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

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

By Erwin Seba

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘WE ALL TOOK OFF’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We saw corpses in the street”: Syrian activist recounts Douma attack

Limar and Masa al-Qari, child survivors of the suspected poison gas attack, walk outside a tent for the displaced, in the Northern Aleppo countryside, Syria April 17, 2018. Picture taken April 17, 2018. REUTERS/Mahmoud Hassano

By Dahlia Nehme

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Muayad al-Dirani was at a medical center in the Syrian town of Douma the night of April 7, when patients started flowing in.

Many of them were suffocating or having seizures, after a suspected poison gas attack struck the rebel enclave.

Doctors hurried to undress victims, douse them in water, and give atropine injections, he said. But they could not keep up. “Everyone lost their nerves, felt helpless and didn’t know what to do,” Dirani said. “The aircraft was still in the sky.”

Rasha Edlibi, a survivor of the suspected poison gas attack, sits with her two daughters inside a tent for the displaced, in the Northern Aleppo countryside, Syria April 17, 2018. Picture taken April 17, 2018. REUTERS/Mahmoud Hassano

Rasha Edlibi, a survivor of the suspected poison gas attack, sits with her two daughters inside a tent for the displaced, in the Northern Aleppo countryside, Syria April 17, 2018. Picture taken April 17, 2018. REUTERS/Mahmoud Hassano

Rasha Edlibi, a survivor of the attack, said the gas left her unable to breathe and made her eyes well up with tears.

“We were in the basement, around dinner time, when there was a lot of bombardment, and we felt a very, very strong chlorine smell,” she said. “Before I knew it, my husband was carrying me to a (medical) point. I woke up to them throwing water on me.”

The medics were already working at full capacity after weeks of army artillery and air strikes, said Dirani, 20, a photographer who was working to document the victims of attacks during the conflict.

He grabbed his camera, put on a face mask, and ran with emergency workers to the nearby site of the attack, he said.

“On the way, we saw corpses in the street…They had tried to flee and didn’t make it.”

Medical relief groups say dozens of men, women, and children were gassed to death in Douma that night. Damascus and its key ally Moscow have dismissed the reports of a chemical attack.

The United States, France, and Britain launched missile strikes on Saturday over the suspected chemical attack, the first coordinated direct Western military action against President Bashar al-Assad in seven years of war.

The suspected gas attack took place during the final days of a government offensive on Douma, the last town to hold out in the eastern Ghouta enclave that the army has recaptured since February.

Dirani spoke to Reuters in a telephone interview from rebel territory in northern Syria, where thousands of insurgent fighters and civilians from Douma were sent in an evacuation under a surrender deal with the government.

Dirani said when he reached the site of the attack, he found nearly 30 bodies on the ground floor, and a few others on the first. Their eyes were open and foam had come out of their mouths, he said.

“There was no place for us to walk…They looked terrifying.”

He stopped taking pictures of the victims and rushed outside to get first aid, after his eyes burnt and his breath got short. Dirani said he was also coughing and felt a pain at the bottom of his stomach.

“The scenes I saw do not leave my mind, and they will never be erased from my memory,” he said.

He recalled the sight of a child twitching on the floor, being sprayed with water and being given oxygen. We were “waiting for him to get better or die”, he said.

“Everyone was crying, the medical staff were crying and I was also, and we couldn’t do anything.”

Rescue workers went out the next morning to look for more bodies, and people buried the dead a few days later.

Douma is located in the Ghouta region near Damascus where three towns were hit in a nerve gas attack that killed hundreds of people in 2013.

Edlibi said one of her two young daughters “turned blue right away” because she already had lung problems from previous shelling. She spoke to Reuters at a camp for the displaced in rebel-held territory in northern Syria.

“I still have trouble breathing till now and the headache is not going away,” she said.

(Editing by Ellen Francis, Tom Perry and Peter Graff)

Poisoned Russian agent Sergei Skripal is getting better fast, hospital says

Sergei Skripal, a former colonel of Russia's GRU military intelligence service, looks on inside the defendants' cage as he attends a hearing at the Moscow military district court, Russia August 9, 2006. Kommersant/Yuri Senatorov via REUTERS

By Alistair Smout and Guy Faulconbridge

LONDON (Reuters) – Former Russian spy Sergei Skripal is no longer in a critical condition and his health is improving rapidly more than a month after he was poisoned with a nerve agent in England, the British hospital treating him said on Friday.

