More than 100 killed in passenger plane crash in Cuba

Firefighters work in the wreckage of a Boeing 737 plane that crashed in the agricultural area of Boyeros, around 20 km (12 miles) south of Havana, shortly after taking off from Havana's main airport in Cuba, May 18, 2018. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini

By Sarah Marsh and Nelson Acosta

HAVANA (Reuters) – More than 100 people were killed in a fiery crash of a Boeing 737 passenger plane in Cuba on Friday, with just three seriously injured survivors in hospital after being pulled from the wreckage, officials and state media said.

The aircraft, on a domestic flight to Holguin in eastern Cuba, crashed shortly after taking off from Havana at 11 a.m. (1500 GMT). There were either 104 or 105 passengers, including five children, plus nine crew members, various state media said.

“We should expect that the news will not be good, as there are a high number of people who appear to have been killed,” President Miguel Diaz-Canel said in broadcast comments.

Rescue team members work in the wreckage of a Boeing 737 plane that crashed in the agricultural area of Boyeros, around 20 km (12 miles) south of Havana, shortly after taking off from Havana's main airport in Cuba, May 18, 2018. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini

Rescue team members work in the wreckage of a Boeing 737 plane that crashed in the agricultural area of Boyeros, around 20 km (12 miles) south of Havana, shortly after taking off from Havana’s main airport in Cuba, May 18, 2018. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini

The fire from the crash had been put out and authorities were identifying bodies, the president said. The cause of the crash was not immediately known and Diaz-Canel said authorities were investigating.

The Boeing 737-201 aircraft was built in 1979 and leased by Cuban airline Cubana from a small Mexican firm called Damojh, according to the Mexican government. That would make it significantly older than most planes in service.

Damojh in Mexico said it did not immediately have any more information. Cubana declined to comment.

Cubana has been the subject of complaints over service and delays in recent months, according to state media.

Wreckage of Flight CU972 was strewn over the crash site area 20 km (12 miles) south of Havana, a Reuters witness said, and blackened parts of the fuselage were visible. Its destination Holguin is the capital of a province that is popular with tourists for its pristine beaches.

“We heard an explosion and then saw a big cloud of smoke go up,” said Gilberto Menendez, who runs a restaurant near the crash site in the agricultural area of Boyeros.

Carlos Alberto Martinez, the director of Havana’s Calixto Garcia hospital, told Reuters that four victims of the accident had been brought there. One had died and three others, all women, were in a serious condition, he said.

“She is alive but very burnt and swollen,” said a distressed relative of one of the survivors at the hospital.

The reason for the plane going down was unclear. “During take-off (the plane) apparently suffered a problem and dived to the ground,” the Mexican transport department said on its website.

Most aircraft accidents take months of investigation to explain and are typically caused by a cocktail of different factors, according to aviation experts.

People look on near of the wreckage of a Boeing 737 plane that crashed in the agricultural area in Boyeros, around 20 km (12 miles) south of Havana, on Friday shortly after taking off from Havana's main airport in Cuba, May 18, 2018. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini

People look on near of the wreckage of a Boeing 737 plane that crashed in the agricultural area in Boyeros, around 20 km (12 miles) south of Havana, on Friday shortly after taking off from Havana’s main airport in Cuba, May 18, 2018. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini

CUBANA COMPLAINTS

Boeing Co said in a Twitter post: “We are aware of news reports out of Cuba and are closely monitoring the situation.”

Boeing 737 aircraft use engines made by CFM International, the supplier of the world’s most-used engines, built by a joint venture of GE and France’s Safran.

On Thursday, Cuba’s First Vice President Salvador Valdés Mesa had met with Cubana bosses to discuss public complaints about its service, according to state-run media. Problems included the cancellation of numerous domestic flights this year, and long delays which the company said were caused by technical problems with its aircraft.

Earlier this month, the company was ordered to suspend flights by its six Russian built AN-158 aircraft, of which most had reportedly already been grounded.

The last fatal crash in Cuba was in 2017, the Aviation Safety Network said. It was a military flight that killed all eight on board. In 2010, a commercial Aero Caribbean plane crashed in central Cuba. All 68 people on board were killed.

The latest available information on Cuba from U.N. safety aviation agency ICAO, dating back to 2008, ranks it above the global average, though that preceded the latest three crashes.

