Gunman who killed five at Florida airport to get life in prison

FILE PHOTO: Esteban Santiago is taken from the Broward County main jail as he is transported to the federal courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, U.S. on January 9, 2017. Courtesy Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun Sentinel via REUTERS

By Bernie Woodall

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (Reuters) – A U.S. veteran of the war in Iraq who killed five people during a shooting spree in the arrivals area of a Florida airport last year is due to be sentenced on Friday to life in a federal prison.

Esteban Santiago, 28, pleaded guilty in May to launching the attack near a baggage carousel at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on Jan. 6, 2017.

Under a deal with prosecutors that was approved by a federal judge, he escaped the death penalty and will instead be sentenced to five consecutive life terms followed by 120 years in prison, without the right of appeal.

Santiago carried out the rampage after flying to Florida from his home in Anchorage, Alaska, then recovering a 9mm pistol and two ammunition clips from his checked baggage. In addition to killing five people, he wounded six others as he walked through the arrivals area, apparently opening fire at random, security camera footage showed.

After running out of bullets, he placed his weapon on the floor and surrendered to police.

A psychologist testified during a plea hearing in May that Santiago had been diagnosed with schizophrenia. The federal judge ruled in March 2017 that he was mentally fit to stand trial.

Santiago, who served in the Puerto Rico and Alaska National Guard, was deployed to Iraq from 2010 to 2011.

When U.S. District Judge Beth Bloom asked Santiago at the plea hearing why he carried out the attack, he replied: “I don’t know. I wasn’t thinking about it at the time … There were a lot of things going on in my mind, messages.”

Bloom will preside over Friday morning’s hearing in federal court in Miami, a Justice Department spokeswoman said.

(Reporting by Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Editing by Daniel Wallis and XX)

Charlottesville mom keeps daughter’s cause alive a year after death

FILE PHOTO: A photograph of Charlottesville victim Heather Heyer is seen amongst flowers left at the scene of the car attack on a group of counter-protesters that took her life during the "Unite the Right" rally as people continue to react to the weekend violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S. on August 14, 2017. REUTERS/Justin Ide/File Photo

By Joseph Ax

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (Reuters) – Every few weeks, Susan Bro walks down 4th Street in downtown Charlottesville, Virginia, until she gets to a brick wall covered in chalked messages like “Love over hate” and “Gone but not forgotten.”

“I come just to absorb the energy of the place,” Bro, 61, said on Tuesday as she stood on the block now named for her daughter, Heather Heyer, who was killed a year ago while marching against a white supremacist rally.

Since August 12, 2017, when James Fields rammed his car into counter-protesters, killing 32-year-old Heyer and injuring several others, Bro has channeled her rage and grief into spreading the same message that drew her daughter downtown that day.

Bro said she made a promise to her daughter at her funeral, when she saw her bruised, broken body for the first time and broke down in tears.

“I held her hand and said, ‘I’m going to make this count.'”

Heyer’s death capped a day of clashes after hundreds of white supremacists, neo-Nazis and others descended upon the city, drawing national attention to the “alt right” movement that had grown bolder since President Donald Trump’s election.

Trump faced intense criticism after the protests when he seemed to equate the white nationalists with the counter-protesters, saying there were “very fine people on both sides.”

Bro said she chose not to return several phone calls from the White House after learning of the president’s remarks.

As the city prepares for the first anniversary of the so-called “Unite the Right” rally, Bro is readying herself for another difficult milestone in a year full of painful moments without Heather.

“The ‘firsts’ are always hardest,” she said, her voice cracking. “I got through the others: Mother’s Day, her birthday, Christmas. This will be the last one.”

Susan Bro, mother of Heather Heyer, who was killed during the August 2018 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, looks at the memorial and writings at the site where her daughter was killed in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S., July 31, 2018. Picture taken July 31, 2018. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Susan Bro, mother of Heather Heyer, who was killed during the August 2018 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, looks at the memorial and writings at the site where her daughter was killed in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S., July 31, 2018. Picture taken July 31, 2018. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Bro said she would bring flowers to Heather Heyer Way on August 12 before speaking at an event to mark the anniversary.

Law enforcement agencies have made extensive plans to combat any potential violence, though the leader of last year’s gathering, local white nationalist Jason Kessler, failed to secure a permit for a sequel this year. Instead, he has obtained a permit to hold a rally in Washington outside the White House.

Before last summer, Bro, a former elementary schoolteacher, led a relatively quiet life, doing secretarial work and living in a modest trailer home about 30 minutes north of Charlottesville.

At Heyer’s memorial service, which drew nearly 2,000 mourners and was broadcast live on large screens, Bro said the national response to the tragedy was “just the beginning of Heather’s legacy.”

“They tried to kill my child to shut her up. Well guess what? You just magnified her,” she said, drawing a standing ovation.

Within weeks of Heyer’s death, Bro created the Heather Heyer Foundation, in part to install a formal and legal structure to handle the hundreds of thousands of dollars in funds that poured in from sympathizers around the country.

