Assad hits a wall in Syrian war as front lines harden – analysis

FILE PHOTO: A man with a gun holds the hand of a child as they walk in a souk in the city of Idlib, Syria May 25, 2019. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

By Tom Perry and Suleiman Al-Khalidi

BEIRUT/AMMAN (Reuters) – President Bashar al-Assad’s assault in the northwest has been met with a painful rebel counterpunch that underlines Turkish resolve to keep the area out of his hands and shows why he will struggle to take back more of Syria by force.

More than two months of Russian-backed operations in and around Idlib province have yielded little or nothing for Assad’s side. It marks a rare case of a military campaign that has not gone his way since Russia intervened in 2015.

FILE PHOTO: Turkish soldiers stand on a watch tower at the Atmeh crossing on the Syrian-Turkish border, as seen from the Syrian side, in Idlib governorate, Syria May 31, 2019. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

FILE PHOTO: Turkish soldiers stand on a watch tower at the Atmeh crossing on the Syrian-Turkish border, as seen from the Syrian side, in Idlib governorate, Syria May 31, 2019. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

While resisting government attacks, the insurgents have managed to carve out small advances of their own, drawing on ample stocks of guided anti-tank missiles that opposition and diplomatic sources say have been supplied by Turkey.

“They’re even targeting personnel with these missiles … it means they are comfortably supplied,” a rebel source said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was discussing rebel military capabilities. Turkey’s foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment on reports that Ankara has stepped supplies of arms to rebels.

With Turkey committed to the rebels, the battle for the northwest stands in stark contrast to a campaign in the southwest a year ago, when Western and Arab states stood by as Assad and his Russian- and Iranian-backed allies took the area.

Despite Russian backing in the latest fighting, questions have arisen over whether Assad and his allies are entirely on the same page when it comes to the northwest, where Turkey has deployed forces in agreement with Russia and Iran.

Moscow has appeared keen to preserve its ties with Ankara even as its air force bombs in support of Assad: Turkey says Russia has intervened to stop attacks on Turkish forces from Syrian government-held territory.

And this time there has been no sign of a major role for Iranian-backed Shi’ite forces that have helped Assad to victories in parts of Syria that are of greater interest to Iran, including territory near Iraq, Lebanon and Israel.

The capture of the southwest a year ago remains Assad’s last big gain. The prospects of further advances have been obstructed not only by Turkish interests in the northwest but also the presence of U.S. forces in the east and northeast.

American troops are still supporting Kurdish-led fighters following a reversal of President Donald Trump’s decision last December to pull them all out.

After more than eight years of war, this leaves Syria carved up into areas of U.S., Russian, Turkish and Iranian influence that seem unlikely to be stitched back together any time soon.

“We could see the front lines harden and remain like that for some time, where either the appetite or capability to fight through them is not there on the part of the regime or its allies,” said a Western diplomat speaking anonymously in order to offer a candid assessment.

“BONE-BREAKING BATTLE”

The Idlib area is dominated by Tahrir al-Sham, the jihadists formerly known as the Nusra Front. Proscribed as a terrorist group by the U.N. Security Council, the group has set aside past conflict with Turkish-backed rebels to defend the northwest.

Colonel Mustafa Bakour, a commander in the Jaish al-Izza rebel group, said coordination among rebels was a major factor in foiling government attacks.

“I expect the battles to continue for a time because it has become a bone-breaking battle,” he said in written answers to questions from Reuters.

The government campaign of airstrikes and barrel bombing that began in late April was followed by the capture of around 20 villages. This led to a rebel counter-attack in early June that seized ground the government has been unable to recover.

The Syrian government has described its operations as a response to militant violations of ceasefire agreements.

Russia says action was needed to stop attacks from being launched from Idlib, including drone strikes on its nearby airbase. President Vladimir Putin said in April a full-scale operation in Idlib was impractical for now.

Though the government has not declared the goals of the campaign, rebel sources believe it was to capture two highways that pass through rebel-held territory.

Some 300,000 people fleeing bombardment have moved toward the Turkish border since April, prompting the United Nations to warn that Idlib was on the brink of a “humanitarian nightmare”.

For Ankara, the Syrian opposition’s last major state sponsor, preventing another major influx of Syrian refugees is of paramount importance: Turkey already hosts 3.6 million of them.

While accusing the Syrian government of targeting civilians and its military observation posts in the Idlib area, Turkey has stopped short of blaming Russia, instead saying it would continue to cooperate with Moscow over the northwest.

