Deadly Taliban attack in Afghan capital casts shadow on peace deal

Angry Afghan protesters burn tires and shout slogans at the site of a blast in Kabul, Afghanistan September 3, 2019. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

By Sayed Hassib

KABUL (Reuters) – A Taliban attack on a housing complex used by international organizations in the Afghan capital, Kabul, late on Monday killed at least 16 people and angered local residents who demanded the heavily fortified compound be moved.

The blast, which shook buildings several kilometers away, happened just as Zalmay Khalilzad, the special U.S. envoy for peace in Afghanistan, was outlining details of a draft accord with the insurgents in a television interview.

Following major Taliban attacks on two northern cities over the weekend, the bombing of the Green Village compound in a mixed business and residential area added to questions around the peace deal reached between U.S. and Taliban negotiators in the Qatari capital, Doha.

Habib Jan, who was in his house nearby when the blast occurred, said the area has been attacked repeatedly and many residents wanted the compound, used by foreign staff of international groups including aid organizations, moved.

“This isn’t once or twice, it’s the fourth or fifth time, all by the Taliban. A lot of my friends, a lot of my family have been wounded or killed,” he said, as smoke spiraled into the sky from burning tires lit by protesters demanding that the complex be moved.

“Our young people have been killed, our children have been killed, our old men have been killed, our girls have been killed. What can we do?”

Interior ministry spokesman Nasrat Rahimi said the blast was caused by a tractor packed with explosives but armed attackers, who planned to follow up the blast, were killed by security forces.

He said around 400 foreign nationals were evacuated from the heavily protected site, located off a major road in an area of houses and shops.

Like other compounds built to house the thousands of foreign contractors and agency staff who work in Kabul, Green Village is a fortified complex of concrete blast walls and steel gates protected by armed guards.

While such compounds have been attacked repeatedly over the years, the main victims are often Afghan civilians living in the surrounding area.

The timing of the attack, as Khalilzad’s interview was still being broadcast, appeared to be deliberate, with Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid declaring the blast had destroyed rooms and offices and caused countless casualties among “invaders”.

“Enemy claims of civilian losses are false as no civilians were allowed close to the site of the attack,” he said in a tweet.

Khalilzad, a veteran Afghan-born diplomat who has been leading U.S. negotiations, said almost 5,000 U.S. troops would be pulled out and five bases closed in exchange for Taliban guarantees that Afghanistan would not be used as a base for militant attacks on the United States and its allies.

But the deal did not include a formal ceasefire and Monday’s attacks, as well as major assaults on the northern cities of Kunduz and Pul-e Khumri, underlined doubts about whether it would lead to an end to violence.

On the other side, officials in the southern province of Helmand, one of the Taliban’s main strongholds, said 15 insurgents, including the commander and deputy commander of a special operations unit, were killed by U.S. air strikes.

(Reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi in Kabul; Mohammad Stanekzai in Lashkar Gah; writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Darren Schuettler)

Dayton shooter spent two hours in area before attack, likely acted alone: police

FILE PHOTO: A Oregon District resident stands at a memorial for those killed during Sunday morning's a mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio, U.S. August 7, 2019. REUTERS/Bryan Woolston/File Photo

By Brendan O’Brien

(Reuters) – A gunman who killed nine people in Dayton, Ohio earlier this month spent two hours in the nightlife neighborhood before unleashing an attack on bar-goers and probably carried it out alone, police said on Tuesday.

The Aug. 4 attack, which ended when police shot and killed the gunman, 24-year-old Connor Betts, was one of three high- profile mass shootings over three weeks that stunned the United States and stoked its long-running debate on gun rights.

During an afternoon news conference, Dayton Police Chief Richard Biehl used footage from video cameras from several businesses in the neighborhood to lay out a detailed timeline of the gunman’s movements around the neighborhood known for its nightlife before the early Sunday morning shooting.

At 11:04 p.m., Betts arrived in his car with his sister and a companion. The trio went to a tavern known as Blind Bob’s. Some 69 minutes later, Betts left the bar alone and went to Ned Pepper’s, a bar across the street, Biehl said as he showed the footage.

Betts stayed at Ned Pepper’s for 28 minutes before heading back to his car, where he spent nine minutes. He changed his clothes, got his AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, body armor and a mask and placed some of the items in a backpack.

Twenty minutes later at 1:04 a.m., two hours after he arrived in the neighborhood, he went back to Ned Pepper’s and opened fire outside the bar, shooting 17 people and killing nine, including his sister, Biehl said.

It is a “strong probability” that Betts went into Ned Pepper’s beforehand to case the establishment, Biehl said.

“He was very familiar with the Oregon District,” he said. “This was a plan well before he got to the Oregon District.”