Bro runs the foundation from her home and from an office at a Charlottesville law firm, filled with tributes to Heyer that she has received over the last year: a portrait painted by an artist, a humanitarian award given posthumously by the Muhammad Ali Center, notes written by Heyer’s friends at her memorial service.

The foundation has organized a scholarship program and is planning to launch a social justice youth program.

Bro found herself making appearances on Ellen DeGeneres’ talk show and at MTV’s Video Music Awards. She acknowledged that the intense media attention has caused resentment among some activists in Charlottesville who feel the focus on Heyer, a white woman, has distracted from the racial issues at the core of the clashes.

It has been a bit of a balancing act, she said, to amplify Heyer’s message without making it seem as though her daughter was the only victim who mattered. She noted that violence against black people often does not generate the same level of interest and warned against the “white-centered” narrative that portrayed Heyer as a leader rather than simply one of many people who decided to march.

“The issues have not changed,” Bro said. “We still have police shootings, over-policing, a lack of affordable housing, the prison pipeline.”

A year after burying her daughter, Bro reflected on the activism that brought Heyer to the protests.

“The point of Heather’s death is that we have a responsibility to rise up to address that hate,” Bro said. “Don’t sit by and wring your hands.”

(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Toni Reinhold)

At least 15 killed as gunmen attack Afghan government building

An Afghan policeman inspects the site of an attack in Jalalabad, Afghanistan July 31, 2018. REUTERS/Parwiz

By Ahmad Sultan and Abdul Qadir Sediqi

JALALABAD, Afghanistan (Reuters) – At least 15 people were killed on Tuesday in Afghanistan’s eastern city of Jalalabad when gunmen stormed a government building, trapping dozens inside after a suicide bomber blew himself up at the entrance gate, officials and witnesses said.

The attack underlines the country’s dire security situation after 17 years of war, with Islamic State increasingly claiming attacks on civilian targets even as pressure builds for peace talks between the Western-backed government and the Taliban.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility, though the Taliban issued a statement denying involvement.

After several hours during which intermittent gunfire and explosions could be heard, provincial government spokesman Attaullah Khogyani said the incident appeared to be over with two gunmen killed and much of the building destroyed.

He said at least 15 people had been killed and 15 wounded although the total may rise as rescue workers search the site. Sohrab Qaderi, a member of the local provincial council, said eight had been killed and as many as 30 wounded.

One witness, a passerby named Obaidullah, said the attack began when a black car with three occupants pulled up at the entrance to a building used by the department of refugee affairs and a gunman emerged, firing around him.

One attacker blew himself up at the gate and two gunmen entered the building, in an area close to shops and government offices, he added.

Minutes later, the car blew up, wounding people in the street, Obaidullah said.

“We saw several people wounded and helped to carry them away,” he added.

As security forces cordoned off the area, gunshots and what appeared to be hand grenade explosions could be heard as a cloud of black smoke drifted into the sky.

Sohrab Qaderi, a member of the local provincial council, said about 40 people appeared to have been caught inside the building, which caught fire early in the attack.

As the attack concluded, it was not immediately clear what had happened to them. Islamic State has claimed a number of recent attacks in the city.

Smoke rises from an area where explosions and gunshots were heard, in Jalalabad city, Afghanistan July 31, 2018. REUTERS/Parwiz

Smoke rises from an area where explosions and gunshots were heard, in Jalalabad city, Afghanistan July 31, 2018. REUTERS/Parwiz

Khogyani said the attack happened during a meeting with NGOs working on refugee-related issues. The head of the department and several other people were taken to safety, he said.

Although it is unclear whether there is any direct connection, Islamic State attacks have picked up as hopes for peace talks between the government and the Taliban have grown in the wake of last month’s three-day ceasefire.

The attacks have been concentrated in Jalalabad, the main city of Nangarhar province, on the border with Pakistan where Islamic State fighters first appeared toward the end of 2014.

The casualties add to a mounting toll in Afghanistan. In the western province of Farah, 11 people were killed when their bus was hit by a roadside bomb, officials said.

Also on Tuesday, unknown attackers seized 22 people from vehicles on a highway linking Kabul and Gardez, a key city in the eastern province of Paktia.

(Additional reporting by Rafiq Shirzad; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

Gunman angry at Maryland newspaper kills five in targeted attack

Law enforcement officials survey the scene after a gunman fired through a glass door at the Capital Gazette newspaper and sprayed the newsroom with gunfire, killing at least five people and injuring several others, in Annapolis, Maryland, U.S., June 28, 2018. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

By Warren Strobel

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (Reuters) – A man who had a long-running feud with an Annapolis newspaper blasted his way through its newsroom with a shotgun on Thursday, killing at least five people in one of the deadliest attacks recorded on a U.S. media outlet, authorities said.

The suspect fired through a glass door, looked for victims and then sprayed the newsroom of the Capital Gazette newspaper group in Annapolis with gunfire, police and a witness said.

Acting police chief of the Anne Arundel County Police Department William Krampf told a news conference that Capital Gazette assistant editor Rob Hiaasen, 59, was among the victims.

Wendi Winters, 65, Rebecca Smith, 34, Gerald Fischman, 61, and John McNamara were also killed, he said. Smith was a sales assistant and the others were journalists.

