Military helps worn-out nurses, sicker patients in California COVID-19 effort

By Sharon Bernstein

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Reuters) – All day long, as Air Force nurse Major Pinky Brewton cares for patients struggling to breathe in California’s COVID-19 ravaged San Joaquin Valley, fears for her family simmer underneath her cool exterior.

Once back in her Stockton hotel room, seeing her seven-year-old on Facetime, the relief is overwhelming.

“He’s breathing!” Brewton said. “That’s the first thing I see as a nurse. How well is my son breathing?”

Over the past two weeks, the U.S. Department of Defense has sent nearly 200 medics and logistics experts to the Valley. The military has also sent nearly 600 personnel to Texas, where a surge in COVID-19 cases is crushing hospitals along the Rio Grande Valley and elsewhere in the state.

The teams of nurses, doctors and technicians work extra shifts, treating sicker-than-usual hospital patients. Many are so weak from oxygen deprivation they can barely eat.

In the San Joaquin Valley agricultural region, intensive care units overflowed as cases surged earlier this summer. In some counties, as many as 28% of test results were positive.

At Dameron hospital in Stockton near the state capital of Sacramento, every nurse was soon deployed on a new COVID-19 floor, said Jennifer Markovich, the facility’s chief nursing officer.

“There wasn’t a slow ramp up. In the space of two weeks we just saw a significant increase in patients … and really started to see those staffing needs really escalate.”

CHAPLAINS, MENTAL HEALTH EXPERTS

When staffing agencies lacked healthcare workers, the hospital turned to the state, Markovich said. Under the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Brewton’s team of 20 military nurses and respiratory therapists came on board in mid-July.

About 160 Air Force medical staff have been sent to California so far, with about 100 in San Joaquin Valley, coordinated by 25 U.S. Army logistics experts trained in responding to nuclear, chemical and biological attacks.

Chaplains and mental health experts were added to relieve stress in a system stretched to its limits.

The teams, mostly stationed at Travis Air Force Base north of San Francisco, were easily absorbed into the rotations and work cultures of the Valley hospitals, said Lieutenant Colonel Ryan Gassman, who commands the California teams.

“It’s not like we have any Air Force tents that are set up outside,” Gassman said. “We are truly jumping into the staff in each of these hospitals to help support in any way, shape or form that we can.”

In addition to five hospitals in the San Joaquin Valley, military teams have also been deployed to the Los Angeles area and Rancho Mirage in Riverside County east of Los Angeles.

COVID-19 cases in California began climbing after Memorial Day, which health officials attributed in part to family gatherings without masks or physical distancing measures. Statewide, cases have topped 500,000, and over 9,000 Californians have died.

California, Texas, Florida and Arizona are among several hotspot U.S. states for a second wave of coronavirus cases.

FRAGILE HOSPITALS

In the San Joaquin Valley, a perfect storm of cultural, political and economic issues led to a crush of cases in a fragile rural and smaller-city hospital system.

The region is heavily Latino, a group making up 39% of California’s population but accounts for 56% of COVID-19 infections and 46% of deaths in the most populous U.S. state. Agricultural businesses that have not provided protective equipment to workers, or implemented social distancing or rules requiring masks has led to increased infections. Large family gatherings and multi-generational households have led to fast and deadly transmission, often to vulnerable older relatives.

The Valley, which includes the oil drilling and agricultural area around Bakersfield, and farmlands around Fresno, is generally more conservative than the rest of the state, and many local and congressional leaders have opposed rules requiring masks and social distancing.

The resulting toll is stark. As of Friday, only 20 intensive care unit beds were available for new patients in all of San Joaquin County, which has a population of nearly 800,000.

“The first thing I saw were really, really sick patients,” nurse Brewton said, describing her first day at Dameron. “The acuity of these patients are far more than what we see on a typical medical floor.”

(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; editing by Bill Tarrant and Richard Chang)

UK calls in army and warns people to stay home or face lockdown

By Kate Holton and Sarah Young

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain sent in the army to deliver protective equipment to hospitals on Monday and told people to stay at home and heed warnings over social distancing or the government would bring in more extreme measures to stop the coronavirus spread.

With some doctors saying they felt like “cannon fodder”, the government said the military would help ship millions of items of personal protective equipment (PPE) including masks to healthcare workers who have complained of shortages.

So far, 281 Britons have died from coronavirus and, in the last few days, British authorities have rapidly stepped up action to try to limit the spread of the disease and prevent a repeat of the death toll seen in other countries where thousands have died.