Biehl said the video footage indicated that Betts acted alone that night.

“Clearly, that day during that time period, we don’t see anyone assisting in committing this horrendous crime,” he said.

The investigation also “seems to strongly suggest” that his companion, who was wounded in the rampage, did not know Betts was planning to carry out the shooting or that he had weapons in the vehicle.

But investigators “have radically different views” on whether Betts targeted his sister and his companion.

“Based on what we know now, we cannot make that call conclusively,” Biehl said.

The FBI said last week that Betts had a history of violent obsessions and had mused about committing mass murder before his rampage in Dayton’s historic downtown.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Chicago; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

Outpouring of support in Russia for sisters who killed abusive father

A woman holds a placard during a rally in support of three Khachaturyan sisters, who accused of killing their father, in Moscow, Russia July 6, 2019. Picture taken July 6, 2019. REUTERS/Tatyana Makeyeva

By Anna Rzhevkina

MOSCOW (Reuters) – One summer night last year, sisters Krestina, Angelina and Maria Khachaturyan went into the room where their 57-year-old father Mikhail was sleeping and attacked him with pepper spray, a knife and a hammer.

The sisters are now on trial for his murder, but thousands of people have come out in support of them, saying the sisters were defending themselves from an abusive father after being failed by a Russian legal system that, critics say, turns a blind eye to domestic abuse.

The outpouring of support – over 230,000 people signed a petition asking to free the sisters from criminal charges – was in part because many women believe unless the system is changed, anyone could end up in their same situation.

“I feel solidarity with the sisters,” said Anna Sinyatkina, a translator who was in a Moscow nightclub last week when about 200 people, mostly young women, gathered for a poetry evening in support of the sisters.

“I feel that like them I can at any moment be put in a situation when there will be no one but me to protect my life, and I won’t get protection or a fair trial afterwards.”

After killing their father in their Moscow apartment on the night of July 27, the Khachaturyan sisters, now aged 18, 19, and 20, called the police. Initially, they said they killed their father in self-defense when he was attacking them.

YEARS OF ABUSE

Later, the investigation found that was not true, but that they had been subject to years of abuse by their father, including systematic beatings and violent sexual abuse, according to investigators’ documents seen by Reuters.

The case has emerged at a time when many Russians believe protections for women abused in the home are being weakened.

The European Court of Human Rights ruled on Tuesday Russia failed to protect another victim of domestic violence – a woman, who was assaulted, kidnapped and stalked by her former partner.

In 2017 Russia decriminalized some forms of domestic violence. Under the new rules, the maximum punishment for someone who beats a member of their own family, causing bleeding or bruising, is a fine, as long as they do not repeat the offense more than once a year.

The sisters’ lawyer, Alexei Parshin, said they were not demanding anonymity as victims of sexual abuse because the allegations about abuse were already in the public domain.

The lawyer said the sisters, at the time of the killing, were suffering post-traumatic stress disorder. He said they considered running away but feared his retribution if they were caught. Their mother and father were separated.

“NOT AN ISOLATED CASE”

Parshin said the girls’ neighbors went to the police several times to report his violence against the sisters, but no criminal prosecution was ever brought against him.

Moscow police and Russia’s Investigative Committee did not immediately reply to Reuters request for comments.

“The situation in which the girls found themselves living with a father for a rapist is familiar and scary,” Alyona Popova, a lawyer and organizer of the petition told Reuters.  

“Many people, not only women but also men in the Russian Federation realize that this is not an isolated case.”

On July 6, activists staged protests in a square in the center of Moscow, holding posters with the tag “I/We are the Khachaturyan sisters”.

“In any civilized country, these girls would be in a psychotherapy clinic… but not in prison, no way,” said one of the protesters, Zara Mkhitaryan.

Nearby there were counter-protesters. A handful of men standing with posters that read “Killers have no gender” and “Men’s state” the name of a nationalist movement whose members believe men should dominate society.

 

(Reporting by Anna Rzhevkina, Editing by William Maclean)

Special prosecutor to examine Jussie Smollett case in Chicago

FILE PHOTO: Actor Jussie Smollett leaves court after charges against him were dropped by state prosecutors in Chicago, Illinois, U.S. March 26, 2019. REUTERS/Kamil Krzaczynski/File Photo

By Alex Dobuzinskis

(Reuters) – A Chicago judge on Friday ordered a special prosecutor to examine the handling of actor Jussie Smollett’s discredited claim that he was the victim of a hate crime, setting up the possibility he could be criminally charged a second time, a police spokesman said.

Smollett, who is black and gay and at the time had a role on the television show “Empire,” ignited a firestorm on social media after he told police on Jan. 29 that he was attacked on a street outside his Chicago home.