(Reporting by Sarah Marsh, Nelson Acosta and Marc Frank in Havana; additional reporting by Anthony Esposito, Julia Love, Dave Graham and Lizbeth Diaz in Mexico, Writing by Rosalba O’Brien; editing by Grant McCool)

Accused Texas high school gunman described as bullied loner in a trench coat

A picture shows Dimitrios Pagourtzis, the suspect in the Santa Fe High School shooting in Santa Fe, Texas, U.S., in this undated picture obtained from social media, released on May 18, 2018. Courtesy GALVESTON COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE/via REUTERS

SANTA FE, Texas (Reuters) – The teen accused of killing 10 people in a mass shooting at his Texas high school on Friday was described by fellow students as a quiet loner who played football but kept to himself and was reportedly the victim of some bullying.

The suspect, identified as 17-year-old Dimitrios Pagourtzis, was a junior at Santa Fe High School near Houston. Classmates remembered he often wore a trench coat, similar to the garment authorities said the assailant used to conceal the two firearms he carried into the school.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott told reporters the gunman was armed with a shotgun and a .38 revolver, both of which he had taken from his father. It was not known if the father was aware his son had possession of the guns.

While Abbott said there were few advance warning signs that the suspect had violent tendencies, one ominous social media post was an image of a black T-shirt with the words “Born to Kill” found on the Pagourtzis’ Facebook page.

The Dallas Morning News reported that the Facebook page also bore the image of a trench coat with Nazi insignia. The newspaper said classmates characterized Pagourtzis as unpopular and often the target of bullying.

“He was really quiet and wore like a trench coat every day,” Santa Fe High student Mateo Twilley, 15, told CNN on Friday afternoon. Twilley said he had played football with the suspect.

Another student, who was not identified, told reporters in a local television news interview Pagourtzis “stuck to himself. He never really talked to other people.”

The Houston Chronicle reported that a caption on the suspect’s Instagram page said, “we all die sometime.”

Pagourtzis was being held without bond Friday afternoon at the Galveston County Jail after being charged with capital murder, authorities said.

(Reporting by Ernest Scheyder in Santa Fe, Texas; Additional reporting by Jon Herkovitz in Austin. Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Tom Brown)

Exclusive: In run-up to Venezuelan vote, more soldiers dissent and desertion

Soldiers stand in formation before the start of a ceremony to kick off the distribution of security forcers and voting materials to be used in the upcoming presidential elections, at Fort Tiuna military base in Caracas, Venezuela May 15, 2018. Pictures taken on May 15, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso

By Girish Gupta and Anggy Polanco

CARACAS/SAN CRISTOBAL, Venezuela (Reuters) – Arrests for rebellion and desertion are rising sharply in Venezuela’s armed forces, a mainstay of President Nicolas Maduro’s Socialist government, amid discontent within the ranks at food shortages and dwindling salaries, according to documents and interviews with army personnel.

Internal military documents reviewed by Reuters showed that the number of soldiers detained for treason, rebellion and desertion rose to 172 in the first four months of the year, up three-and-a-half times on the same period of 2017.

Former military officials said the figures reflected a dramatic increase in the level of dissent within Venezuela’s once-proud armed forces. In the whole of 2017, a total of 196 soldiers were arrested on similar charges, according to the same documents.

As Venezuela prepares to vote on Sunday in presidential elections, which the opposition says have been rigged to consolidate Maduro’s grip on power, the role of the security forces will be under scrutiny.

More than 300,000 soldiers and police will stand watch at polling stations. But behind what will likely be impassive faces some soldiers are planning how to flee the country or fretting about how to feed their families on a minimum salary of just $2 a day, according to interviews with serving and former soldiers.

“It’s so demoralizing to open the fridge and see it empty of meat, fish, chicken, ham, cheese and other basics,” said a 42-year-old National Guard sergeant major with more than 20 years of service, asking for his name not to be used.

“When I joined, I used to buy furniture for the house and clothes for the family with my Christmas bonus. Now it gets me three cartons of eggs and two kilos of sugar,” he said in the border city of San Cristobal.

The Defense Ministry and government did not respond to a request for comment. They say military dissent is isolated among a few individuals rather than being a systemic problem.

FIRST LINE OF DEFENSE

During months of opposition protests last year, National Guard members were Maduro’s first line of defense against protesters, firing tear gas and rubber bullets as rocks and Molotov cocktails were hurled toward them. At least 125 people, including some soldiers and police, were killed.

But privately, some acknowledged even then being exhausted, impoverished, hungry and even sympathetic towards demonstrators.

As Venezuela’s economic crisis has dramatically worsened – with annual inflation hitting nearly 14,000 percent according to the opposition-controlled National Assembly – soldiers and police have joined the hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans pouring into neighboring South American countries.

Gerson Medina, a 36-year-old policeman from the border state of Tachira, said he left for Peru last year after political differences with his superiors.

“Sadly, security forces will continue to leave for Latin America and Europe because these elections are trying to demonstrate a false democracy in Venezuela,” he said in a phone interview.