However, there have been complaints from frontline medical staff about shortages of kit, saying they did not feel safe at work. In a letter pleading with Prime Minister Boris Johnson to increase PPE supplies, more than 6,000 frontline doctors said they were being asked to put their lives at risk with out-of-date masks, and low stocks of equipment.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock admitted there had been issues but promised action was being taken. He said the army would drive trucks throughout the day and night to get supplies to medical staff.

“It’s like a war effort, it is a war against this virus and so the army have been incredibly helpful in getting those logistics so we can get the supplies to protect people on the front line,” he told the BBC, saying the health service now had 12,000 ventilators, 7,000 more than at the start of the crisis.

Britain has brought in a series of measures to try to curb the spread of the virus.

On Monday, a much-reduced rail service was introduced and jury trials were suspended, coming days after Johnson advised Britons to work from home if possible and ordered the closure of pubs, gyms and leisure centers.

ADVICE IGNORED

But advice to stay at home and avoid social gatherings went unheeded by millions at the weekend who took advantage of sunny weather to flocked to parks and beauty spots over the weekend, ignoring instructions to stay 2 meters (6 feet) apart.

Emyr Williams, chief executive of the Snowdonia National Park Authority in Wales, said the past 24 hours had been unprecedented.

“We have experienced the busiest visitor day in living memory. The area has been overwhelmed with visitors,” he said.

The government warned that Britain would face a shutdown with curfews and travel restrictions if people continued to flout the advice.

“Well, we’re perfectly prepared to do that if we need to because the objective here is really clear which is to stop the spread of the virus. Of course we will enforce and bring in further strong measures if we need to,” Hancock told Sky News.

The government was also pondering whether to close all non-essential retail shops, the BBC’s political editor reported.

Some firms have already acted because of slowing demand, with clothing retailer Primark and department store John Lewis saying on Monday they would temporarily close all of their shops.

It comes as Britain opened the first part of a 330 billion pound ($384 billion) loan guarantee scheme for businesses , which will help small and medium-sized firms borrow up to 5 million pounds to deal with coronavirus stoppages.

(Additional reporting by Costas Pitas and David Milliken; Writing by Michael Holden; Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Alison Williams)

U.S. senators call for banning, prosecuting ‘slumlords’ of military housing

By M.B. Pell

NEW YORK (Reuters) – U.S. senators on Tuesday demanded the Defense Department crack down on private landlords who provide substandard housing at military bases with criminal prosecutions or contract cancellations, citing Reuters reports of slum-like living conditions and falsified accounting.

The top civilian and military leaders of the Army, Navy and Air Force appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee, in the latest hearing addressing substandard military housing.

On Tuesday, senators were presented with a new report from the Government Accountability Office, a Congressional watchdog conducting a review of the housing program that was launched following the Reuters reports. Among the GAO’s core findings: Housing reports sent to Congress are often misleading, painting a falsely positive picture of housing conditions. The program also suffers from inaccurate landlord maintenance reports and lax military oversight, the GAO reported.

To read the GAO report, click: https://bit.ly/35UzZbC

Some senators asked whether the military’s two-decade-old program of having private landlords provide housing on U.S. military bases has failed.

“Are any of them not acting like slumlords at this point? Are any of them doing a good job?” asked Senator Martha McSally, an Arizona Republican and former U.S. Air Force combat pilot. “This pisses me off.”

For more than a year, Reuters has exposed lead, asbestos, mold and vermin contaminating homes where private landlords house thousands of military families on behalf of the Pentagon. More recently, the news agency disclosed how one major landlord doctored maintenance records at some of its bases to help it collect bonus incentive fees.

To read the coverage, click: https://reut.rs/2r1Bkim

Top Defense Department officials have long touted high occupancy rates and satisfaction scores on military family surveys as evidence the effort is generally successful, despite occasional hiccups. But Elizabeth A. Field, the GAO’s director of defense capabilities and management, told senators: “There’s clearly a problem here.”

Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy defended the privatization effort, saying it allowed the military to tap private borrowing that would otherwise be unavailable.

“That doesn’t mean it’s worked out great,” added Acting Navy Secretary Thomas B. Modly. Some privatized housing is “fantastic,” he said, but other housing is not.

The secretaries cited reform steps already taken, including far-reaching inspections of military housing and a planned tenant bill of rights to empower military families.

Senators pressed the secretaries to do more to hold accountable military leaders and landlords.

Oklahoma Republican Jim Inhofe, chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, asked Air Force Secretary Barbara M. Barrett why she couldn’t “pull the plug” on Balfour Beatty Communities, one of the military’s largest landlords.