He said two apparent supporters of President Donald Trump struck him, put a noose around his neck and poured bleach over him while yelling racist and homophobic slurs.

Police later charged Smollett with filing a false police report and accused him of paying $3,500 to two men to stage the attack to generate public sympathy. Prosecutors dropped the charges in March, saying an agreement by Smollett to forfeit his $10,000 bond was a just outcome.

Trump, Rahm Emanuel, Chicago’s mayor at the time; and the city’s police superintendent criticized the decision by State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office to drop charges.

Former Illinois appellate court judge Sheila O’Brien has since submitted a petition to Cook County Judge Michael Toomin requesting a special prosecutor to examine Foxx’s handling of the Smollett case, according to local media.

Toomin issued an order on Friday appointing the special prosecutor, Chicago police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi confirmed by phone.

The special prosecutor will look into the “whole investigation” and as a result “Mr. Smollett could face charges,” Guglielmi said by phone.

“We stand firmly behind the work of detectives in investigating the fabricated incident reported by Jussie Smollett #ChicagoPolice will fully cooperate with the court-appointed special prosecutor,” Guglielmi wrote on Twitter.

Mark Geragos, an attorney for Smollett, could not immediately be reached for comment.

Foxx recused herself from the case before charges were filed against Smollett because of conversations she had about the incident with one of Smollett’s relatives, according to her spokesman.

A spokeswoman for Foxx’s office could not immediately be reached for comment.

The initial reports of two Trump supporters attacking a gay, black celebrity drew widespread sympathy for Smollett, particularly from Democrats. That faded quickly after the actor’s arrest.

Smollett turned 37 years old on Friday.

“Empire” creator Lee Daniels confirmed earlier this month that Smollett would not be returning to the show.

(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Saudi Arabia says oil facilities outside Riyadh attacked

A technical staff is seen at the Port of Fujairah, United Arab Emirates, May 13, 2019. REUTERS/Satish Kumar

By Stephen Kalin and Rania El Gamal

RIYADH/DUBAI (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia said armed drones had struck two oil pumping stations in the kingdom on Tuesday in what it called a “cowardly” act of terrorism two days after Saudi oil tankers were sabotaged off the coast of the United Arab Emirates.

The energy minister of the world’s largest oil exporter said the attack caused a fire, now contained, and minor damage at one pump station, but did not disrupt oil production or exports of crude and petroleum products.

Oil prices spiked on news of the attack on the stations, more than 200 miles (320 km) west of the capital Riyadh. Brent crude futures rose 1.38% to trade at $71.20 by 1114 GMT.

Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih, in comments run by state media, said the drone attack and Sunday’s sabotage of four vessels, including two Saudi tankers, off Fujairah emirate, a major bunkering hub, threatened global oil supplies.

“These attacks prove again that it is important for us to face terrorist entities, including the Houthi militias in Yemen that are backed by Iran,” Falih said in an English-language statement issued by his ministry.

Houthi-run Masirah TV earlier said the group had launched drone attacks on “vital” Saudi installations in response to “continued aggression and blockade” on Yemen.

A Saudi-led coalition has been battling the Houthis for four years in Yemen to try to restore the internationally recognized government, in a conflict widely seen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The Houthis have repeatedly launched drone and missile attacks on Saudi cities, but two Saudi sources told Reuters this was the first time an Aramco facility was hit by drones.

State-run Aramco said it had temporarily shut down the East-West pipeline, known as Petroline, to evaluate its condition. The pipeline mainly transports crude from the kingdom’s eastern fields to Yanbu port, which lies north of Bab al-Mandeb.

The attacks occur amid a war of words between Washington and Tehran over sanctions and U.S. military presence in the region.

The Saudi stock index, which suffered two days of heavy losses, opened 1.5% higher but was trading down 0.3% at 1200 GMT. A Saudi-based banker told Reuters that state funds were supporting local stocks to limit the downside.

IRAN IN FOCUS

The UAE has not revealed details about the nature of the attack on ships near Fujairah port, which lies just outside the Strait of Hormuz, or blamed any party or country.

Iran was a prime suspect in the sabotage on Sunday although Washington had no conclusive proof, a U.S. official familiar with American intelligence said on Monday.

Iran has denied involvement and described the attack on the four commercial vessels as “worrisome and dreadful”. It has called for an investigation.

The U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia said Washington should take what he called “reasonable responses short of war” after it had determined who was behind the attacks near Fujairah.

“We need to do a thorough investigation to understand what happened, why it happened, and then come up with reasonable responses short of war,” Ambassador John Abizaid told reporters in the Saudi capital Riyadh in remarks published on Tuesday.

“It’s not in (Iran’s) interest, it’s not in our interest, it’s not in Saudi Arabia’s interest to have a conflict.”