The Turkish foreign ministry, in a written response to questions from Reuters, also said “necessary messages have been sent to Russian officials to end the attacks on our observation points and civilians” in the Idlib area.

Hundreds of civilians have been killed, as have many fighters on both sides, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Observatory Director Rami Abdulrahman described the operation as “a failure on all levels” for Russia and Damascus.

A Russian private military contractor who was based near Idlib province told Reuters that rebel fighters there are far more professional and motivated than their adversary. Pro-government forces cannot win the battle for Idlib unless Moscow helps them on the ground, he said.

A second Western diplomat said the government had suffered heavy casualties for minimal gains, which was “deeply embarrassing”. “Turkey is trying to tell them ‘you cannot take this militarily. You have to negotiate’,” the diplomat said.

A regional source close to Damascus described the escalation since April as a limited confrontation, saying Russia’s ties with Turkey were the main brake on any full-scale assault to take the entire northwest.

“Of course the regime has the desire to recover Idlib by force, but … without the Russians it can’t, because there are many militants and the Russians are completely committed to the Turks,” the source said. “It is expected that the situation in Idlib will stay as it is for a long time.”

 

(Additional reporting by Orhan Coskun, Zeynep Arica and Ece Toksabay in Turkey, Laila Bassam in Beirut and Maria Tsvetkova in Moscow; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Giles Elgood)

European Court says Russia not facing up to domestic abuse problem

FILE PHOTO: The building of the European Court of Human Rights is seen in Strasbourg, France March 26, 2019. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler/File Photo

By Tom Balmforth

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia failed to protect a woman from repeated acts of violence by her former partner, the European Court of Human Rights ruled on Tuesday, saying her case showed that Moscow was not facing up to its domestic abuse problem.

Valeriya Volodina, who now uses a different name for security reasons, was assaulted, kidnapped and stalked by her former partner after she left him in 2015 and moved out of their shared home in the Russian city of Ulyanovsk, the court said.

The police never opened a criminal investigation into violence and threats that she reported to them from January 2016 to March 2018, it said in its statement.

In one such episode, she was forced to have an abortion after he punched her in the face and stomach when she was pregnant. In other incidents, the partner, whom she met in 2014, cut her car’s brake hose and stole her identity papers, it said.

After she moved to Moscow, Volodina discovered a GPS tracker planted in her bag and the former partner, identified only as S., subsequently started stalking her outside her home and attempted to drag her from a taxi.

The court in Strasbourg said Russia’s police had interviewed the partner and carried out pre-investigation inquiries but not opened formal proceedings against him as it deemed that “no publicly prosecutable offense had been committed”.

Russian legislation does not define or mention domestic violence as a separate offense or aggravating element in other offenses and there is no mechanism for imposing restraining or protection orders, the court said.

“Those failings clearly demonstrated that the authorities were reluctant to acknowledge the gravity of the problem of domestic violence in Russia and its discriminatory effect on women,” the court said in a statement.

Each year, about 14,000 women die in Russia at the hands of husbands or other relatives, according to a 2010 United Nations report.

Police finally opened a criminal investigation only in March 2018 when the partner circulated photographs of her on social networks without her consent, the court said.

The court said Russia’s response had been “manifestly inadequate” and ruled unanimously there had been two violations of the European Convention on human rights, one on the prohibition of discrimination and the other on the prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment.

Russia’s Justice Ministry said it had three months to decide whether to appeal against the ruling, but that it would study the findings of the court, Interfax news agency reported.

(Editing by Alison Williams)

Russian-led assault in Syria leaves over 500 civilians dead: rights groups, rescuers

FILE PHOTO: A street vendor sells toys next to rubble of damaged buildings in the city of Idlib, Syria May 25, 2019. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi/File Photo

By Suleiman Al-Khalidi

AMMAN (Reuters) – At least 544 civilians have been killed and over 2,000 people injured since a Russian-led assault on the last rebel bastion in northwestern Syria began two months ago, rights groups and rescuers said on Saturday.

Russian jets joined the Syrian army on April 26 in the biggest offensive against parts of rebel-held Idlib province and adjoining northern Hama provinces in the biggest escalation in the war between Syrian President Bashar al Assad and his enemies since last summer.