This year, Reuters quoted five former Balfour Beatty employees who said they filed false maintenance records at Air Force bases to help the company collect millions in bonus payments. Balfour Beatty, a unit of British infrastructure giant Balfour Beatty PLC <BALF.L>, has said that it is committed to improving its maintenance, and that it has tapped outside counsel and auditors to investigate.

Air Force Secretary Barrett said the Air Force has lost confidence in the company, but stopped short of committing to removing it from the program.

A company spokesman said Balfour Beatty plans this month to finish a “performance improvement plan” requested by the Air Force.

Democratic senators Richard Blumenthal, from Connecticut, and Mazie Hirono, from Hawaii, urged the military to refer instances of fraud for criminal prosecution.

“We probably need to make an example out of a couple of them,” said Senator Thom Tillis, a North Carolina Republican.

(Reporting by M.B. Pell in New York. Additional reporting by Joshua Schneyer. Editing by Ronnie Greene)

Brazil’s Bolsonaro says army may help fight Amazon fires

FILE PHOTO: A tract of the Amazon jungle burns as it is cleared in Iranduba, Amazonas state, Brazil August 22, 2019. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly

BRASILIA (Reuters) – Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro said on Friday the army may be enlisted to help combat fires sweeping through the Amazon rainforest, as international condemnation and calls for tough action to quell the unfolding crisis continued to mount.

Asked by reporters in Brasilia if he would send in the army, Bolsonaro responded: “that is the expectation.”

FILE PHOTO: Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro speaks during the Brazilian Steel Conference in Brasilia, Brazil, August 21, 2019. REUTERS/Adriano Machado

FILE PHOTO: Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro speaks during the Brazilian Steel Conference in Brasilia, Brazil, August 21, 2019. REUTERS/Adriano Machado

The firebrand right-wing president added the decision would be made at a top-level meeting later on Friday.

According to the presidential agenda, Bolsonaro is set to meet with a team that includes the defense and environment ministers and the foreign minister at 3 p.m. local time (1800 GMT).

Fires in the Amazon have surged 83% so far this year compared with the same period a year ago, government figures show, destroying vast swathes of a forest considered a vital bulwark against global climate change.

The leaders of Britain and France have added their voices to an international chorus of concern, with President Emmanuel Macron’s office accusing Bolsonaro of lying when he played down concerns over climate change at the G20 summit in June.

Macron’s office added that, given this context, France would be opposed to the E.U.-Mercosur farming deal struck earlier this year between the European Union and the Mercosur countries of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay.

A spokeswoman for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he was “deeply concerned” about the fires and “the impact of the tragic loss of these precious habitats,” and that he would use the summit of G7 leaders this weekend to call for a renewed focus on protecting nature.

On Thursday, as international criticism mounted, Bolsonaro told foreign powers not to interfere.

“These countries that send money here, they don’t send it out of charity. … They send it with the aim of interfering with our sovereignty,” he said.

(Reporting by Lisandra Paraguassu in Brasilia, William James in London and Marine Pennetier in Paris; Writing by Jamie McGeever and Stephen Eisenhammer; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

Exclusive: Colombian armed groups recruiting desperate Venezuelans, army says

FILE PHOTO: People walk along a pathway near the Colombian-Venezuelan border on the outskirts of Cucuta, Colombia June 10, 2019. REUTERS/Juan Pablo Bayona/File Photo

By Helen Murphy and Luis Jaime Acosta

ARAUCA/CUCUTA, Colombia (Reuters) – Venezuela’s crisis is spilling across the border into Colombia as Marxist rebels and right-wing paramilitaries recruit migrants to strengthen their ranks, according to five Colombian military commanders.

Violence still simmers in Colombia despite a 2016 peace deal with leftist FARC rebels, meant to end five decades of conflict. Dissident FARC fighters, the rebel National Liberation Army (ELN), right-wing paramilitaries and drug-trafficking gangs are battling each other and the military.

Keen for recruits, these armed groups are targeting Venezuelans as they traverse the porous 2,219-km (1,380-mile)frontier at illegal border crossings, according to the military officials, human rights officials and migrants themselves.

Five military commanders told Reuters that as many as 30% of insurgents in Colombia’s eastern border region are Venezuelans, willing to take up arms in return for food and pay.

“Recruitment of Venezuelans is happening,” said Colonel Arnulfo Traslavina, military commander of a special unit battling armed groups in Colombia’s eastern border state of Arauca. “The ranks of illegal armed groups are increasing. It’s a major threat to Colombia.” &nbsp;

Nationwide, an estimated 10% of fighters are Venezuelan, the commanders said. Their estimates were based on information from informants, deserters, captured rebels and residents.