Skripal, 66, a former colonel in Russian military intelligence who betrayed dozens of spies to Britain’s foreign spy service, and his daughter Yulia were found slumped unconscious on a public bench in the English city of Salisbury on March 4.

Britain blamed Russia for the poisoning, the first known offensive use of such a nerve agent on European soil since World War Two. Moscow denied any involvement and suggested that Britain had carried out the attack to stoke anti-Russian hysteria.

“He is responding well to treatment, improving rapidly and is no longer in a critical condition,” Christine Blanshard, Medical Director at Salisbury District Hospital, said in a statement.

British Prime Minister Theresa May said the Skripals were poisoned with Novichok, a deadly group of nerve agents developed by the Soviet military in the 1970s and 1980s.

Russia has said it does not have such nerve agents and President Vladimir Putin said it is nonsense to think that Moscow would have poisoned Skripal and his 33-year-old daughter.

A British judge said last month, nearly three weeks after the attack, that it might have left them with compromised mental capacity and that it was unclear whether they would recover.

The attack prompted the biggest Western expulsion of Russian diplomats since the height of the Cold War as allies in Europe and the United States sided with May’s view that Moscow was either responsible or had lost control of the nerve agent.

But Moscow has hit back by expelling Western diplomats, questioning how Britain knows that Russia was responsible and offering its rival interpretations, including that it amounted to a plot by British secret services.

Both Moscow and London have accused each other of trying to deceive the world with an array of claims, counter-claims and threats.

“PLAYING WITH FIRE”

At a session of the executive of the global chemical weapons watchdog this week, Russia called for a joint inquiry into the poisoning of the Skripals, but lost a vote on the motion.

At a UN Security Council meeting on Thursday, Russia warned Britain that “you’re playing with fire and you’ll be sorry” over its accusations.

Given the twists and turns in the affair, British and Russian diplomats have variously claimed the mystery to be worthy of Sherlock Holmes or of an Agatha Christie whodunit.

In an exchange at the United Nations, the ambassadors of Britain and Russia quoted extracts from “Alice in Wonderland” at each other.

The hospital in Salisbury said it was providing the medical update in response to “intense media coverage yesterday.”

Russian state television reported that Yulia had phoned her cousin in Russia and told her that she and her father were both recovering and that she expected to leave hospital soon.

Yulia’s health has improved rapidly. On Thursday, she issued a statement through British police to thank hospital staff and people who came to her help when “when my father and I were incapacitated”.

Sergei Skripal, who was recruited by Britain’s MI6, was arrested for treason in Moscow in 2004. He ended up in Britain after being swapped in 2010 for Russian spies caught in the United States.

Since emerging from the John le Carre world of high espionage and betrayal, Skripal lived modestly in Salisbury and kept out of the spotlight until he was found poisoned.

British police believe a nerve agent was left on the front door of his home. Skripal’s cat was put down by British authorities. His guinea pigs were discovered dead.

“When a vet was able to access the property, two guinea pigs had sadly died,” a British government spokeswoman said.

“A cat was also found in a distressed state and a decision was taken by a veterinary surgeon to euthanise the animal to alleviate its suffering,” the spokeswoman said.

(Editing by Richard Balmforth)

Soviet-era scientist says he helped create poison in UK spy attack row

ILE PHOTO: Sergei Skripal, a former colonel of Russia's GRU military intelligence service, looks on inside the defendants' cage as he attends a hearing at the Moscow military district court, Russia August 9, 2006. Kommersant/Yuri Sen

By Andrew Osborn

MOSCOW (Reuters) – A Cold War-era scientist acknowledged on Tuesday he had helped create the nerve agent that Britain says was used to poison an ex-spy and his daughter, contradicting Moscow’s insistence that neither Russia nor the Soviet Union ever had such a program.

However, Professor Leonid Rink told the RIA news agency that the attack did not look like Moscow’s work because Sergei and Yulia Skripal had not died immediately.