Maduro’s government has said the elections are transparent and has accused the opposition of not participating solely because it knows it will lose.

While there is no firm data on departures from Venezuela’s 120,000-strong armed forces, interviews with serving and former soldiers, as well as internal military documents indicate hundreds if not more have left in the last year.

Since former soldier Hugo Chavez swept to power in an election in 1998 amid popular anger with Venezuela’s ruling elite, the military has played a leading role in the two-decade-old Socialist Revolution.

Under his successor Maduro, senior military officers have assumed prominent and lucrative roles running several ministries as well as state oil company PDVSA and a state food distribution program.

In public, the military top brass is standing by Maduro and ignoring appeals from the opposition to intervene to prevent what they say is a consolidation of dictatorship.

However, Maduro’s government refers frequently to foiled coup plots against it and it has quelled some small but high-profile rebellions within the security forces.

Last year, rogue police officer Oscar Perez hijacked a helicopter and fired at government buildings in what he said was an action against a dictator. Perez was hunted down and killed by Venezuelan forces in January.

A National Guard captain, Juan Carlos Caguaripano, early last year attacked a military base with a group of current and former military officials. He was captured soon after.

“The same thing is happening in the barracks as is happening in the slums: people are going hungry; they are suffering an overwhelming crisis,” said Henri Falcon, a former soldier who has bucked the broad opposition boycott and is Maduro’s primary opponent in the election.

Maduro, expected to win on Sunday, has said that he is the victim of an “armed insurrection” by U.S.-backed opponents seeking to gain control of the OPEC country’s oil wealth.

MILITARY OUSTER

In August, U.S. President Donald Trump threatened military intervention in Venezuela – a move that would likely prove unpopular with neighboring governments in a region wary of American intervention.

However, in February, then-U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suggested the Venezuelan military might decide to oust Maduro.

“Whether he meant to or not, Tillerson was signaling U.S. pre-acceptance of a military coup to remove Maduro,” said a former senior CIA official speaking on condition of anonymity.

“Some of the biggest ‘U.S.-supported’ actions were not done by people we hired and trained for the task. They were done by fence-sitters who, once they saw we would approve, made their move,” the official said.

Some investors in recent weeks have even bought Venezuela’s defaulted debt on speculation that Maduro’s reelection could prompt the military to intervene to prevent economic collapse.

Venezuela is no stranger to military coups.

Then-paratrooper Chavez attempted to seize power militarily in 1992 though failed. It was soon after that attempt that he and Maduro became close.

A decade later, as president, Chavez was himself ousted from power for a couple of days by military officers and business leaders.

Herbert Garcia, a former senior army general and government minister who split with Maduro and now lives in the United States, said a successful uprising did not look imminent.

“In order for a military coup to succeed, political coordination with a strong, credible and united opposition must exist. It doesn’t,” he told Reuters, referring to the country’s fragmented political opposition.

Meanwhile, some soldiers in Venezuela admit their unhappiness but want to stick around in the military.

“We cannot be happy with this situation, I love my country and I’m not leaving,” said one National Guard soldier, with more than a decade of service, standing at a command post in Tachira. “I’ll be here to turn off the light when everyone has gone.”

See graphics on upcoming elections in Latin America http://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/rngs/VENEZUELA-ELECTION-ABSTENTION/0100700M01D/index.html and in Venezuela http://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/rngs/VENEZUELA-ELECTION/0100703N08H/index.html.

(Additional reporting by Vivian Sequera and Leon Wiefeld Writing by Girish Gupta; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne, Daniel Flynn and Frances Kerry)

Many feared dead, injured in passenger plane crash in Cuba

Firefighters work in the wreckage of a Boeing 737 plane that crashed in the agricultural area of Boyeros, around 20 km (12 miles) south of Havana, shortly after taking off from Havana's main airport in Cuba, May 18, 2018. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini

By Sarah Marsh and Nelson Acosta

HAVANA (Reuters) – A Boeing 737 plane crashed on Friday shortly after taking off from Havana’s main airport on a domestic flight, with a number of people feared dead or injured, Reuters witnesses and officials said.

There were at least three possible survivors among the 105 passengers plus nine crew, Cuban state-run media reported, adding that there were five children on board. Earlier reports on state media said there were 104 passengers.

The number of casualties was not immediately known, but Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel, visiting the site of the crash, told Agence France Presse: “It appears there is a high number of victims.”

Wreckage was strewn over the area and ambulances and firefighters were at the scene, a Reuters witness said. The fire had been put out, and blackened parts of the fuselage could be seen.

“We heard an explosion and then saw a big cloud of smoke go up,” said Gilberto Menendez, who runs a restaurant near the crash site in the agricultural area of Boyeros, 20 km (12 miles) south of Havana.