The Syrian Network for Human Rights,(SNHR), which monitors casualties and briefs various UN agencies, said the 544 civilians killed in the hundreds of attacks carried out by Russian jets and the Syrian army include 130 children. Another 2,117 people have been injured.

“The Russian military and its Syrian ally are deliberately targeting civilians with a record number of medical facilities bombed,” Fadel Abdul Ghany, chairman of SNHR, told Reuters.

Russia and its Syrian army ally deny their jets hit indiscriminately civilian areas with cluster munitions and incendiary weapons, which residents in opposition areas say are meant to paralyze every-day life.

Moscow says its forces and the Syrian army are fending off terror attacks by al Qaeda militants whom they say hit populated, government-held areas, and it accuses rebels of wrecking a ceasefire deal agreed last year between Turkey and Russia.

Last month U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said the Russian-Syrian joint military operation had used cluster munitions and incendiary weapons in the attacks along with large air-dropped explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated civilian areas, based on reports by first responders and witnesses.

Residents and rescuers say the two-month-old campaign has left dozens of villages and towns in ruins. According to the United Nations, at least 300,000 people have been forced to leave their homes for the safety of areas closer to the border with Turkey.

“Whole villages and towns have been emptied,” said Idlib-based Civil Defence spokesman Ahmad al Sheikho, saying it was the most destructive campaign against Idlib province since it completely fell to the opposition in the middle of 2015.

On Friday, 15 people, including children, were killed in the village of Mhambil in western Idlib province after Syrian army helicopters dropped barrel bombs on a civilian quarter, the civil defense group and witnesses said.

The heads of 11 major global humanitarian organizations warned at the end of last month that Idlib stood at the brink of disaster, with 3 million civilian lives at risk, including 1 million children.

“Too many have died already; even wars have laws” they declared, in the face of multiple attacks by government forces and their allies on hospitals, schools, and markets, the U.N.-endorsed statement said.

Last Thursday an aerial strike on Kafr Nabl hospital made it the 30th facility to be bombed during the campaign, leaving hundreds of thousands with no medical access, according to aid groups.

“To have these medical facilities bombed and put out of service in less than two months is no accident. Let’s call this by what it is, a war crime,” Dr. Khaula Sawah, vice president of the U.S.-based Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations, which provides aid in the northwest, said in a statement.

(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Leslie Adler)

Taliban attack kills more than 100 security personnel in central Afghanistan: defense ministry source

Afghan men stand in front of a collapsed building of a military base after a car bomb attack in Maidan Wardak, Afghanistan, January 21, 2019. REUTERS/Stringer

By Rupam Jain and Abdul Qadir Sediqi

KABUL (Reuters) – The Taliban killed more than 100 members of the Afghan security forces inside a military compound in central Maidan Wardak province on Monday, a senior defense official said.

“We have information that 126 people have been killed in the explosion inside the military training center, eight special commandoes are among the dead,” said a senior official in the defense ministry in Kabul, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The official said the assault began on Monday morning when the attackers rammed a car full explosives through a military check point and detonated the vehicle inside the campus of the National Directorate of Security (NDS) forces training center in Maidan Shahr, the capital of Maidan Wardak province.

Two gunmen entered the campus right after the explosion and shot at many Afghan soldiers before being gunned down during the clashes.

Defense ministry officials said the Taliban had used U.S.-made armored Humvee vehicles captured from Afghan forces as a car bomb in order to breach the military fortifications.

A second source residing in Maidan Wardak province said more than 100 members of National Directorate of Security (NDS) were killed in the complex attack.

“I have been in touch with the NDS official in the province and they told me that over 100 members of the NDS were killed in the big explosion,” the former provincial official said.

Sharif Hotak, a member of the provincial council in Maidan Wardak said he saw bodies of 35 Afghan forces in the hospital.

“Many more were killed. Several bodies were transported to Kabul city and many injured were transferred to hospitals in Kabul,” said Hotak, adding that “the government was hiding the accurate casualty figures to prevent a further dip in morale of the Afghan forces.”

“The explosion was very powerful. The whole building has collapsed,” he said.

Government officials in Maidan Wardak and Kabul declined to comment when asked if they were obscuring the death toll.

Two senior officials in the interior ministry said the exact casualty figures was not being disclosed to prevent unrest within the armed forces.

“I have been told not to make the death toll figures public. It is frustrating to hide the facts,” said a senior interior ministry official in Kabul.

A senior NDS official in Kabul said at least 50 people were killed or wounded in the complex attack.