The Skripals remain alive but in critical condition more than two weeks after they were found unconscious in the English cathedral town of Salisbury. A policeman who helped them is also in hospital in a serious condition.

Rink said he worked under the Soviet Union at a chemical weapons facility where the Novichok military-grade nerve agent was developed. Asked if he was one of Novichok’s creators, he told RIA: “Yes. It was the basis for my doctoral dissertation.”

Moscow has denied any involvement in the Skripals’ case or that the Soviet Union or its successor state Russia developed Novichok at all.

Echoing a theory floated in Russian state media, Rink said the British could have been behind the attack.

“It’s hard to believe that the Russians were involved, given that all of those caught up in the incident are still alive,” he said. “Such outrageous incompetence by the alleged (Russian) spies would have simply been laughable and unacceptable.”

Inspectors from the world’s chemical weapons watchdog have begun examining the poison used in the attack which London blames on Moscow.

Rink told RIA he had worked at a Soviet chemicals weapons research facility in the town of Shikhany in Russia’s Saratov Region for 27 years until the early 1990s. Novichok was not a single substance, he said, but a system of using chemical weapons and had been called ‘Novichok-5’ by the Soviet Union.

“A big group of specialists in Shikhany and in Moscow worked on Novichok – on the technologies, toxicologies and biochemistry,” he said. “In the end we achieved very good results.”

Rink confessed to having secretly supplied a military-grade poison for cash that was used to murder a Russian banking magnate and his secretary in 1995. In a statement to investigators after his arrest, viewed by Reuters, Rink said he was in possession of poisons created as part of the chemical weapons program which he stored in his garage.

Rink received a one-year suspended prison sentence for “misuse of powers” after a secret trial, according to a lawyer involved in the case.

‘HEIGHT OF IDIOCY’

Rink told RIA it would have been absurd for Russian spies to have used Novichok to try to kill the Skripals because of its obviously Russian origin and Russian name.

“There are lots of more suitable substances,” he said. “To fire the equivalent of a powerful rocket at someone who is not a threat and to miss would be the height of idiocy.”

He dismissed British media reports that Yulia Skripal could have unwittingly carried Novichok from Moscow as “utter nonsense”, saying Novichok would not have survived the journey.

Once secret, Rink said the technology behind Novichok was now known to many countries including Britain, the United States and China, who he said were capable of manufacturing a version of Novichok.

However, he said the exact formula devised by the Soviet Union was unique and that it should be possible, based on a sample of the toxin used in the Salisbury attack, to say it was not “cooked up” in Russia.

Another Russian scientist called Vil Mirzayanov had done a lot to publicize the formulas used to produce Novichok, Rink said.

Mirzayanov, who now lives in the United States, told Reuters this month that only the Russian government could have carried out the attack.

Rink said he knew of “about five” scientists familiar with the Novichok technology who had left Russia in the 1990s.

“Permission to let them leave generated great surprise in our institute,” Rink told RIA.

(Corrects in third para to “two weeks” from “three weeks”.)

(Editing by David Stamp)

Iraqi teenager guilty of carrying out London train bombing

The explosive device, left by Ahmed Hassan, can be seen still smoking on the underground train at Parsons Green tube station in London, Britain. Metropolitian Police/Handout via

By Michael Holden

LONDON (Reuters) – An Iraqi teenager, who had come to Britain as an asylum seeker, was found guilty on Friday of attempted murder after detonating a homemade bomb on a packed rush-hour London commuter train, injuring 30 people, prosecutors and police said.

Ahmed Hassan, 18, was found guilty of trying to murder the passengers on board an underground train heading to central London on Sept. 15 last year, prosecutors said.

The bomb went off at Parsons Green station and flames engulfed the carriage, but it did not fully explode, limiting the scale of injuries in what authorities said was Britain’s fifth major attack of 2017.

“It was only a matter of luck that the device did not work as he intended or it could easily have led to the loss of innocent lives,” said Sue Hemming from Britain’s Crown Prosecution Service.

Hassan, who the court heard had spoken of his duty to hate Britain because of the deaths of his parents in Iraq, had been placed under Britain’s counter-radicalisation program at the time.

