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.”  

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)

Nearly 400 die as Myanmar army steps up crackdown on Rohingya militants

Rohingya refugees stands in an open place during heavy rain, as they are hold by Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) after illegally crossing the border, in Teknaf, Bangladesh, August 31, 2017.

COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh (Reuters) – Nearly 400 people have died in fighting that has rocked Myanmar’s northwest for a week, new official data show, making it probably the deadliest bout of violence to engulf the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority in decades.

Around 38,000 Rohingya have crossed into Bangladesh from Myanmar, United Nations sources said, a week after Rohingya insurgents attacked police posts and an army base in Rakhine state, prompting clashes and a military counteroffensive.

“As of August 31, 38,000 people are estimated to have crossed the border into Bangladesh,” the officials said on Friday, in their latest estimate.

The army says it is conducting clearance operations against “extremist terrorists” and security forces have been told to protect civilians. But Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh say a campaign of arson and killings aims to force them out.

The treatment of Myanmar’s roughly 1.1 million Rohingya is the biggest challenge facing national leader Aung San Suu Kyi, accused by some Western critics of not speaking out for a minority that has long complained of persecution.

Police officers guard near a house that was burnt down in recent violence in Maungdaw, Myanmar August 31, 2017.

Police officers guard near a house that was burnt down in recent violence in Maungdaw, Myanmar August 31, 2017. RETUERS/Soe Zeya Tun

The clashes and ensuing army crackdown have killed about 370 Rohingya insurgents, but also 13 security forces, two government officials and 14 civilians, the Myanmar military said on Thursday.

By comparison, communal violence in 2012 in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine, led to the killing of nearly 200 people and the displacement of about 140,000, most of them Rohingya.

The fighting is a dramatic escalation of a conflict that has simmered since October, when similar but much smaller Rohingya attacks on security posts prompted a brutal military response dogged by allegations of rights abuses.

Myanmar evacuated more than 11,700 “ethnic residents” from the area affected by fighting, the army said, referring to the non-Muslim population of northern Rakhine.

More than 150 Rohingya insurgents staged fresh attacks on security forces on Thursday near villages occupied by Hindus, the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar said, adding that about 700 members of such families had been evacuated.

“Four of the terrorists were arrested, including one 13-year-old boy,” it said, adding that security forces had arrested two more men near a Maungdaw police outpost on suspicion of involvement in the attacks.

About 20,000 more Rohingya trying to flee are stuck in no man’s land at the border, the U.N. sources said, as aid workers in Bangladesh struggle to alleviate the sufferings of a sudden influx of thousands of hungry and traumatized people.

While some Rohingya try to cross by land, others attempt a perilous boat journey across the Naf River separating the two countries.

Bangladesh border guards found the bodies of 15 Rohingya Muslims, 11 children among them, floating in the river on Friday, area commander Lt. Col. Ariful Islam told Reuters.

That takes to about 40 the total of Rohingya known to have died by drowning.

 

(Reporting by Reuters staff; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

 

Lawyer for U.S. Army sergeant accused of terrorism suggests entrapment

A photograph with a redacted date, and entered into federal court as an exhibit to support the government's motion to keep U.S. Army Sergeant Ikaika Erik Kang in detention without bond, shows what is described as Kang holding the Islamic State Flag after pledging allegiance to the Islamic State. Kang is charged with trying to provide material support to Islamic State extremists. the U.S. District Court for the District of Hawaii/Handout via REUTERS

By Hunter Haskins

HONOLULU (Reuters) – The lawyer for a U.S. Army sergeant charged in Hawaii with trying to provide material support to Islamic State extremists said on Thursday his client suffers from mental illness that FBI agents exploited in a “sting” operation leading to his arrest.

Questions about Ikaika Erik Kang’s state of mind and the possibility of entrapment were raised by defense lawyer Birney Bervar in remarks to reporters after his client was ordered to remain in jail without bond.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Kenneth Mansfield in Honolulu ruled after a brief hearing that Kang, 34, posed a flight risk and a danger to the public if released pending further proceedings. The defense did not object to his continued incarceration.

Bervar said after the ruling he told his client: “You’re going to stay in for now, and we’re going to get you evaluated and see what’s going on.”