“This was a targeted attack on the Capital Gazette,” Krampf said. “This person was prepared to shoot people. His intent was to cause harm.”

The suspect is Jarrod Ramos, 38, of Laurel, the Capital Gazette and Baltimore Sun reported, citing law enforcement.

Anne Arundel County police said on Twitter that due to investigative reasons, they have not released the name of the suspect in custody, adding that as of Thursday evening, the suspect has not been booked.

Jarrod Ramos, suspected of killing five people at the offices of the Capital Gazette newspaper office in Annapolis, Maryland, U.S., June 28, 2018 is seen in this 2013 Anne Arundel Police Department booking photo obtained from social media. Social media via REUTERS

Jarrod Ramos, suspected of killing five people at the offices of the Capital Gazette newspaper office in Annapolis, Maryland, U.S., June 28, 2018 is seen in this 2013 Anne Arundel Police Department booking photo obtained from social media. Social media via REUTERS

In 2012, Ramos brought a defamation lawsuit against Eric Hartley, formerly a staff writer and columnist with publication The Capital, and Thomas Marquardt, then editor and publisher of The Capital, according to a court filing.

In 2015, Maryland’s second-highest court upheld a ruling in favor of the Capital Gazette and a former reporter who were accused by Ramos of defamation.

According to a legal document, the article contended that Ramos had harassed a woman on Facebook and that he had pleaded guilty to criminal harassment. The court agreed that the contents of the article were accurate and based on public records, the document showed.

Ramos said on Twitter that he had set up an account to defend himself, and wrote in his bio that he was suing people in Anne Arundel County and “making corpses of corrupt careers and corporate entities.”

‘A WAR ZONE’

Phil Davis, a Capital Gazette crime reporter, said he was hiding under his desk along with other newspaper employees when the shooter stopped firing, the Capital Gazette reported on its website.

The newsroom looked “like a war zone,” he told the Baltimore Sun, adding, “I don’t know why he stopped.”

“As much as I’m going to try to articulate how traumatizing it is to be hiding under your desk, you don’t know until you’re there and you feel helpless,” Davis said.

Police officers in the Maryland capital of Annapolis responded within a minute to a 911 call about a shooting in progress and apprehended the suspect who was hiding under a desk, authorities said.

Police are treating the shooting as a local incident, with no links to terrorism, a law enforcement source told Reuters. Krampf did not say why the gunman may have targeted the newspaper or its employees.

Special tactical police gather after a gunman opened fire at the Capital Gazette newspaper, killing at least five people and injuring several others in Annapolis, Maryland, U.S., June 28, 2018. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

Special tactical police gather after a gunman opened fire at the Capital Gazette newspaper, killing at least five people and injuring several others in Annapolis, Maryland, U.S., June 28, 2018. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

When police found the suspect, his weapon was on the ground and “not in his immediate proximity,” Steve Schuh, Anne Arundel county executive, told cable news station CNN.

Police said they recovered what they thought might have been an explosive device but Krampf later said the suspect had smoke grenades. Investigators were in the process of securing his Maryland residence and obtaining search warrants, he said.

The suspect appeared to have damaged his fingertips to try to avoid detection and was refusing to cooperate with law enforcement, Baltimore TV station WJZ and other local media reported. Krampf did not comment on those reports.

Capital Gazette runs multiple newspapers out of its Annapolis office and the group includes one of the oldest newspapers in the United States, The Gazette, which traces its origins back to 1727.

The company, part of the Tronc Inc <TRNC.O> media group, publishes newspapers in and around Annapolis, home of the U.S. Naval Academy. The papers have thrived by focusing on local news in the shadows of two much larger competitors, the Washington Post and Baltimore Sun.

‘WE’RE PUTTING OUT A PAPER’

Law enforcement in Baltimore and New York City deployed extra officers to the offices of the New York Times and other major media outlets as a precaution, authorities said.

The shooting drew the attention of media groups, including Reporters Without Borders, which said it was deeply disturbed by the events in Annapolis.

White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters said that U.S. President Donald Trump had been briefed on the shooting.

“My thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families. Thank you to all of the First Responders who are currently on the scene,” Trump said in a tweet.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said on Twitter, “A violent attack on innocent journalists doing their job is an attack on every American.”

Jimmy DeButts, an editor at the Capital Gazette, tweeted that he was devastated, heartbroken and numb.

“I’m in no position to speak, just know @capgaznews reporters & editors give all they have every day. There are no 40 hour weeks, no big paydays – just a passion for telling stories from our community,” he wrote.

One of the group’s flagship papers, The Capital, plans to publish a Friday edition, several reporters with the group said. “I can tell you this: We are putting out a damn paper tomorrow,” reporter Chase Cook wrote on Twitter a few hours after the shooting.

(Reporting by Warren Strobel; additional reporting by Mark Hosenball and Jeff Mason in Washington, Colleen Jenkins in North Carolina, Diana Kruzman, Tea Kvetenadze, Frank McGurty and Peter Szekely in New York, Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Florida and Andrew Hay in New Mexico; Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Richard Chang, Grant McCool, Toni Reinhold)

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)