Reuters was not able to independently verify these figures.

The head of Colombia’s military and government spokesman on this issue, General Luis Fernando Navarro, told Reuters that armed groups were targeting Venezuelans because they were easier to recruit than Colombians.

At the last official count by military intelligence in May, there were 2,296 FARC dissident combatants and 2,402 fighters from the ELN in Colombia. Including their urban offshoots, the two groups total nearly 8,400 members.

Rebel numbers are small compared with the 250,000 combat troops in the armed forces but Colombia’s rugged jungle terrain – spread across a country the size of France and Spain – makes it difficult for the military to tackle small, mobile units of fighters.

The military officers say they had interrogated some Venezuelans who had defected from armed groups and identified Venezuelan nationals killed in combat. They did not provide a total number for Venezuelan casualties.

Reuters was not able independently to confirm the information provided by the commanders or speak directly to any Venezuelans who had been recruited by an armed group.

Several Venezuelan migrants told Reuters they had been approached by armed groups for recruitment on entering Colombia.

“They said I’d get clothes, food, money, accommodation, a cell phone,” said Gregorio, a 20-year-old Venezuelan migrant who said he was asked to join an unspecified group in the mountains as soon as he waded across the Tachira River onto Colombian soil.

“I was tempted, but scared… I’d been told there were bad people offering such things and I didn’t want to join,” said Gregorio, who declined to give his second name for fear of reprisals.

An estimated 1.3 million Venezuelan migrants have settled in Colombia in recent years, fleeing shortages of food, electricity and water as the South American nation has seen its economy unravel amid a bloody political confrontation.

Most Venezuelans do not come to Colombia to enlist in insurgent groups but with almost nothing in their pockets, the prospect of food and shelter is enticing, said Deisson Marino, human rights ombudsman for the border region of Arauca.

“They end up enrolled in a war that has nothing to do with them,” said Marino, whose job involves traveling to remote areas and speaking to victims of the conflict and armed groups.

RECRUITING IN VENEZUELA

Colombia’s Defense Minister Guillermo Botero has said the military has more than doubled operations against armed groups since President Ivan Duque took office in August, looking to tackle a rise in illicit drug production and trafficking. Colombia is the world’s largest producer of cocaine.

“The ELN has been retreating – at least its leadership – to Venezuela where it’s recruiting for greater strength, to attack us,” Botero said recently.

A FARC dissident, who asked not to be identified, told Reuters the group was also present on Venezuelan soil and was recruiting Venezuelans.

The Venezuelan information ministry – which handles media inquiries for the government – did not respond to a request for comment about the conscription of Venezuelans by Colombia’s armed groups.

Venezuela’s government has acknowledged that the ELN and dissident FARC are present on its territory. It has said it does not support the groups or tolerate their presence, and that its troops pursue them as they would any other illegal group.

Representatives of the ELN did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The FARC, which became a political party after the peace deal and kept its former acronym, has publicly expelled the armed dissidents.

Since it was founded in 1964, the ELN has funded itself from kidnapping, drug trafficking and extortion but is increasingly making money from illegal migration, the officials said.

Military officials and rights workers say the ELN and colectivos – shadowy irregular armed groups in Venezuela affiliated with President Nicolas Maduro’s Socialist Party – control most of the crossing points into Colombia and demand payment from migrants and traders.

PICKING COCA

Army Colonel Rodolfo Morales, head of the army’s 30th Brigade in the border town of Cucuta, said migrants were also being drafted by drug trafficking groups to pick coca, the raw material for cocaine.

Antonio, another Venezuelan migrant who declined to give his second name, said that after crossing the border he was offered money by unidentified men to go into the jungles around Tibu – a border town around 115 km north of Cucuta in the dangerous Catatumbo region – to pick coca leaves.

“I’d rather go hungry than go with them,” said the 33-year old from the central Venezuelan state of Carabobo.

Colombia’s right-wing paramilitary groups, which battled the ELN and FARC for decades, are also recruiting migrants, the military officials said.

The paramilitaries were behind most of the 260,000 killings that occurred during the nation’s half-century conflict and never fully demobilized under a 2006 peace agreement.

Eddinson, 26, a migrant from Venezuela’s coastal state of Aragua, said he and three other Venezuelans were approached by armed men who identified themselves as paramilitaries as they trekked through the mountains of Santander province near the border.