He said he believed Kang was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or some other mental problem that the Army failed to address properly after Kang returned from deployments to Iraq in 2011 and Afghanistan in 2014.

According to a Federal Bureau of Investigation affidavit, Kang was reprimanded several times dating back to 2011 for threatening fellow service members and expressing extremist views while on duty.

The Army referred the matter to the FBI in 2016.

Kang soon became the target of what the FBI described in its affidavit as an elaborate sting operation employing several undercover agents and other “confidential human sources” who posed as Islamic State operatives and sympathizers.

“It looks to me like they’ve exploited his mental illness and thrown gasoline on the fire of his mental illness to get him to commit a crime that they could arrest him for,” Bervar said.

Asked if he was suggesting a case of entrapment, Bervar said: “It sounds pretty close to that, doesn’t it?”

Bervar said he would seek a “full mental health evaluation” for his client.

The government, in support of its motion to keep Kang detained without bond, entered several photographs said to show Kang demonstrating military combat tactics.

Two other images purport to show him kissing and then holding to his forehead a folded flag of Islamic State, also known as ISIS, the militant organization that had seized large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria. He is shown in a third photo holding up an unfurled ISIS flag.

Kang, an air traffic control specialist with extensive military training in hand-to-hand combat, was arrested by the FBI on Saturday following a year-long undercover investigation.

The FBI said he swore allegiance to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, made training videos for the extremist group and purchased a drone aircraft intended to help ISIS fighters in the Middle East evade enemy tanks in battle.

Kang is also accused of trying to furnish ISIS with classified and other sensitive military documents that would have assisted the group in its combat tactics.

(Additional reporting and writing by Steve Gorman in LOS ANGELES; Editing by Paul Tait)

East Libyan forces say they will investigate Benghazi abuses

Members of East Libyan forces celebrate as they open Tripoli road after they captured the final holdout of Islamist-led rivals in the southwest of Benghazi, Libya, March 21, 2017. REUTERS/Esam Omran Al-Fetori

By Ayman al-Warfalli and Aidan Lewis

BENGHAZI, Libya/TUNIS (Reuters) – An eastern Libyan force says it will investigate abuses by its troops, after images showing the public display of corpses and allegations of summary killings surfaced following the end of a siege in Benghazi last week.

The self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) said dozens of its Islamist-led opponents were killed as the siege at unfinished tower blocks in the eastern city was broken on Saturday when fighters and their families tried to escape.

Soon after, photos and videos emerged on social media appearing to show LNA troops posing with corpses and parading the rotting body of a prominent opponent on a vehicle.

Eastern military figures, separate from internationally recognized officials in Tripoli in the west, present the LNA as an expanding and increasingly capable force that will eventually control the whole of Libya.

The LNA’s general command called on unit commanders to hand over all those filmed carrying out abuses to the military police, for questioning by a military committee.

“The actions carried out by members of the Libyan National Army after the liberation of west Benghazi are considered individual acts and do not represent the instructions of the army,” it said in a statement late on Monday.

“Those who committed these violations will be held accountable for their actions and for not following military law.”

The suspected abuses raise fresh questions over the coherence of the LNA as a professional fighting body.

Its leader, Khalifa Haftar, is widely assumed to be seeking national power. He has spurned a U.N.-backed government in Tripoli that has sought to unify political and armed factions that splintered into rival camps in the east and west in 2014, three years after the uprising that overthrew Muammar Gaddafi.

The LNA’s critics say it is a loose collection of armed groups with fickle loyalties and little discipline, similar to the militias operating in western Libya.

They point to its slow progress in Benghazi, where it launched an operation against Islamists and other opponents nearly three years ago, but still faces pockets of resistance.

This month the LNA suffered a setback southwest of Benghazi, losing control of two oil ports before regaining them 11 days later.

It says it is now pursuing its opponents, who it accuses the U.N.-backed government of supporting, in the desert region of Jufra, whilst also preparing to “liberate” Tripoli from the militias that control it.

The offensive in Jufra and the LNA’s stated intention of taking control of the Tamanhent air base risks triggering renewed fighting between the LNA and forces from the western city of Misrata, which control the base.