A worker at Havana’s Calixto Garcia hospital told Reuters three victims of the accident had arrived so far. One had died from burns and other trauma and the other two were in a serious state.

“She is alive but very burnt and swollen,” said a distressed relative of one of the survivors at the hospital.

The flight was destined for Holguin and was leased by airline Cubana from a small Mexican airline called Damojh or Global, Cuban state media said. Cubana declined to comment.

Holguin in eastern Cuba is home to some of the island’s most pristine beaches, and attracts tourists. The nationality of those on board was not immediately clear. State media said that the crew were foreign, but provided no further details.

Flight tracking websites indicated the flight was CU972, departing Havana at 11 a.m. (1500 GMT).

Boeing Co said in a Twitter post: “We are aware of news reports out of Cuba and are closely monitoring the situation.”

A Damojh representative told Reuters in Mexico: “There is still no information, we are gathering what we can to give correct information. As the day progresses there will be more information.”

The last fatal crash in Cuba was in 2017, the Aviation Safety Network said. It was a military flight that killed all eight personnel aboard. In 2010, a commercial Aero Caribbean plane crashed in central Cuba. All 68 people on board were killed.

(Reporting by Sarah Marsh and Nelson Acosta in Havana; additional reporting by Anthony Esposito and Dave Graham in Mexico, Writing by Rosalba O’Brien; editing by Grant McCool)

Gunman shouting anti-Trump slogans arrested at Miami resort

By Zachary Fagenson

DORAL, Fla. (Reuters) – A gunman railing against U.S. President Donald Trump opened fire in one of the Republican’s Florida golf resorts early on Friday, exchanging gunshots with Miami police who wounded and arrested him, officials said.

Neither Trump nor any of his immediate family members were at the Trump National Doral Miami at the time, according to the Secret Service. The golf club is about 70 miles (113 km) south of the Palm Beach resort that Trump has visited regularly during his term.

The man “was trying to lure our officers … into this gunfight. He did succeed, and he did lose. That’s the bottom line,” Miami-Dade Police Director Juan Perez said at a news briefing, adding it was not clear what motivated his actions.

The man lowered a flag that was flying outside the Miami-area club, went into the lobby at about 1:30 a.m. EDT (0530 GMT) and draped it over the counter. He pointed a gun at people in the lobby, fired at the ceiling and a chandelier and waited to attack responding officers, Perez said.

The gunman, identified as Jonathan Oddi, 42, of Doral, was shouting anti-Trump remarks during the incident, Perez said. He said he did not know specifically what Oddi had said.

Police shot Oddi in the legs and took him into custody, and he was in hospital in stable condition.

Social media pages that appeared to be created by Oddi said that he owned a gemstone company, was a real estate investor and had been a volunteer Santa Claus at a Miami hospital in 2013.

Guests at the golf resort said they were awakened by the sound of gunshots and emergency vehicles. They were not apprised of any details of the incident by the hotel and only learned of it through news reports, they said.

“We’re staying near the lobby and my husband said he thought he heard shots,” said Ana Marta Fernandez, 49, who was visiting from Uruguay.

She said the hotel had said little more than that the golf courses were closed for the day.

“So far they’ve offered us nothing as compensation,” Fernandez said.

A resort representative was not immediately available to comment.

The U.S. Secret Service, which guards the president and his family, said in a statement that no one under its protection was in the Miami area at the time. The agency does not protect the club, but is working with police who are investigating the shooting, it said.

A Doral police officer suffered a broken arm that was not related to gunfire. Police have not said what kind of weapon the suspect had.

Authorities are trying to find out how Oddi gained entry to the 800-acre (323-hectare) Doral golf club.

Trump National Doral Golf Club is home to four championship golf courses. Trump bought the property for $150 million in 2012.

(Reporting by Zachary Fagenson in Miami, additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee and Ian Simpson in Washington; Editing by Scott Malone and Bernadette Baum)

Teen gunman who killed 10 at Texas school planned suicide: governor

Police keep a roadblock on a main road to Santa Fe High School where police found explosives after an early morning shool shooting that left several people dead in Santa Fe, Texas, U.S., May 18, 2018. REUTERS/Trish Badger

By Liz Hampton and Erwin Seba

SANTA FE, Texas (Reuters) – Texas officials charged a 17-year-old student with murder in the shooting of 10 people, including fellow pupils, at his high school on Friday in an attack similar to the massacre at a Florida high school earlier this year.