Abdurrahman Mangal, spokesman for the provincial governor in Maidan Wardak said 12 people were killed and 12 were injured when the car bomb exploded near the Afghan special forces unit.

President Ashraf Ghani’s office in a statement said the “enemies of the country” had carried out an attack against NDS personnel in Maidan Shahr. “They killed and wounded a number of our beloved and honest sons.”

In recent years the Afghan government has stopped releasing detailed casualty figures. Last year Ghani has said 28,000 Afghan police officers and soldiers have been killed since 2015, breaking the longstanding suppression on casualty data.

Taliban insurgents claimed responsibility for the attack. Zabiullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the hardline Islamic militant group said they have killed 190 people in the complex attack.

Last week, Taliban fighters set off a car bomb outside a highly fortified compound killing at least five people and wounding more than 110 Afghans and expatriates in the capital, Kabul.

(Additional reporting by Sayed Hassib, Charlotte Greenfield in Kabul, Ahmad Sultan in Jalalabad; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

Four hospitalized, police eye more arrests after Portland clashes

Protesters of the right-wing group Patriot Prayer clash with protesters from anti-fascist groups during a demonstration in Portland, Oregon, U.S. June 30, 2018, in this still image taken from video from obtained from social media. MANDATORY CREDIT. Bryan Colombo/via REUTERS

By Miesha Miller

(Reuters) – Clashes between anti-fascist and right-wing militants in Portland, Oregon on Saturday sent four people to the hospital including a police officer and led to at least four arrests, authorities said.

Police seized knives, clubs and pepper spray after running battles between members of the right-wing Patriot Prayer group and counterprotesters who had initially faced off at a downtown park. Patriot Prayer founder Joey Gibson is running for the U.S. Senate.

“We seized numerous weapons early on, and interceded and separated people when necessary,” Portland Deputy Police Chief Bob Day said in a statement late on Saturday.

“However, once projectiles, such as fireworks, eggs, rocks, bottles and construction equipment were thrown and people were injured, we ordered people to disperse,” Day said.

Officers used rubber ball grenades, pepper spray and pepper balls to clear the crowds from streets around a downtown park, police said.

Four people were taken to local hospitals, one of whom suffered serious but non-life-threatening injuries, police said. One officer suffered what was described as a non-serious injury from being hit by a projectile.

Police said more arrests may follow on charges including disorderly conduct, assault, theft, robbery and reckless burning after detectives review video of Saturday’s confrontations.

The four people arrested on Saturday were taken into custody in connection with criminal investigations that began before Saturday’s protests, police said.

(Reporting by Miesha Miller in New York; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Paul Simao)

U.S. jurors’ identities in ‘El Chapo’ drug trial to remain secret

Recaptured drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman is escorted by soldiers at the hangar belonging to the office of the Attorney General in Mexico City, Mexico January 8, 2016

By Jonathan Stempel

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A U.S. judge in Brooklyn has ruled that the identities of jurors expected to decide the fate of accused Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman at a trial this year will be kept secret.

In a decision on Monday, U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan said jurors’ names, addresses and places of employment will be shielded from Guzman, his lawyers, prosecutors and the press.

He also ordered that jurors be transported to and from the courthouse by federal marshals, and sequestered from the public while there.

Guzman’s lawyer had argued that an anonymous jury would undermine the presumption that his client was innocent, create an “extremely unfair” impression that he was dangerous, and impair his ability to question prospective jurors.

“Mr. Guzman is obviously disappointed by the decision,” the lawyer, Eduardo Balarezo, said in an email on Tuesday. “All he is asking for is a fair trial in front of an impartial jury.”

U.S. prosecutors have accused Guzman, 60, of running a global cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine smuggling operation as the leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, and playing a central role in a decade-long Mexican drug war where more than 100,000 people have died.

Cogan said the U.S. government “presented strong and credible reasons to believe that the jury needs protection,” and the evidence might depict a “pattern of violence” by Guzman and his associates that might cause jurors to fear for their safety.

“That many of the allegations involve murder, assault, kidnapping, or torture of potential witnesses or those suspected of assisting law enforcement makes the government’s concerns particularly salient,” Cogan wrote.

The judge also said the significant media attention to the case could raise the potential for juror names to become public, exposing jurors to the risk of intimidation or harassment.

Balarezo had in court papers said keeping juror identities from the public and news media would be a “fair compromise.”

Guzman’s trial is scheduled to begin in September, according to court records, and could last a few months.