“He was very cunning and devious,” Dean Haydon, the head of London Police’s Counter Terrorism Command told BBC TV.

“On the face of it, Hassan was engaged on the program. But coming back to his devious nature, he kept it very secretive in relation to what he was doing, what he was planning, and nobody around him actually knew what his plot was.”

Haydon said a review of the counter-radicalisation program would now be undertaken.

On the day of the attack, the teenager left his foster home in Sunbury-on-Thames in west London and set the timer for the device, made with the highly volatile triacetone triperoxide (TATP) – known as “the mother of Satan”, in toilets at Wimbledon station where he boarded a District Line underground train, police said.

A handout photograph of Ahmed Hassan, who has been convicted of exploding a device on an underground train at Parsons Green tube station in London, Britain. Picture supplied March 16, 2018. Metropolitian Police/Handout via REUTERS

A handout photograph of Ahmed Hassan, who has been convicted of exploding a device on an underground train at Parsons Green tube station in London, Britain. Picture supplied March 16, 2018. Metropolitian Police/Handout via REUTERS

SHRAPNEL

He got off at the stop before Parsons Green leaving behind his bomb which was placed in a bucket. It was packed with more than two kilograms of metal shrapnel including screws, bolts, nails, knives and screw drivers, the court heard.

There were 93 passengers in the carriage when it detonated. They reported hearing a loud bang and seeing a fireball with one woman suffering burns to her hands, legs, and face causing her to lose the hair on her eyebrows and eyelashes. Others were hurt in a stampede to flee the scene.

Hassan was arrested in the southern port of Dover the following day carrying 2,320 pounds in cash and a new phone.

The court heard he arrived in Britain in the back of a lorry in 2015, claimed asylum and was placed with foster parents in Sunbury. He told British officials that he had been taken by force by Islamic State militants, who had threatened to kill his family members, and had given him military training.

Britain said at the time there was no evidence to suggest IS was responsible for the Parsons Green attack despite the group’s claims of responsibility.

Police and prosecutors said his motive was unclear. A teacher and a youth worker told the court Hassan had seemed confused and angry, and that he believed his father had been killed by U.S. bombing.

Hassan admitted to police he had made the bomb but said he had never intended to kill and merely wanted attention. He had pleaded not guilty to charges of attempted murder.

He told the court that he had been attracted to the idea of being a fugitive, chased across Europe by the police and Interpol.

However, the jury at London’s Old Bailey court convicted him of attempted murder and he will be sentenced at a later date.

(Editing by Guy Faulconbridge, Paul Sandle and Andrew Heavens)

UK’s May says ‘highly likely’ Russia behind nerve attack on spy

Members of the emergency services wearing protective suits work at a site in Winterslow, near Salisbury, Britain, March 12, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

By Alistair Smout and Michael Holden

LONDON (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Theresa May said on Monday it was “highly likely” that Moscow was responsible for the poisoning in England of Russian former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter using a military-grade nerve agent.

May told parliament that either the Russian state was directly responsible for the poisoning or it had allowed the nerve agent to get into the hands of others. London has given Russia until Wednesday to explain its use.

British officials had identified the substance as being part of the Novichok group of nerve agents which were developed by the Soviet military during the 1970s and 1980s, May said.

“Should there be no credible response, we will conclude that this action amounts to an unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the United Kingdom,” May said, calling the attack a “reckless and despicable act.”

Russia’s foreign ministry hit back immediately, saying May’s comments were a “circus show” and part of a political information campaign against Russia.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration stood by America’s “closest ally”.

“The use of a highly lethal nerve agent against UK citizens on UK soil is an outrage,” Sanders said. “The attack was reckless, indiscriminate and irresponsible. We offer the fullest condemnation.”

Skripal, 66, and his 33-year-old daughter Yulia, have been in hospital in a critical condition since being found unconscious on a bench outside a shopping center in the city of Salisbury on March 4.

Relations between Britain and Russia have been strained since the murder in London of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko who died in 2006 after drinking green tea laced with radioactive polonium-210.