Dimitrios Pagourtzis, the suspect in the Santa Fe High School shooting is shown in this booking photo at the Galveston County Jail, released by the Galveston County Sheriff’s Office in Texas, U.S., May 18, 2018. Courtesy Galveston County Sheriff’s Office/Handout via REUTERS

Students said a gunman, identified by law enforcement as Dimitrios Pagourtzis, opened fire in a classroom at Santa Fe High School shortly before 8 a.m. CT (1300 GMT) on Friday, and that they fled in panic after seeing classmates wounded and a fire alarm triggered a full evacuation. Ten people were hurt in the attack, Texas Governor Greg Abbott said.

It was the latest in a long series of deadly shootings at U.S. schools. Seventeen teens and educators were shot dead at a Parkland, Florida, high school in February, a massacre that stirred the nation’s long-running debate over gun ownership.

The Galveston County Sheriff’s Office identified Pagourtzis and said he had been charged with capital murder in a post on its Facebook page. More charges could follow.

Speaking to reporters before the teen was identified, Abbott told reporters that the suspect had used a shotgun and a .38 revolver taken from his father in the fourth-deadliest mass shooting at a U.S. public school.

“Not only did he want to commit the shooting, but he wanted to commit suicide after the shooting,” Abbott said, citing a police review of the suspect’s journals. “He didn’t have the courage to commit suicide.”

Two other people are in custody, Abbott said.

Investigators are talking to the suspect, Steven McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, said.

Abbott said that investigators had seen a T-shirt on the suspect’s Facebook page that read “Born to Kill.”

Explosive devices had also been found at the school, located about 30 miles (48 km) southeast of Houston, and off campus, Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez tweeted.

Police were searching two homes and a vehicle linked to the suspect, where they have found multiple homemade explosive devices, Abbott said.

First responders following a shooting at Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas, May 18, 2018. Courtesy Harris County Sheriff's Office/via REUTERS

First responders following a shooting at Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas, May 18, 2018. Courtesy Harris County Sheriff’s Office/via REUTERS

‘THE GUY BEHIND ME WAS DEAD’

Courtney Marshall, a 15-year-old freshman at the school, said the gunman came into her art class shooting.

“I wanted to take care of my friends, but I knew I had to get out of there,” Marshall said, saying that she saw at least one person hit. “I knew the guy behind me was dead.”

Orlando Gonzalez said that his 16-year-old son Keaton, fled the attack, but one of his friends was shot and wounded.

“I was really worried, I didn’t know what was going on … I almost couldn’t drive,” Gonzalez said. “I just imagine what he’s going through … He’s still scared.”

The school has some 1,462 students, according to federal education data.

U.S. President Donald Trump called the latest school massacre “absolutely horrific.”

“My administration is determined to do everything in our power to protect our students, secure our schools and to keep weapons out of the hands of those who pose a threat to themselves and to others,” Trump said at the White House.

Days after the Parkland shooting, Trump said that elected officials should be ready to “fight” the powerful National Rifle Association lobby group. Early this month he embraced that group, telling its annual meeting in Dallas “your Second Amendment rights are under siege.”

The Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects the right to bear arms.

No major federal gun controls have been imposed since Parkland, though the administration is pursuing a proposed regulatory ban on “bump stocks,” which enable a semi-automatic rifle to fire a steady stream of bullets. The devices were used in an October 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas that killed 59 people but have not played a role in other major U.S. mass shootings.

(Additional reporting by Ernest Scheyder and Liz Hampton in Houston, Gina Cherelus and Peter Szekely in New York and Mark Hosenball and Ian Simpson in Washington; Writing by Daniel Wallis and Scott Malone; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Susan Thomas)

 

Trump proposes taking funds away from abortion providers

U.S. President Donald Trump gestures as he delivers remarks during the Prison Reform Summit at the White House in Washington, U.S., May 18, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Roberta Rampton

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday issued a proposal that would effectively stop giving government funds that subsidize birth control for low-income women to Planned Parenthood and other clinics that provide abortions.

The plan is aimed at fulfilling Trump’s campaign pledge to defund Planned Parenthood, an organization that provides abortions and other health services for women, and comes as Republicans push to energize Trump supporters ahead of November congressional elections.

Congress provided $286 million in Title X grants in 2017 to Planned Parenthood and other health centers to provide birth control, screening for diseases and cancer, and other reproductive counseling to low-income women.

The funding cannot be used for abortions, but abortion opponents have long complained that the money subsidizes Planned Parenthood itself.

“You can still get an abortion in this country. You can get it in many different places. We don’t just don’t think taxpayers should have to pay for that,” said Kellyanne Conway, a top adviser to Trump, on Fox News Channel.

Planned Parenthood said it would not back down from providing abortions and counseling, and would fight the rule in court if needed.

The group provides healthcare services to about 40 percent of the 4 million people covered by the Title X program, and said community health centers would not be able to absorb its patients.