Mexican authorities captured Guzman and an associate in January 2016 by pulling over a Ford Focus they had stolen, after Guzman had fled through tunnels and drains from a raid on a safe house in northwest Mexico.

The arrest came six months after Guzman had escaped through a tunnel from a high-security Mexican prison. Guzman was extradited to the United States in January 2017.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; editing by Jonathan Oatis and Tom Brown)

More Rohingya flee Myanmar as Bangladesh prepares to start repatriation

Rohingya refugees line up for daily essentials distribution at Balukhali camp, near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh January 15, 2018.

By Zeba Siddiqui

TEKNAF, Bangladesh (Reuters) – More than 100 Rohingya Muslims have crossed into Bangladesh from Myanmar since Wednesday, with the latest refugees saying army operations are continuing in troubled Rakhine State, raising doubts about plans to send back 655,500 who had already fled.

Scores more were waiting to cross the Naf river that forms the border, even as Dhaka prepares to start repatriating next week some of the Rohingya who have escaped from what the Myanmar military calls counter-insurgency operations since late August.

Bangladesh and Myanmar said on Tuesday they had agreed to complete the return of the refugees within two years, with the process due to begin on Jan. 23.

The United Nations has described the Myanmar military operations in the northern part of Rakhine, launched in response to attacks by militants on police and soldiers on Aug. 25, as a classic case of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya.

One boat crossed the Naf river carrying 53 people early Wednesday, and another boat arrived from the Bay of Bengal with 60 people Thursday morning, according to a Bangladeshi intelligence official in Dhaka, and aid officials at the sprawling Rohingya camp in Kutupalong, near Cox’s Bazar.

Those waiting on the Myanmar side to cross were stuck there because they did not have enough money to pay the boatmen, the recent arrivals said. They said they paid between 30,000 and 40,000 kyat ($20-$30) a person for the night-time trips on rickety boats to Teknaf, in the southernmost part of Bangladesh.

Most of the recent arrivals said they came from Sein Yin Pyin village in Buthidaung district, and escaped because they feared they would be picked up by the military if they left their homes to go to work.

LOOTING IN THE FOREST

Mohammad Ismail, 48, and four others said two weeks ago they saw a dead body hanging by a rope in a forest where Ismail used to collect wood to sell at the market.

“After this I never went to the forest again, and all my money was gone, so my family had nothing to eat for three days,” said Ismail.

Myanmar Police Colonel Myo Thu Soe, spokesman for the military-controlled Home Affairs Ministry, said “there’s no clearance operation going on in the villages”. But, he added, “security forces are still trying to take control of the area” in northern Rakhine. He declined to elaborate.

Government spokesman Zaw Htay did not respond to requests for comment.

Myanmar’s military said in October that it was withdrawing soldiers from western Rakhine state.

Villagers from Sein Yin Pyin said a group of soldiers caught around 200 of them sleeping in the forest on their journey to Bangladesh and looted them of their belongings, including rice, phones, solar chargers and money.

They were stopped again later that day at a beach in Dongkhali village, where around 20 soldiers recorded video of them on their smartphones, while questioning the group and urging them to stay.

“Why are you leaving? You are safe here, don’t go. We will give you a car, go back to your village. If you leave, you will not be able to come back again,” Arif Ullah, 20, said the soldiers told the group.

More than two dozen refugees that Reuters interviewed recounted a similar version of events.

“First their men looted us, and then they stopped us again to ask why we were leaving,” said Umme Habiba, 15. “We left because we were scared.”

Fayazur Rahman, a 33-year-old labourer from southern Buthidaung, said 12 soldiers barged into his home two weeks ago and sexually assaulted his 18-year-old sister. “Day by day, things were getting worse,” he said.

Reuters could not independently confirm the accounts the new arrivals gave. Myanmar has denied most allegations of abuses leveled against its security forces during the operations in Rakhine.

REPATRIATION START DATE?

In Dhaka, a senior foreign ministry official told Reuters that the deadline of next Tuesday for starting the Rohingya repatriation to Myanmar “may not be possible”.

“The return has to be voluntary, safe and dignified,” said the official, who was part of a 14-member team at talks with Myanmar this week about the repatriation.

He said Myanmar would take back 1,500 Rohingya a week, “although our demand was 15,000 per week”, adding the number could be ramped up over the next few months.

They would sheltered in a temporary transit camp in Myanmar before being moved to “houses as per their choices”.