On Monday, May said the latest poisoning took place “against a backdrop of a well-established pattern of Russian state aggression” and that Britain was ready to take “much more extensive measures” against Russia than in the past.

Russia’s ambassador to London has been summoned to explain to British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson how the nerve agent came to have been used.

“On Wednesday we will consider in detail the response from the Russian state,” May said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin brushed off a question about the affair while visiting a grain center in southern Russia, saying British authorities should first “get to the bottom of things”, the BBC’s Moscow correspondent wrote on Twitter.

Russian state TV accused Britain of poisoning Skripal as part of a special operation designed to spoil Russia’s hosting of the soccer World Cup this summer.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Skripal worked for British intelligence and the attack happened in Britain so it was not a matter for the Russian government.

A British policeman who was one of the first to attend to the stricken spy was also affected by the nerve agent. He is now conscious in a serious but stable condition, police said.

Skripal is a former colonel in Russia’s GRU military intelligence who was convicted of passing secrets to Britain’s MI6 intelligence agency and later exchanged in a spy swap.

The chairman of the British parliament’s foreign affairs committee, Tom Tugendhat, said Russia’s so-called oligarchs, who have amassed fortunes during Putin’s 18-year rule, should be denied entry to the luxuries of London and the West.

The British capital has been dubbed “Londongrad” due to the large quantities of Russian money that have poured in since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

May last year said Putin was seeking to undermine the West and the international order by meddling in elections, and promised to ensure corrupt money did not flow into Britain from Russia.

A British public inquiry found the 2006 killing of Litvinenko had probably been approved by Putin and carried out by two Russians, Dmitry Kovtun and Andrei Lugovoy – a former KGB bodyguard who later became a member of the Russian parliament.

Cordons remained in place in the center of Salisbury and some police investigators wore full chemical and biological suits. The army was later deployed to help remove items from the scene.

Health officials said there was no wider risk to public health.

Jenny Harries, deputy medical director at Public Health England, suggested members of the public who had visited the same restaurant and pub as Skripal and his daughter on March 4 should wash their clothes, clean phones and bags with baby wipes and wash items such as jewelry and spectacles with warm water and detergent.

(Additional reporting by Andrew Osborn in Moscow and Jonathan Shenfield and Alex Fraser in Salisbury, England; Writing by William Schomberg; Editing by Richard Balmforth and Catherine Evans)

Hundreds urged to wash clothes after UK nerve agent attack

Soldiers wear protective clothing in Salisbury, Britain, March 11, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

By Henry Nicholls and Alex Fraser

SALISBURY, England (Reuters) – Hundreds of people who visited the Zizzi restaurant or the Mill pub in the English city of Salisbury were told on Sunday to wash their clothes after traces of nerve agent used to attack a former Russian spy last week were found at both sites.

Public Health England said there was no immediate health risk to anyone who may have been in either the restaurant or the pub, but their was a small chance that any of the agent that had come into contact with clothing or belongings could still be present in minute amounts and contaminate skin.

Former double agent Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33, have been in hospital in a critical condition since March 4, when they were found unconscious on a bench in the southern English cathedral city of Salisbury.

People walk past a restaurant which has been secured as part of the investigation into the poisoning of former Russian inteligence agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, in Salisbury, Britain March 11, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

People walk past a restaurant which has been secured as part of the investigation into the poisoning of former Russian inteligence agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, in Salisbury, Britain March 11, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

“We have now learned there has been some trace contamination by the nerve agent in both the Mill pub and Zizzi restaurant in Salisbury,” chief medical offer Sally Davies said on Sunday.

She said she was confident that no one who was in the restaurant or the pub on March 4 or 5 had been harmed, but their clothing should be washed and personal items like phones wiped as a precaution against any long-term exposure to any substance.

Skripal and his daughter remained in a “critical but stable condition in intensive care,” the chief executive of the local hospital said at a news conference.

A police officer who initially responded was “conscious and in a serious but stable condition,” she added.

British police have said a nerve agent was used against Skripal and his daughter, but have not made public which one.

SMALL RISK

Public Health England said it had weighed new evidence before issuing its advice on Sunday, and it said the general public had not been at risk in the days since the attack.