The organization called it a “gag rule” that would roll back a requirement that medical professionals provide information about abortions.

“If a woman is pregnant and wants or needs an abortion, under this rule, her provider will be prohibited from telling her where she could get one,” Dawn Laguens, executive vice president of the group, told reporters.

REVIEW PROCESS

Groups that oppose abortion said the plan would not ban abortion counseling, but would ensure that taxpayer funding does not support clinics that also perform abortions.

The Susan B. Anthony List, a group that backs political candidates who oppose abortion, praised the move. Trump is scheduled to speak at its fundraising gala next week.

“This is a major victory which will energize the grassroots as we head into the critical midterm elections,” the group said in a statement.

The timelines and details of the proposal from the Department of Health and Human Services were not immediately available. The plan will go through a review process run by the White House Office of Management and Budget.

“The proposal would require a bright line of physical as well as financial separation between Title X programs and any program (or facility) where abortion is performed, supported, or referred for as a method of family planning,” an administration official said in a statement.

In February, the Trump administration shifted guidelines for the Title X grants toward prioritizing groups that are faith-based and counsel abstinence.

Earlier this month, Planned Parenthood and the National Family Planning & Reproductive Health Association filed lawsuits seeking to block the change.

(Reporting by Roberta Rampton; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

At least eight dead, explosives found in Texas school shooting: sheriff

First responders following a shooting at Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas, May 18, 2018. Courtesy Harris County Sheriff's Office/via REUTERS

By Erwin Seba

SANTA FE, Texas (Reuters) – At least eight people died in a shooting at a Santa Fe, Texas, high school on Friday and police searching the building said they had taken into custody a student suspected of the attack and found explosives in the school building.

The sound of gunshots tore through the air at Santa Fe High School shortly before 8 a.m. CT (1300 GMT) on Friday, witnesses told local media, and live TV images showed lines of students evacuating the building while heavily armed police responded to the scene.

The incident was the latest in a long series of deadly shootings at U.S. schools. Seventeen teens and educators were shot dead at a Parkland, Florida, high school in February, a massacre that stirred the nation’s long-running debate over gun ownership.

Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said that eight to 10 people, both students and adults, died in the incident at the school about 30 miles (48 km) southeast of Houston.

“There is one person, a suspect, in custody and a second possible person of interest that is detained and being questioned,” Gonzalez said at a news conference.

Explosive devices had also been found at the school and off campus, Gonzalez tweeted. “Law enforcement is in the process of rendering them safe. School has been evacuated.”

The suspect is a 17-year-old male, a law enforcement source who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly discuss the investigation, told Reuters.

At least nine people were taken to area hospitals for treatment, hospital officials said. The conditions of those people was not immediately clear. Gonzalez said a police officer was also being treated for injuries.

Sophomore Leila Butler told the local ABC affiliate that fire alarms went off at about 7:45 a.m. local time (1245 GMT) and students left their classrooms. She said some students believe they heard shots fired, and that she was sheltering with other students and teachers near campus.

‘WE ALL TOOK OFF’

A male student, who did not identify himself, described fleeing the scene in an interview with CBS affiliate KHOU.

“Three shots that I heard, so we all took off in the back and I tried to get into the trees, I didn’t want to be in sight. I heard four more shots, and then we jumped the fence to somebody’s house,” the student said.

Another sophomore, Dakota Shrader, told Fox 26 TV her 17-year-old girlfriend told her by phone that she was wounded but was recovering in a hospital. “My friend got injured,” said an emotional Shrader. “Her leg, she got shot in the leg.”

Dr. David Marshall, chief nursing officer at the University of Texas Medical Branch, said that the hospital was treating at least three patients – two adults and one person under 18. He said it was not immediately clear if that child was a student.

U.S. President Donald Trump called the latest school massacre heartbreaking.

“My administration is determined to do everything in our power to protect our students, secure our schools and to keep weapons out of the hands of those who pose a threat to themselves and to others,” Trump said at the White House.

Days after the Parkland shooting, Trump said that elected officials should be ready to “fight” the powerful National Rifle Association lobby group. Early this month he embraced that group, telling its annual meeting in Dallas “your Second Amendment rights are under siege.”

The Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects the right to bear arms.

No major federal gun controls have been imposed since Parkland, though the administration is pursuing a proposed regulatory ban on “bump stocks,” which enable a semi-automatic rifle to fire a steady stream of bullets. The devices were used in an October 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas that killed 59 people but have not played a role in other major U.S. mass shootings.