Eddinson said the leader of the eight armed men – who were dressed in khaki uniforms – tried to recruit them.

“He said that training would last six months. We’d be given salaries according to rank,” said Eddinson, adding that he and the other Venezuelans declined the offer. “He told us that we’d know our start date but not when we could leave.”

(Reporting by Helen Murphy and Luis Jaime Acosta; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Rosalba O’Brien)

London’s Gatwick airport reopens after mystery drone saboteur sows chaos

Passengers walk through the South Terminal building at Gatwick Airport, after the airport reopened to flights following its forced closure because of drone activity, in Gatwick, Britain, December 21, 2018. REUTERS/Toby Melville

By Toby Melville

GATWICK, England (Reuters) – London’s Gatwick Airport reopened on Friday after a mystery saboteur wrought 36 hours of travel chaos for more than 100,000 Christmas travelers by using drones to play cat-and-mouse with police snipers and the army.

After the biggest disruption at Gatwick, Britain’s second busiest airport, since a volcanic ash cloud in 2010, Gatwick said around 700 planes were due to take off on Friday, although there would still be delays and cancellations.

Britain deployed unidentified military technology to guard the airport against what Transport Secretary Chris Grayling said were thought to be several drones.

“I think passengers are safe,” Grayling said. “This kind of incident is unprecedented anywhere in the world.”

The motivation of the drone operator, or operators, was unclear. Police said there was nothing to suggest the crippling of one of Europe’s busiest airports was a terrorist attack.

Gatwick’s drone nightmare is thought to be the most disruptive yet at a major airport and indicates a new vulnerability that will be scrutinized by security forces and airport operators across the world.

The army and police snipers were called in to hunt down the drones, thought to be industrial style craft, which flew near the airport every time it tried to reopen on Thursday. The last time a drone was spotted at the airport was at 2200 GMT on Thursday.

The perpetrator has not yet been detained but the police said they had a number of possible suspects. No group has claimed responsibility publicly and police said there was no evidence another state was involved.

Sussex Police Assistant Chief Constable Steve Barry said they were keeping an open mind about who was responsible.

“In terms of the motivation, there’s a whole spectrum of possibilities, from the really high-end criminal behavior that we’ve seen, all the way down to potentially, just individuals trying to be malicious, trying to disrupt the airport,” he said.

After a boom in drone sales, unmanned aerial vehicles have become a growing menace at airports across the world.

In Britain, the number of near misses between private drones and aircraft more than tripled between 2015 and 2017, with 92 incidents recorded last year.

An airplane takes off at Gatwick Airport, after the airport reopened to flights following its forced closure because of drone activity, in Gatwick, Britain, December 21, 2018. REUTERS/Toby Melville

An airplane takes off at Gatwick Airport, after the airport reopened to flights following its forced closure because of drone activity, in Gatwick, Britain, December 21, 2018. REUTERS/Toby Melville

THERMAL IMAGING?

The British Airline Pilots’ Association (BALPA) said it understood “detection and tracking equipment” had been installed around Gatwick’s perimeter.

BALPA said that it was extremely concerned at the risk of a drone collision. Flying drones within 1 km (0.6 mile) of a British airport boundary is punishable by five years in prison.

The defense ministry refused to comment on what technology was deployed but drone experts said airports needed to deploy specialist radar reinforced by thermal imaging technology to detect such unmanned flying vehicles.

Other ways to tackle them is typically by frequency jamming that can disable or disrupt control signals and the GPS signals that allow the drones to navigate.

The drone sightings caused misery for travelers, many sleeping on the airport floor as they searched for alternative routes to holidays and Christmas family gatherings.

Flights were halted at 2103 GMT on Wednesday after two drones were spotted near the airfield. The disruption affected at least 120,000 people on Wednesday and Thursday, with thousands more to be disrupted on Friday.

It was not immediately clear what the financial impact would be on the main airlines operating from Gatwick including EasyJet, British Airways and Norwegian.

Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said it considered the event to be an “extraordinary circumstance” meaning airlines are not obliged to pay compensation to affected passengers.

Airlines will have to refund customers who no longer wish to travel however and try to reschedule flights to get passengers to their destinations.

An arrivals board in the South Terminal building at Gatwick Airport, after the airport reopened to flights following its forced closure because of drone activity, in Gatwick, Britain, December 21, 2018. REUTERS/Toby Melville

A Reuters witness at Gatwick’s South Terminal said the airport was busy, with many people waiting with luggage and queues for service desks, but not unusually so for such a day.

Some airport staff handed out chocolate and Christmas elf toys to stranded passengers.

