was refunded without comment. The sites used the same mail server as one of Agora’s web addresses, agrsupport.net, according to domain name records.

The site helplines were answered by three individuals who all said they worked for Agora, a company that specialized in processing gambling payments. One was the woman who identified herself as Anna Richardson. Another gave her name as Lucy, and the third, who did not give his name, told the reporter, “Most of the people who gamble and end up having our charges on their accounts are Americans. Gambling is illegal in America.” The staff said they were based in Germany.

When Reuters made payments on the seven sites, in each case the reporter’s credit details were processed by Deutsche Payment, a payment processor headquartered in Berlin. Its website says it is certified by the PCI Security Standards Council, a global payment card security body. It was included in Visa Europe’s May 2017 list of approved agents. Deutsche Payment did not respond to requests for comment.

The PCI Security Standards Council said it was up to the card companies to regulate payment processors.

Presented with Reuters’ findings, a spokesperson for Visa said, “We require all gaming sites to be processed under the relevant Merchant Category Code. Our rules are always subject to local law and we do not tolerate criminal activity.”

A spokesperson for Mastercard said: “When we are alerted to activities that may be against our rules or against the law, we work with the merchant’s bank to confirm or investigate the allegation.”

After Reuters approached the payment processing companies, all seven online stores stopped accepting payments, although they remain visible online.

ECOSYSTEM

Illicit gaming is hard to detect, partly because those involved cooperate to hide what they are doing, said Scott Talbot, head of government relations at the ‎Electronic Transactions Association, a trade organization for the payment processing industry that counts some of the world’s largest banks as members.

Also, sites like those found by Reuters are small cogs in a complex global infrastructure.

“Illicit finance is incredibly creative,” said Gregory Lisa, a partner at law firm Hogan Lovells who has worked for the U.S. Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network and as a trial attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice prosecuting money-laundering and fraud cases. “It is a very difficult arms race between the government and illicit actors and their financiers.”

Fraud specialists say dummy stores like those found by Reuters are not meant to be visited by the normal public. They are designed to be hard to spot, and their role is simply as a shop front to back up the bogus description.

Gambling sites that operate in countries where online gaming is illegal will take payment through their own sites, but then simply program the sites to give a reference to sites like the dummy stores in payment records, the consultancy Evercompliant says.

As far as the gambler is concerned, their payment has gone to the gambling site. Only when they see their card statement do they find a reference to the bogus store. If they visit the store and call the helpline number, the people who answer explain that the transaction actually corresponds to gambling – as Agora staff told the Reuters reporter.

Evercompliant, which has developed proprietary technology to help large banks and finance firms check sites they deal with, analyzed the seven dummy stores at Reuters’ request.

It found they were part of what it called an “ecosystem” of nearly 50 interlinked websites, owned by companies in countries ranging from Georgia to Latvia. It analyzed these sites and said if it had found such a network in a bank’s portfolio of customers, it would suspect transaction laundering, CEO Teicher said.

LOOPHOLES

Such sites get around checks by credit card companies by using loopholes in the system, according to Frechtling at G2.

Some banks rely on payment processors to vet online merchants. While most PSP firms are legitimate, their due diligence can be perfunctory, he said.

“Some PSPs will make a basic anti-money laundering check – for example, using sanctions lists,” he said. “But they may not do a full vetting of you until you start transacting. That is a weak link.

“Transaction laundering directly through a bank doing thorough due diligence would be relatively difficult, but at a PSP that is sponsored by a bank it is often easier.”

It was not possible for Reuters to determine which bank or banks work with Deutsche Payment or Agora.

The UK firms that own the seven dummy online stores were set up by Simon Dowson, whose company formation agency closed down in 2015 after businesses it set up were involved in global scams including money-laundering. Reuters revealed last year how Dowson used residents of the English town of Consett as part of the scheme.

Dowson’s wife, Tanaporn Thompson, also known as Tanaporn Dowson, was named as director of Sarphone Ltd, the owner of My Fabric Factory, for a week in January 2017. She could not be reached.

The person named in the UK company register as having ultimate control of Sarphone is another Consett resident, Emma Chambers. Chambers and Dowson did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

(Additional reporting by Lauren Young in New York and Ragnhildur Sigurdardottir in Reyjkjavik; Edited by Sara Ledwith)

England has 600 buildings with similar cladding to London blaze tower: PM May’s spokeswoman

Members of the emergency services work inside burnt out remains of the Grenfell apartment tower in North Kensington, London. REUTERS/Neil Hall

LONDON (Reuters) – An estimated 600 buildings in England have cladding similar to that used at the Grenfell Tower block where a devastating blaze killed at least 79 people, a spokeswoman for Prime Minister Theresa May said on Thursday.

“The estimate provided to us by councils is that there are approximately 600 high rise buildings with similar cladding,” the spokeswoman said.

“We are obviously in touch with all the local authorities to encourage them to urgently send us the samples and then we will carry out the checks that we need,” she said.

She added that cladding on three buildings has so far tested positive as combustible. The estimate does not include buildings in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

(Reporting by William James and James Davey; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

Mourners in Ohio remember U.S. student held prisoner by North Korea

FILE PHOTO - Otto Frederick Warmbier, a University of Virginia student who has been detained in North Korea since early January, attends a news conference in Pyongyang, North Korea, in this photo released by Kyodo February 29, 2016. Mandatory credit REUTERS/Kyodo/File Photo

By Ginny McCabe

WYOMING, Ohio (Reuters) – Friends and family members will gather in Ohio on Thursday to say goodbye to an American student who died days after being returned to the United States in a coma following 17 months in captivity in North Korea.

Otto Warmbier, 22, was arrested in the reclusive communist country while visiting as a tourist. He was brought back to the United States last week with brain damage, in what doctors described as state of “unresponsive wakefulness,” and died on Monday.

A public memorial will be held on Thursday morning at Wyoming High School, in the Cincinnati suburb of Wyoming. Warmbier will be buried later in the day at a local cemetery.

The exact cause of his death is unclear. Officials at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, where he was treated, declined to provide details, and Warmbier’s family on Tuesday asked that the Hamilton County Coroner not perform an autopsy.

Warmbier’s father, Fred Warmbier, told a news conference last week that his son had flourished while at the high school.

“This is the place where Otto experienced some of the best moments of his young life, and he would be pleased to know that his return to the United States would be acknowledged on these grounds,” he said.

After graduating as class salutatorian in 2013, Warmbier enrolled at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, where he was studying at the school of commerce and was a member of the Theta Chi fraternity. Warmbier was scheduled to graduate this year.

At a memorial service on Tuesday night, students at the university remembered Warmbier as outgoing and energetic.

“Being with Otto made life all the more beautiful,” Alex Vagonis, Warmbier’s girlfriend, said.

Warmbier was traveling in North Korea with a tour group, and was arrested at Pyongyang airport as he was about to leave.

He was sentenced two months later to 15 years of hard labor for trying to steal an item bearing a propaganda slogan from his hotel, North Korea state media said.

Ria Westergaard Pedersen, 33, who was with Warmbier in North Korea, told the Danish broadcaster TV2 that he had been nervous when taking pictures of soldiers, and said she doubted North Korea’s explanation for his arrest.

“We went to buy propaganda posters together, so why in the world would he risk so much to steal a trivial poster? It makes no sense.”

(Wrting and additional reporting by Timothy Mclaughlin in Chicago and Jacob Gronholt-Pedersen in Copenhagen; Editing by Kevin Liffey)