(Additional reporting by Ernest Scheyder and Liz Hampton in Houston, Gina Cherelus and Peter Szekely in New York and Mark Hosenball and Ian Simpson in Washington; Writing by Daniel Wallis and Scott Malone; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Susan Thomas)

Big Ag turns to peas to meet soaring global protein demand

FILE PHOTO: A box of Cheerios cereal, fortified with soy and pea protein, is seen in this photo illustration in Wilmette, Illinois, U.S., September 12, 2014. REUTERS/Jim Young/File Photo

By Rod Nickel and P.J. Huffstutter

(Reuters) – Cargill, the global grains trader, sees the future of protein in the humble pea.

In a joint venture at a Wisconsin plant, flour milled from Iowa yellow peas is mixed with water and spun at high speed through stainless steel drums, separating the protein from starch and fiber.

The resulting powder ends up blended into waffle mixes, sports drinks, nutrition bars and protein shakes – small examples of a much larger push by the world’s biggest agriculture firms to find alternative plant-based proteins to feed people and livestock worldwide.

“When we looked at where is the future going, the pea is the up-and-coming thing,” said David Henstrom, Cargill Inc’s vice-president of starches, sweeteners and texturizers.

Pea plants are shown at a PURIS seed plot in Oskaloosa, Iowa, in this June 2017 handout photo obtained by Reuters March 16, 2018. Bill Phelps/Puris/Handout via REUTERS

Pea plants are shown at a PURIS seed plot in Oskaloosa, Iowa, in this June 2017 handout photo obtained by Reuters March 16, 2018. Bill Phelps/Puris/Handout via REUTERS

Peas are in many ways the ideal modern American food: protein-rich, plant-based and gluten-free. While the market remains relatively small, the demand for pea powder and other emerging protein sources is soaring, from the middle classes in China and the health-conscious in California to livestock producers and fish farmers who need to fatten animals on ever-tighter budgets.

Cargill and its competitors – such as Archer Daniels Midland and Richardson International, the biggest Canadian grain handler – are investing in specialty ingredients in search of higher profit margins than they can extract from bigger commodity crops such as soybeans, corn and wheat.

Cargill invested an undisclosed sum in January in a joint venture with PURIS, a family-run company that started in Iowa as a seed company and now owns the Wisconsin pea-powder plant. The two firms are also working to boost the protein content in peas through cross-breeding, which has not been previously reported.

Cargill rival ADM is building its own pea processing plant in North Dakota and signing contracts with farmers to buy and grow yellow peas, Ken Campbell, ADM’s president of specialty ingredients, said in a statement to Reuters. Company researchers are also studying another 30 types of protein options, including nuts and seeds.

Other firms are trying draw more protein from canola, oats and many other so-called emerging proteins, and Cargill has explored insect-based feed for fish and poultry.

Seed and chemical firm DowDuPont Inc told Reuters it plans to launch a canola seed supercharged with protein through traditional cross-breeding as soon as next year.

Richardson International started construction in April of a C$30-million ($23 million) laboratory in Winnipeg to study proteins and other food ingredients. The firm is exploring a move into pea and oat protein concentrates that could start next year, senior vice-president of technology Chuck Cohen said in an interview. France-based food ingredient company Roquette is building plant in Manitoba to produce pea proteins in North America, which currently imports from Europe.

SOARING DEMAND

Projections for soaring sales from alternative plant proteins have enticed large grain traders that make money by buying, selling, storing, shipping and trading crops. Years of oversupplied grain markets and thin margins have squeezed the trading operations of ADM, Bunge Ltd , Cargill and Louis Dreyfus Co – known collectively as the “ABCDs” – although conditions have improved recently.

Global demand for protein – whether from meat, aquaculture or plant sources – is booming in part due to rising incomes in emerging markets in Asia and Africa, industry analysts say. In North America, consumers are shifting their diet preferences to include more protein, and 35 percent of U.S. households last year said they follow a specific protein-focused diet, such as Paleo or low-carbohydrate, according to research conducted by Nielsen.

The trend is driving a shift in grocery shopping. In the year ended July 8, 2017, sales of plant-based food and beverages in the U.S. increased 14.7 percent over the previous period, according to Nielsen. Sales of meat alternatives are growing especially within prepared foods, an indication that consumers are trying options once only available in niche stores.

Global pea protein sales amounted to $73.4 million in 2016, according to research firm Grand View Research, but are forecast to quadruple by 2025, reaching $313.5 million in sales, helped by popular diets free of gluten and lactose and an expanding middle class in developing nations.

Even with such explosive growth, pea proteins would have high potential upside because they would account for a fraction of the projected $48.77 billion global animal and plant protein ingredients market by 2025, which is led by meat, according to Grand View.