“They (Myanmar) will create all kind of provisions including for their livelihood. We want to make sure there’s a sustainable solution to the crisis,” the official said.

(Reporting by Zeba Siddiqui; Additional reporting by Shoon Naing in Yangon and Ruma Paul in Dhaka; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Alex Richardson)

Texas church shooter sent threatening messages to mother-in-law before rampage

Neighbours who live next to the site of a shooting at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs are pictured, Texas, U.S. November 6, 2017.

By Jon Herskovitz and Lisa Maria Garcia

SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Texas (Reuters) – A man court-martialed by the U.S. Air Force on charges of assaulting his wife and child sent threatening messages to his mother-in-law who sometimes attended the rural Texas church where he fatally shot 26 people, officials said on Monday.

Gunman Devin Patrick Kelley injured another 20 people when he opened fire in the white-steepled First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs on Sunday. The attack ranks among the five deadliest mass shootings carried out by a single gunman in U.S. history.

As he left the church, Kelley, 26 was confronted by an area resident who shot and wounded him, authorities said. Kelley fled and the resident waved down a passing motorist and they chased the suspect at high speeds.

“This good Samaritan, our Texas hero, flagged down a young man from Seguin, Texas, and they jumped in their vehicle and pursued the suspect,” said Freeman Martin, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Public Safety.

Kelley called his father during the chase to say he had been shot and might not survive, officials said. He later crashed his vehicle, shot himself and died, they added. It was not clear if he died of the self-inflicted wound or those sustained in the gunfight, officials said.

Kelley was involved in a domestic dispute with the family of Danielle Shields, a woman he married in 2014, and the situation had flared up, according to officials and official records.

“There was a domestic situation going on within the family and the in-laws,” Martin told reporters outside the church on Monday. “The mother-in-law attended the church … she had received threatening text messages from him.”

Wilson County Sheriff Joe Tackitt said the family members were not in the church during Kelley’s attack.

“I heard that (the in-laws) attended church from time to time,” Tackitt said. “Not on a regular basis.”

Kelley at times had attended services at the church, U.S. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas told reporters at the scene.

“My understanding is that this depraved madman had worshipped at this church before,” Cruz said.

The attack came about a month after a gunman killed 58 people in Las Vegas in the deadliest shooting by a lone assailant in modern U.S. history.

The dead ranged in age from 18 months to 77 years.

Ten of the wounded in Texas remained in critical condition on Monday morning, officials said.

 

‘VIOLENT TENDENCIES’

Wearing a black bullet-proof vest and skull mask, Kelley used a Ruger AR-556 semi-automatic rifle in the attack, authorities said. They recovered two other weapons, both handguns, from his vehicle.

In rural Texas and in other states, gun ownership is a part of life and Republican leaders for years have balked at gun control, arguing that responsible gun owners can help deter crime.

Republican Texas Governor Greg Abbott told CBS News there was evidence that Kelley had mental health problems and had been denied a state gun permit.

“It’s clear this is a person who had violent tendencies, who had some challenges,” Abbott said.

A sporting goods chain said Kelley passed background checks when he bought a firearm in 2016 and a second gun in 2017.

Abbott and other Republican politicians said the mass shooting did not influence their support of gun ownership by U.S. citizens – the right to bear arms protected under the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

“This isn’t a guns situation. I mean we could go into it but it’s a little bit soon,” U.S. President Donald Trump told reporters while on a trip to Asia. “Fortunately somebody else had a gun that was shooting in the opposite direction, otherwise … it would have been much worse.”

Democrats renewed their call to restrict gun ownership.

“How many more people must die at churches or concerts or schools before we stop letting the @NRA control this country’s gun policies,” Democratic U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren said on Twitter.

Vice President Mike Pence said on Twitter that he will travel to Sutherland Springs on Wednesday to meet with victims’ families and law enforcement.

Kelley was court-martialed in 2012 on charges of assaulting his wife and child, and given a bad-conduct discharge, confinement for 12 months and a reduction in rank, Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said. He was discharged in 2014.

The attack stunned Sutherland Springs, a community of about 400 people with just one blinking yellow traffic light. One family, the Holcombes, lost eight people from three generations in the attack, including Bryan Holcombe, an assistant pastor who was leading the service, a relative said.

John Stiles, a 76-year-old retired U.S. Navy veteran, said he heard the shots from his home about 150 yards (137 m) away: “My wife and I were looking for a peaceful and quiet place when we moved here but now that hasn’t worked out.”