It comes as some of Misrata’s armed groups, which became powerful during the 2011 uprising and the conflicts that followed, have come under pressure in Tripoli where they have lost ground to local rivals and faced popular protests.

U.N. Libya envoy Martin Kobler warned on Monday of a “dangerous escalation across Libya emanating from the deteriorating security situation in Tripoli and events in Misrata and Benghazi”.

“I call for all parties to put Libya and the unity of Libya ahead of their own narrow interests. The violence, hate speech, and mutilation of corpses in Libya is completely unacceptable.”

(Reporting by Ayman al-Warfalli; Writing by Aidan Lewis; Editing by Alison Williams)

Islamic State mortars, snipers take toll on Iraqi forces in Mosul

A sniper from Iraq's Federal Police force takes aim at Islamic State positions from the roof of a house on the frontline in Albu Saif, south of Mosul. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani

By John Davison

MOSUL, Iraq (Reuters) – At a field clinic near the front line in Mosul, an Iraqi Federal Police officer lay in discomfort on a stretcher, a drip in his arm and bandage plastered over his chest from where shrapnel from a mortar shell had pierced his sternum.

The blast which wounded the 23-year-old, Jaafar Kareem, and two comrades, was in an area where rapid advances against Islamic State earlier in the week have slowed as the militants aim mortar and sniper fire at Iraqi troops.

At least 10 shells had landed there that morning, before hitting their target, Kareem said.

“There have been a lot of our guys wounded today in the same area,” he said, turning his head gingerly to watch an officer on the next stretcher being treated for a leg injury.

The makeshift clinic, an abandoned house manned by American volunteers and Iraqi military medics, was on Thursday regularly treating members of Iraq’s security forces rushed back from the front line in ambulances or armored vehicles.

“We’ve already had around 20 people come in for treatment (on Thursday) – about 70 percent civilian, but it’s been more military (casualties) up until today,” said Kathy Bequary, director of NYC Medics, the organization running the clinic.

Casualties her team have witnessed recently range from superficial wounds to the occasional patient dead on arrival, including one soldier with eight bullet wounds to his torso, she said.

As Iraqi forces fight Islamic State militants deeper into western Mosul, they face increasingly stiff resistance, with the jihadists using mortar and sniper fire to try to hold off a U.S.-backed offensive to drive them out of their last major stronghold in the country.

The fight has taken its toll of dead and wounded on Iraqi soldiers, special forces and police units. The military has not published the number of its own casualties.

Islamic State’s tactics, which include taking cover among the civilian population, have also slowed advances in some areas, the closer the battle gets to the more crowded city center.

The area where Kareem and his comrades were hit was no more than a few hundred meters from the front line, in an area housing the Nineveh provincial government headquarters, a territorial gain trumpeted by the Iraqi military on Tuesday.

Iraqi forces have indeed made progress there. A wide main road leading to the governorate building was firmly under Federal Police control on Thursday, a Reuters correspondent visiting with elite interior ministry units said.

STATIC FRONT LINE

Armored vehicles drove past destruction left by fighting in the former provincial government hub: a collapsed police headquarters dynamited by militants as they retreated, and a large, faded advertisement panel for “Iraqi Airways – Mosul booking office.”

But the front line had been static since early in the week, members of the Rapid Response units said.

Troops on foot had to dash between the more exposed streets for fear of sniper fire.

The whoosh of an incoming mortar shell sent them scrambling for cover against the wall of a building. It landed close enough to feel shockwaves from the blast.

“It’s been a little difficult, recently,” Ali Sattar, a 20-year-old in the Rapid Response said.

“We’ve not really advanced for three days now. Two of our teams went further forward, on a sort of recce mission, and raised the Iraqi flag on top of a tall hotel that (Islamic State) snipers have been using, then came back.”

Federal Police units were now in control of the Mosul museum, a little further forward, but any new advances were being made difficult by snipers who had taken up positions in the Assyria Hotel, less than 200 meters (yards) away, he said.

“The flag will probably be taken down again by the militants,” he said, half joking.

Back at the clinic, the wounded Kareem looked weary.

“The battles have been hard,” he sighed.

(Reporting by John Davison; Editing by Michael Perry)