POWERING UP THE PEA

Cargill’s partnership with PURIS includes breeding pea crops for higher protein content. Standard peas contain 18 to 22 percent protein, but PURIS this year will start selling peas packed with 28 percent protein for planting by farmers in the northern Plains and Midwest, said PURIS president Tyler Lorenzen. Once processed, pea powders can contain about 80 percent protein.

Creating new varieties of protein-packed peas, however, can take seven years or more because it is done through conventional breeding rather than genetic modification, Lorenzen said. The lack of genetic modification, however, also attracts many consumers who prefer more organic foods, said Pascal Leroy, head of Roquette’s pea and new protein business line.

In Canada, one of the world’s biggest pea exporters, at least three pea protein plants are planned or increasing production, including Verdient Foods in Saskatchewan, whose investors include Titanic director James Cameron. That gives farmers an incentive to vary plantings that are now dominated by wheat and canola.

Roquette is building what it says will be the world’s biggest pea plant in Manitoba, on the belief the vegetable has unique consumer appeal. German company Canadian Protein Innovation plans a plant in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan.

Illinois-based ADM told Reuters it is building a new pea protein processing plant at the site of one of its soybean processing complexes in Enderlin, North Dakota. The location gives the company proximity to yellow pea producers and transportation to domestic and international customers, according to ADM’s Campbell.

ADM will launch its line of pea powders as an ingredient for food manufacturers early next year and introduce other plant-based protein product lines in the following two years, the company said, declining to give further details.

Unlike Cargill, ADM is seeking to boost pea protein levels in the processing plant – rather than through crop breeding – and is buying most of its supplies from nearby North Dakota farmers, the company said. ADM officials declined to detail how it can boost protein in a factory, citing competitive concerns.

(Reporting by Rod Nickel and P.J. Huffstutter; Editing by Brian Thevenot)

Russian ex-spy Sergei Skripal discharged from UK hospital

FILE PHOTO: The forensic tent, covering the bench where Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found, is repositioned by officials in protective suits in the centre of Salisbury, Britain, March 8, 2018. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls/File Photo

By Alistair Smout and Sarah Young

LONDON (Reuters) – Sergei Skripal, the Russian former spy who was left in critical condition by a nerve agent attack in Britain more than two months ago, has been discharged from hospital, national health authorities said on Friday.

Skripal, 66, a former colonel in Russia’s military intelligence who betrayed dozens of agents to Britain, and his daughter Yulia were found unconscious on a bench in the southern English city of Salisbury on March 4.

Britain’s accusations that Russia was behind the nerve agent attack led to a Russia-West crisis in which Western governments, including the United States, have expelled more than 100 Russian diplomats. Russia has denied any involvement in the poisoning and retaliated in kind.

The Skripals were in a critical condition for weeks and doctors at one point feared that, even if they survived, they might have suffered brain damage. But their health began to improve rapidly, and Yulia was discharged last month.

“It is fantastic news that Sergei Skripal is well enough to leave Salisbury District Hospital,” the hospital’s Chief Executive Cara Charles-Barks said in a statement.

Police have said they will not give any details of the Skripals’ new security arrangements in the interests of their safety, and neither they nor the hospital gave any details of Sergei’s new whereabouts. Yulia was taken to a secure location after her release, the BBC reported at the time.

Britain and international chemicals weapons inspectors say the Skripals were poisoned with Novichok, a deadly group of nerve agents developed by the Soviet military in the 1970s and 1980s. Foreign minister Boris Johnson called on Friday for a meeting of parties to the international Chemical Weapons Convention to find ways to strengthen the agreement.

A spokeswoman for British Prime Minister Theresa May, who called the Salisbury attack a “reckless and despicable act”, welcomed news of Skripal’s discharge.

Moscow has denied involvement in the first known offensive use of such a nerve agent on European soil since World War Two. Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Friday that had a weapons-grade nerve agent been used on Skripal, he would be dead.

Russia has suggested Britain carried out the attack itself to stoke anti-Russian hysteria, and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said last month that the agent used in the attack may have never been made in Russia.

Putin on Friday welcomed Skripal’s progress, and Russia’s ambassador to London reiterated Russia’s desire to see the pair, saying that currently Britain was not fulfilling its obligations under international law.

“We’re happy that he’s alright,” Alexander Yakovenko told reporters.

“We’re still demanding the access to these people. We want just to understand how they feel and we want them to say personally what they want. If they don’t want our assistance it’s fine. We want to see them physically.”

Britain has said previously that Yulia, a Russian citizen, has chosen not to take up Russia’s offer of help.

Salisbury Hospital said that patient confidentiality limited the information they could give, but that the “acutely unwell” Skripals had been stabilized and kept alive until their bodies could replace poisoned enzymes with new ones.

(Additional reporting Michael Holden and Ana de Liz; Editing by Richard Balmforth and Catherine Evans)