 

(Additional reporting by Jane Ross in Sutherland Springs, Texas; Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Florida; and Peter Szekely in New York; Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Lisa Shumaker)

 

Senator Rand Paul suffers five broken ribs after assault

Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) speaks to reporters as he arrives for a vote on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., October 18, 2017.

By Bernie Woodall and Pete Schroeder

(Reuters) – U.S. Senator Rand Paul’s return to Washington may be delayed after he suffered five broken ribs during an assault at his Kentucky home, media reported on Sunday, citing a senior adviser to the Republican lawmaker.

Paul’s neighbor, Rene Boucher, has been charged with one count of fourth-degree assault causing minor injury in connection with the incident on Friday, according to authorities. Boucher, 59, was released on bond.

“Senator Paul has five rib fractures including three displaced fractures. This type of injury is caused by high velocity severe force,” Doug Stafford, a senior adviser to Paul, said in a statement, according to multiple media reports.

“It is not clear exactly how soon he will return to work, as the pain is considerable as is the difficulty in getting around, including flying,” the reports quoted Stafford as saying. He added that the senator’s type of injury could lead to life-threatening injuries.

Paul, 54, also has lung contusions, Stafford said in the statement, according to the reports.

The Bowling Green Daily News, citing an arrest warrant, said Paul told police his neighbor came on to his property in a gated community just east of Bowling Green and tackled him from behind. Paul had injuries to the face and trouble breathing because of a rib injury, the newspaper said.

It was not clear what motivated the altercation and Paul did not go to the hospital, police said. Paul was mowing his lawn at the time of the attack, television station WAVE-TV in Kentucky reported.

“Kelley and I appreciate the overwhelming support after Friday’s unfortunate event. Thank you for your thoughts and prayers,” Paul said on Twitter on Sunday morning, referring to his wife.

A man who answered Boucher’s phone on Sunday, when a Reuters reporter asked to speak with him, said: “I’m sorry. I can’t talk.”

Kentucky State Police said on Saturday that Paul and Boucher were acquaintances. The suspect is a retired physician, the Bowling Green Daily News said.

The New York Daily News reported that a Facebook page for Boucher contained numerous postings critical of Republican President Donald Trump.

Paul, an ophthalmologist, ran for the Republican presidential nomination before dropping out of the race in February 2016.

 

(Reporting by Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Editing by Peter Cooney and Paul Simao)

 

Iraqi forces in final assault to take Hawija from Islamic State

Iraqi forces in final assault to take Hawija from Islamic State

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iraqi forces launched a final assault on Wednesday to capture the town of Hawija, one of two pockets of territory in Iraq still under Islamic State control, the country’s military said in a statement.

Iraqi state TV broadcast live footage showing the area covered by thick black smoke, rising from oil wells torched by the militants as a tactic to prevent air detection. Hawija is located near the oil city of Kirkuk, in northern Iraq.

The offensive on Hawija is being carried out by U.S.-backed Iraqi government troops and Iranian-trained and armed Shi’ite paramilitary groups known as Popular Mobilisation.They began moving on the town of Hawija two days after capturing the Rashad air base, 30 km (20 miles) to the south and used by the militants as a training and logistics site.

Iraq launched an offensive on Sept. 21 to dislodge Islamic State from Hawija and surrounding areas where up to 78,000 people could be trapped, according to the United Nations.

Iraqi security officials say the militants are preventing some residents from leaving, while others are afraid of escaping towards government forces because of explosives that might have been laid by Islamic State around the town.

The other area of the country still under the control of the militant group is a stretch of land along the Syrian border, in western Iraq, including the border town of al-Qaim.

The militants also hold the Syrian side of the border at al-Qaim, but the area under their control is shrinking as they retreat in the face of two different sets of hostile forces — a U.S.-backed, Kurdish-led coalition, and Syrian government troops with foreign Shi’ite militias backed by Iran and Russia.

Islamic State’s cross-border “caliphate” effectively collapsed in July, when U.S.-backed Iraqi forces captured Mosul, the group’s de facto capital in Iraq, in a grueling battle which lasted nine months.

The militants’ leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who declared the caliphate from Mosul in mid-2014, released an audio recording last week that indicated he was still alive. He called on his followers to keep up the fight despite the setbacks.

(Reporting by Maher Chmaytelli; Editing by Catherine Evans)