“This is about a very, very small risk of repetitive contact for any traces of contamination that people may have taken out,” Public Health England’s deputy medical director Jenny Harries said at the same press conference.

“In risk terms one or two days is not what we are concerned about, what we are worrying about is whether there could be an ongoing risk that could build over the future.”

Cordons were still around the restaurant and the pub on Sunday, and police could not say how long they would remain.

A number of police cars and other vehicles were removed from a local car park by soldiers wearing protective clothing and gas masks on Sunday, a Reuters eyewitness said.

Items from the Zizzi restaurant, including a table, had been removed and destroyed, the BBC said.

Local residents said they were concerned by the warnings about contamination issued to the people who had visited the venues.

“It’s worried a lot of people,” dog walker Phil Burt said. “This town is usually packed on a Sunday, but I think a lot of people are just staying away.”

Many in British media and politics have speculated that Russia could have played a part in the attack on Skripal, but interior minister Amber Rudd said on Saturday it was too early to say who was responsible.

Skripal betrayed dozens of Russian agents to British intelligence before his arrest in Moscow in 2004. He was sentenced to 13 years in prison in 2006, and in 2010 was given refuge in Britain after being exchanged for Russian spies.

Finance minister Philip Hammond said Britain would respond “appropriately” if a foreign state is found to have been involved in the poisoning.

“This is a police investigation and it will be evidence-led and we must go where the evidence takes us,” Hammond told BBC television on Sunday.

“So we have to allow the police investigation to run its course. But if there were to be an involvement of a foreign state evidenced by this investigation, then obviously that would be very serious indeed and the government would respond appropriately,” he said.

(Reporting by Paul Sandle and William Schomberg; Editing by Mark Potter and David Evans)

Turkey detains four Iraqi nationals for planning attack on U.S. Embassy

FILE PHOTO: People wait in front of the visa application office entrance of the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, Turkey, October 9, 2017. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkish police detained four Iraqi nationals on Monday on suspicion of planning an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, the state-run Anadolu Agency said, hours after the mission temporarily closed due to a security threat.

Police detained four Iraqis residing in the Black Sea province of Samsun who had been preparing for an attack on the embassy, Anadolu said.

The embassy said it was closed to the public on Monday due to a security threat was only providing emergency services would be provided. It did not specify the nature of the security threat. It will also be closed on Tuesday.

It advised U.S. citizens in Turkey to avoid large crowds, the embassy building, and to be aware of their own security when visiting tourist sites and crowded places.

While relations between the United States and Turkey – both NATO allies and members of the coalition against Islamic State – have been strained in recent months, Turkey said the embassy closure was not political.

“The decision to close the American embassy is not a political one, it was taken on security grounds. The embassy has shared intelligence with the Turkish intelligence service and security forces,” Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag, the government’s main spokesman, told a news conference.

“Both the intelligence service and security forces have taken extra measures, and important results have been achieved,” he said, without elaborating.

The United States suspended visa services at its missions in Turkey in October after two local employees were held on suspicion of ties to the failed 2016 coup. Ankara reciprocated and visa restrictions between the two were not lifted until the end of December.

The embassy said it would make an announcement when it was ready to reopen.

(Reporting by Mert Ozkan; Writing by Ezgi Erkoyun and Ece Toksabay; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Syrian government ground forces attack Ghouta despite Russian truce plan

People watch as smoke rises in eastern Ghouta, Damascus, Syria February 28, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

BEIRUT/GENEVA (Reuters) – Syrian government forces launched a ground assault on the edge of the rebel-held eastern Ghouta enclave on Wednesday, seeking to gain territory despite a Russian plan for five-hour daily ceasefires, a war monitor and sources on both sides said.

Hundreds of people have died in 11 days of bombing of the eastern Ghouta, a swathe of towns and farms outside Damascus that is the last major rebel-held area near the capital.

The onslaught has been one of the fiercest of the civil war, now entering its eighth year.

The U.N. Security Council, including President Bashar al-Assad’s strongest ally Russia, passed a resolution on Saturday calling for a 30-day countrywide ceasefire, but it has not come into effect, with Moscow and Damascus saying they are battling members of terrorist groups excluded from the truce.