Some, like Sarah Garghan-Watson, chose to stick it out at the airport overnight, having arrived at 8 a.m. on Thursday.

“It’s now 2 o’clock in the morning at Gatwick, and it’s very bright and very noisy. It’s now also very cold,” she said in a video shown on Sky.

“All I can see tonight … is a sign that says ‘no more sleeps until the beach’. And here we are, sleeping, in the stairs at Gatwick, because there’s no flights.”

 

(Editing by Alison Williams)

Bosnia’s security minister wants army at border to curb entry of migrants

FILE PHOTO: Migrants and Bosnian police eye one another in Velika Kladusa, Bosnia, near the border with Croatia, June 18, 2018. REUTERS/Antonio Bronic/File Photo

SARAJEVO (Reuters) – Bosnia’s security minister said on Wednesday he would seek legislative changes to enable border deployments of the army to help stop migrants entering the impoverished country en route to European Union territory.

Hundreds of thousands of migrants who streamed northwards through the Balkans to EU territory in 2015 largely bypassed Bosnia. But the ex-Yugoslav republic now finds itself struggling to accommodate about 5,000 people intent on making their way via neighboring Croatia to affluent EU countries further north.

More than 9,000 people from Asia and North Africa have entered Bosnia from Serbia and Montenegro since the beginning of 2018, including 3,000 over the past month, and a similar number have managed to cross into EU member Croatia.

“I am planning to initiate changes to the law that will provide for the deployment of the army in the protection of our borders,” Security Minister Dragan Mektic told reporters.

With only two official asylum and refugee centers, the small country of 3.5 million people – which aspires to EU membership – is hardpressed to accommodate the migrants.

New facilities are planned pending a deal among Bosnia’s multi-layered, semi-autonomous regional governments, many of which reject hosting migrants on their territory.

Many migrants are staying in improvised shelters, tents and dilapidated buildings, lacking running water and toilets, especially in the northwestern towns of Bihac and Velika Kladusa, near the Croatian border.

Red Cross officials have voiced concern over worsening conditions for thousands of migrants stranded in Bosnia and many say the government is failing to adequately protect the rights of refugees.

The authorities of Bihac and Velika Kladusa, their resources stretched and citing health and security risks, plan to stage a protest in front of the central government building in the capital Sarajevo on Thursday to demand an urgent solution to the problem.

“We (Bosnia) have become the collateral damage of an EU problem. We will not allow the country to become a hot spot,” said Mektic. “The EU has failed this test, for it has allowed criminals and people smugglers to run this process instead of its own institutions.”

He said he expected the European Commission to soon draft the text of an agreement that would allow deployments of officers from the EU border agency Frontex to Bosnia to help it curb migration and organized crime.

(Reporting by Maja Zuvela; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

UK teacher jailed for trying to recruit ‘army of children’ for attacks

Umar Ahmed Haque is seen in an undated booking photograph handed out by the Metropolitan Police in London, Britain March 2, 2018. Metropolitan Police handout via REUTERS

LONDON (Reuters) – A British supporter of Islamic State who tried to recruit over 100 children into an “army” of jihadists to carry out a wave of attacks across London was jailed for a minimum of 25 years on Tuesday.

Umar Haque, 25, showed the children beheading videos and other violent militant propaganda, forced them to re-enact deadly attacks on the British capital and made them role-play attacking police officers.

“The children were paralyzed by fear of Haque, who they understood to have connections to terrorists and who essentially told them that a violent fate would befall them if they told anyone what he was doing,” said Dean Haydon, head of the Metropolitan Police’s Counter Terrorism Command.

“We recovered a number of exercise books from his home and it was evident from his notes that his plan was a long-term one,” he added in a statement. “He intended to execute his plan years later, by which time he anticipated he would have trained and acquired an army of soldiers, including children.”

Despite having no qualifications and being employed as an administrator, Haque used the guise of teaching Islamic studies to groom 110 children into becoming militants at the Lantern of Knowledge, a small private Islamic school, and at a madrassa connected to the Ripple Road Mosque in east London.

His intention was to use them to attack London targets such as Big Ben, soldiers from the Queen’s Guards, a large shopping center, banks, and media stations, prosecutors said at his trial.

Believed to have been self-radicalized online, Haque was inspired by an attack in March last year when Khalid Masood plowed a rented car into pedestrians on London’s Westminster Bridge, killing four, before stabbing to death a police officer in the grounds of parliament.

Haque was found guilty at London’s Old Bailey Court earlier this month of several offences including preparing terrorist acts, having previously pleaded guilty to four charges.