Russia has instead called for daily five-hour local ceasefires to establish what it calls a humanitarian corridor so aid can enter the enclave and civilians and wounded can leave.

The first such truce took place on Tuesday but quickly collapsed when bombing and shelling resumed after a short lull.

There were no air strikes during Wednesday’s five-hour ceasefire, but heavy bombardment resumed in the afternoon, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group reported.

There has been no sign of aid delivered to the besieged area.

Moscow and Damascus have accused rebels of shelling the corridor to prevent people leaving. Rebels deny this, and say people will not leave eastern Ghouta because they fear the government. A senior U.S. general accused Moscow of acting as “both arsonist and firefighter” by failing to rein in Assad.

Wednesday’s ground assault targeted the Hawsh al-Dawahra area at the eastern edge of the rebel-held area.

The Observatory reported advances by the government forces in the area, describing it as the resumption of an assault that first began on Feb. 25. It said rebels had inflicted heavy losses on government forces.

An official with one of the rebel groups in eastern Ghouta said fighters were battling to repel an attempted incursion, and characterized the battle as “back and forth”.

A commander in the military alliance that backs Assad said an elite unit of the Syrian army, the Tiger Force, was taking part in the assault and advances had been made.

France’s foreign ministry called on Russia and Iran, Assad’s other military ally, to exert “maximum pressure” on the Syrian government to implement the 30-day ceasefire.

But with no sign of decisive international pressure to stop the attack, eastern Ghouta appears on course to eventually meet the same fate as other areas won back by the government in lengthy, punishing assaults, where rebels and civilians who oppose Assad were finally evacuated in negotiated withdrawals.

Damascus appears to be applying tried and tested military means, combining air strikes and bombardment with ground assaults, as it did to win back eastern Aleppo in 2016.

A senior Western diplomat said Russia appeared intent on a repeat of Aleppo in eastern Ghouta by evacuating the area and then killing “the terrorists even if it’s not just Nusra”, a reference to a jihadist group with al Qaeda links.

US, RUSSIA CLASH OVER CHEMICAL WEAPONS

Diplomatic sources have said the chemical weapons watchdog, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, opened an investigation into attacks in eastern Ghouta to determine whether banned munitions were used.

The United States says it has evidence Syrian forces have used chlorine, which is permitted for civilian purposes but banned as a weapon, in attacks in eastern Ghouta and elsewhere.

U.S. disarmament ambassador Robert Wood said on Wednesday that Russia has violated its duty to guarantee the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile and prevent the Assad government from using poison gas.

Syria agreed to give up its stockpile of poison gas and join the international chemical weapons ban in 2013 under a Russian-brokered deal that averted U.S. retaliatory air strikes after a nerve gas attack killed hundreds of people. Washington accused Damascus last year of again using nerve gas and carried out a round of air strikes as punishment.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Syria had eliminated its poison gas stockpiles, and called allegations it was still using chemical weapons “absurd”.

Lavrov said militants entrenched in eastern Ghouta were blocking aid and the evacuation of people who want to leave. Moscow would continue to support the Syrian army in totally defeating the “terrorist threat”, Lavrov told the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva.

A Syrian army officer told journalists insurgents had shelled the corridor again on Wednesday.

Rebels have intensified shelling of nearby government-held Damascus. A medical official in the capital said on Monday 36 people had been killed in four days. Damascus and Moscow say the campaign in eastern Ghouta is needed to halt such shelling.

The United Nations said on Tuesday it was proving impossible to aid civilians or evacuate wounded, and said all sides must abide by the 30-day truce sought by the Security Council.

The multi-sided Syrian war has killed hundreds of thousands of people and driven half of the pre-war population of 23 million from their homes. Fighting has escalated on several fronts this year, with the collapse of Islamic State giving rise to conflict between other Syrian and foreign parties.

As Assad has pressed the offensive against eastern Ghouta, Turkey has launched an incursion against Kurdish fighters in the northwestern Afrin region.