(Reporting by Stephen Addison, editing by Estelle Shirbon)

Zimbabwe’s Mugabe appears in public for first time since army took charge

Zimbabwe's Mugabe appears in public for first time since army took charge

By MacDonald Dzirutwe

HARARE (Reuters) – Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe appeared in public on Friday for the first time since the army took charge this week, as the ruling party made plans to force him to step down after more than three decades in power.

Mugabe, who is 93, opened a graduation ceremony at Zimbabwe Open University in Harare. He wore blue and yellow academic robes and a mortar board hat and appeared to fall asleep in his chair as his eyes closed and his head lolled.

Mugabe led the country’s liberation struggle and has dominated its politics since independence in 1980. He said he is still in charge but a senior member of the ZANU-PF ruling party said it wanted him gone.

“If he becomes stubborn, we will arrange for him to be fired on Sunday,” the source said. “When that is done, it’s impeachment on Tuesday.”

In contrast, the military said in a statement on national television it was “engaging” with Mugabe. It referred to him as Commander in Chief and said it would announce an outcome as soon as possible.

Mugabe is revered as an elder statesman and member of the generation of Africa’s independence leaders but he is also viewed by many in Africa as a president who held his country back by remaining in power too long. He calls himself the grand old man of African politics.

Zimbabwe’s official newspaper, the Herald, ran photographs late on Thursday showing him grinning and shaking hands with military chief General Constantino Chiwenga, who seized power this week.

The images stunned Zimbabweans who thought it meant Mugabe was managing to hold out against Chiwenga’s coup, with some political sources saying he was trying to delay his departure until elections scheduled for next year.

The ZANU-PF source said that was not the case. Anxious to avoid a protracted stalemate, party leaders were drawing up plans to dismiss Mugabe at the weekend if he refused to quit, the source said.

“There is no going back,” the source told Reuters. “It’s like a match delayed by heavy rain, with the home side leading 90-0 in the 89th minute.”

The army is camped on his doorstep. His wife, Grace, is under house arrest, and her key political allies are in military custody. The police, once a bastion of support, have showed no signs of resistance.

Furthermore, he has little popular backing in the capital, a stronghold of support for opposition parties that have tapped into the anger and frustration at his handling of the economy, which collapsed after the seizure of white-owned farms in 2000.

Unemployment is now running at nearly 90 percent and chronic shortages of hard currency have triggered hyperinflation, with the prices of imports rising as much as 50 percent a month.

The only words Mugabe spoke at the graduation ceremony were met with ululations from the crowd. In a telling irony, one of the graduates was the wife of Chiwenga.

“A NEW ERA”

The United States, a longtime Mugabe critic, is seeking “a new era”, the State Department’s top official for Africa said, an implicit call for Mugabe to quit.

In an interview with Reuters, acting U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Donald Yamamoto appeared to dismiss the idea of keeping Mugabe in an interim or ceremonial role.

“It’s a transition to a new era for Zimbabwe, that’s really what we’re hoping for,” Yamamoto said.

The army appears to want Mugabe to go quietly and allow a smooth and bloodless transition to Emmerson Mnangagwa, the vice president, whose sacking last week triggered the military takeover.

The main goal of the generals is to prevent Mugabe from handing power to his wife, Grace, who appeared on the cusp of power after Mnangagwa was pushed out.

Dumiso Dabengwa, a former head of intelligence and a Mnangagwa ally, is due to hold a news conference in Johannesburg.

A South African government source said he expected Dabengwa to discuss the events in Zimbabwe.

“It seems there is some sort of agreement,” the source said.

Zimbabwe’s struggling economy: http://tmsnrt.rs/2zN0EdF

(Additional reporting by Ed Cropley in Johannesburg and Warren Strobel in Washington; Writing by Ed Cropley and James Macharia; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

Zimbabwe’s army seizes power, targets ‘criminals’ around Mugabe

Zimbabwe's army seizes power, targets 'criminals' around Mugabe

By MacDonald Dzirutwe

HARARE (Reuters) – Zimbabwe’s military seized power early on Wednesday saying it was targeting “criminals” around President Robert Mugabe, the only ruler the country has known in its 37 years of independence.

Soldiers seized the state broadcaster. Armored vehicles blocked roads to the main government offices, parliament and the courts in central Harare, while taxis ferried commuters to work nearby. The atmosphere in the capital remained calm.

The military said Mugabe and his family were safe. Mugabe himself spoke by telephone to the president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, and told him he was confined to his home but fine, the South African presidency said in a statement.

It was not clear whether the apparent military coup would bring a formal end to Mugabe’s rule; the main goal of the generals appears to be preventing Mugabe’s 52-year-old wife Grace from succeeding him.

But whether or not he remains in office, it is likely to mark the end of the total dominance of the country by Mugabe, the last of Africa’s generation of state founders still in power.

Mugabe, still seen by many Africans as an anti-colonial hero, is reviled in the West as a despot whose disastrous handling of the economy and willingness to resort to violence to maintain power destroyed one of Africa’s most promising states.

He plunged Zimbabwe into a fresh political crisis last week by firing his vice president and presumed successor. The generals believed that move was aimed at clearing a path for Grace Mugabe to take over and announced on Monday they were prepared to “step in” if purges of their allies did not end.

“We are only targeting criminals around him (Mugabe) who are committing crimes that are causing social and economic suffering in the country in order to bring them to justice,” Major General SB Moyo, Chief of Staff Logistics, said on television.

“As soon as we have accomplished our mission, we expect that the situation will return to normalcy.”

CAREENING OFF A CLIFF

Whatever the final outcome, the events could signal a once-in-a-generation change for the southern African nation, once one of the continent’s most prosperous, reduced to poverty by an economic crisis Mugabe’s opponents have long blamed on him.

Even many of Mugabe’s most loyal supporters over the decades had come to oppose the rise of his wife, who courted the powerful youth wing of the ruling party but alienated the military, led by Mugabe’s former guerrilla comrades from the 1970s independence struggle.

“This is a correction of a state that was careening off the cliff,” Chris Mutsvangwa, the leader of the liberation war veterans, told Reuters. “It’s the end of a very painful and sad chapter in the history of a young nation, in which a dictator, as he became old, surrendered his court to a gang of thieves around his wife.”

The opposition Movement for Democratic Change called for a peaceful return to constitutional democracy, adding it hoped the military intervention would lead to the “establishment of a stable, democratic and progressive nation state”.

Zuma – speaking on behalf of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) – expressed hope there would be no unconstitutional changes of government in Zimbabwe as that would be contrary to both SADC and African Union positions.

Zuma urged Zimbabwe’s government and the military “to resolve the political impasse amicably”.

Zimbabwe struggles: http://reut.rs/2zZkX8O

ECONOMIC DECLINE

Zimbabwe’s economic decline over the past two decades has been a drag on the southern African region. Millions of economic refugees have streamed out of the country, mostly to neighboring South Africa.

Finance Minister Ignatius Chombo, a leading member of the ruling ZANU-PF party’s ‘G40’ faction, led by Grace Mugabe, had been detained by the military, a government source said.

Soldiers deployed across Harare on Tuesday and seized the state broadcaster after ZANU-PF accused the head of the military of treason, prompting speculation of a coup.

Just 24 hours after military chief General Constantino Chiwenga threatened to intervene to end a purge of his allies in ZANU-PF, a Reuters reporter saw armored personnel carriers on main roads around the capital.

Aggressive soldiers told passing cars to keep moving through the darkness. “Don’t try anything funny. Just go,” one barked at Reuters on Harare Drive.

Two hours later, soldiers overran the headquarters of the ZBC, the state broadcaster, a Mugabe mouthpiece, and ordered staff to leave. Several ZBC workers were manhandled, two members of staff and a human rights activist said.

Shortly afterwards, three explosions rocked the center of the capital, Reuters witnesses said.

The United States and Britain advised their citizens in Harare to stay indoors because of “political uncertainty.”

The southern African nation had been on edge since Monday when Chiwenga, Commander of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces, said he was prepared to “step in” to end a purge of supporters of Emmerson Mnangagwa, the vice president sacked last week.

In the last year, a chronic absence of dollars has led to long queues outside banks and an economic and financial collapse that many fear will rival the meltdown of 2007-2008, when inflation topped out at 500 billion percent.

Imported goods are running out and economists say that, by some measures, inflation is now at 50 percent a month.

According to a trove of intelligence documents reviewed by Reuters this year, Mnangagwa has been planning to revitalize the economy by bringing back thousands of white farmers kicked off their land nearly two decades ago and patching up relations with the World Bank and IMF.

Zimbabwe dollar: http://tmsnrt.rs/2ALN6xd

(Additional reporting by Ed Cropley, James Macharia, Joe Brock and Alexander Winning in Johannesburg; Writing by James Macharia and Ed Cropley; Graphic by Jermey Gaunt Editing by Janet Lawrence and Peter Graff)