(Reporting by Tom Perry, Laila Bassam and Dahlia Nehme in Beirut and Stephanie Nebehay and Tom Miles in Geneva, John Irish in Paris; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

Victims’ father charges at ex-U.S.A. Gymnastics doctor in court

Randall Margraves (L) lunges at Larry Nassar,(wearing orange) a former team USA Gymnastics doctor who pleaded guilty in November 2017 to sexual assault charges, during victim statements of his sentencing in the Eaton County Circuit Court in Charlotte, Michigan, U.S., February 2, 2018.

(Editor’s Note: Please be advised that this story contains language in fifth paragraph that may offend some readers)

By Steve Friess

(Reuters) – The enraged father of three daughters sexually abused by Larry Nassar charged toward the former USA Gymnastics national team doctor and tried to attack him during a sentencing hearing in a Michigan courtroom on Friday.

He was nearly within striking distance of Nassar before court guards tackled him roughly to the ground in front of his shocked daughters.

The chaotic scene began after sisters Lauren and Madison Margraves had finished tearfully reading their victim statements on the second day of hearings at a court in Eaton County, much as nearly 200 women have done before them at earlier hearings. Standing alongside his daughters and wife, Randall Margraves, a tall man with an intense gaze dressed in an electricians’ union sweatshirt, then asked to speak.

“I would ask you as part of the sentencing to grant me five minutes in a locked room with this demon,” he said to the judge, gesturing toward Nassar, who has already been sentenced to up to 175 years in prison at an earlier hearing after pleading guilty to molesting young women under the guise of medical treatment.

Judge Janice Cunningham told him he knew she could not do that, and chastised him after he called Nassar a son of a bitch. He asked for one minute alone instead. The judge demurred as some in the courtroom laughed uncomfortably.

Margraves then bolted toward Nassar, seated in an orange jump suit behind a nearby table. His daughters’ hands flew to their mouths, and one of Nassar’s lawyers moved to shield his client.

Gasps, cries and shouts filled the courtroom as Margraves was wrestled to the ground, knocking things off a desk on the way down, and put in handcuffs while Nassar was taken out to safety.

“One minute!” he demanded repeatedly, his head pinned to the floor. As court officers pulled him from the room, he implored them, “What if this happened to you guys?” Some victims fled the room in tears.

Looking distressed, the lead prosecutor, Angela Povilaitis, turned to the victims and relatives in the courtroom and tried to restore calm, saying she did not want to see anyone else end up in handcuffs.

“I understand Mr. Margraves’ frustration but you cannot do this,” she said. “This is not helping your children.”

The hearing resumed after a short break, with the judge addressing what she called a “scary” scene.

“My heart started beating fast and my legs started shaking,” Cunningham said. “We cannot react by using physical violence,” she told the courtroom, noting she could not imagine Margraves’ pain as a father. Nassar was back in his seat, looking downcast.

The hearing then reverted to the ritual established at earlier sessions: woman after woman rising to confront Nassar with accounts of a revered doctor they trusted making them strip naked and penetrating them with ungloved hands, and affirmations that they are no longer victims but survivors.

Margraves was being held in a cell at the courthouse, according to a corrections officer, but it was not immediately clear whether he would face any charges.

People reacted on social media with empathy for Margraves, with some offering to help cover any legal costs he faces.

Views were more mixed at the courthouse.

“If he had gotten some licks in, I wouldn’t have cried over it,” Lavonda Simon, whose daughter was among Nassar’s victims, said. “I totally understand the feeling of wanting to hurt him. You bet.”

Mariah McClain, who testified about Nassar’s abuse of her after the break, said she had to leave when Margraves erupted.

“It was very upsetting,” she said. “It was just too much for me.”

Nassar, who is also serving a 60-year federal term for child pornography convictions, has sparked broader outrage after numerous victims accused USA Gymnastics, the sport’s governing body, and Michigan State University, where Nassar worked, of failing to investigate complaints about him going back years.

U.S. Olympic officials have also been criticized by some of the sport’s biggest stars, including gold medalists Aly Raisman, Simone Biles and McKayla Maroney. Multiple investigations, including at least two by members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, are ongoing into how Nassar was able to abuse women for so long.

(Reporting by Steve Friess; Additional reporting by Bernie Woodall; Writing by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Andrew Hay)