The U.S. embassy in the UAE advised its citizens to maintain a high level of vigilance on heightened tensions in the region.

Washington has increased sanctions on Tehran, saying it wants to reduce Iranian oil exports to zero, after quitting the 2015 nuclear pact between Iran and global powers last year.

The U.S. Maritime Administration said last week that Iran could target U.S. commercial ships including oil tankers sailing through Middle East waterways. Tehran has called the U.S. military presence “a target” rather than a threat.

A fifth of global oil consumption passes through the Strait of Hormuz from Middle East crude producers to markets in Asia, Europe, North America and beyond. The narrow waterway separates Iran from the Arabian Peninsula.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards threatened last month to close the chokepoint if Tehran was barred from using it.

U.S. President Donald Trump wants to force Tehran to agree a broader arms control accord and has sent an aircraft carrier and B-52 bombers to the Gulf in a show of force against what U.S. officials have said are threats to U.S. troops in the region.

(Additional reporting by Alexander Cornwell, Asma Alsharif, Aziz El Yaakoubi and Davide Barbuscia in Dubai; Writing by Stephen Kalin and Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Angus MacSwan, William Maclean)

Saudi Arabia says its oil tankers among those hit by attack off UAE coast

General view of the Port of Fujairah, United Arab Emirates, May 13, 2019. REUTERS/Satish Kumar

By Rania El Gamal and Bozorgmehr Sharafedin

DUBAI/LONDON (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia said on Monday that two of its oil tankers were among those attacked off the coast of the United Arab Emirates and described it as an attempt to undermine the security of crude supplies amid tensions between the United States and Iran.

The UAE said on Sunday that four commercial vessels were sabotaged near Fujairah emirate, one of the world’s largest bunkering hubs lying just outside the Strait of Hormuz. It did not describe the nature of the attack or say who was behind it.

The UAE had not given the nationalities or other details about the ownership of the four vessels. Riyadh has identified two of them as Saudi and a Norwegian company said it owned another. Reuters images showed the fourth vessel was the UAE-flagged A. Michel, a fuel bunker barge.

Thome Ship Management said its Norwegian-registered oil products tanker MT Andrew Victory was “struck by an unknown object”. Footage seen by Reuters showed a hole in the hull at the waterline with the metal torn open inwards.

A Reuters witness said divers were inspecting the damaged ships on Monday.

Iran, which is embroiled in an escalating war of words with the United States over sanctions and the U.S. military’s presence in the region, moved to distance itself on Monday.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry called the incidents “worrisome and dreadful” and asked for an investigation into the matter.

A senior Iranian lawmaker said, “saboteurs from a third country” could be behind it, after saying on Sunday the incident showed the security of Gulf states was fragile.

Highlighting international concerns, Britain’s Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt warned of the risks of “a conflict happening by accident” with an unintended escalation between Washington and Tehran over an unraveling nuclear deal.

Washington withdrew last year from a 2015 pact between Iran and global powers aimed at reining in Tehran’s nuclear plans. Since then, the United States has ratcheted up sanctions on Iran, saying it wanted to reduce its oil exports to zero.

UAE LAUNCHES PROBE

A fifth of global oil consumption passes through the Strait of Hormuz from Middle East crude producers to major markets in Asia, Europe, North America and beyond. The narrow waterway separates Iran from the Arabian Peninsula.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, designated a terrorist organization by the United States, threatened last month to close the chokepoint if Tehran was barred from using it.

Oil prices rose on Monday, with Brent crude futures at $72.08 a barrel by 1416 GMT, up $2.07.

Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih said that one of the two Saudi vessels was attacked in the UAE economic zone on its way to be loaded with Saudi crude from Ras Tanura port for delivery to state-owned Aramco’s customers in the United States.

The attack did not cause any casualties or an oil spill but caused significant damage to the vessels’ structures, he said in a statement.

Trading and shipping sources identified the Saudi vessels as very large crude carrier (VLCC) tanker Amjad and crude tanker Al Marzoqah, both owned by Saudi shipping firm Bahri, which did not respond to a Reuters request for comment.

The UAE Foreign Ministry had said there were no casualties and the Fujairah port operations were normal. An investigation was launched in coordination with international authorities, it said, calling on global powers to prevent any parties trying to harm maritime safety and security.

Dubai and Abu Dhabi stock markets suffered their biggest single-day declines in years on Monday, with Dubai falling 3.97%. Saudi shares lost 3.55%.

OIL SECURITY

Sunni Muslim allies Saudi Arabia and the UAE have backed U.S. sanctions against Shi’ite Iran, a fellow OPEC producer but regional foe. After the United States ended all sanctions waivers that had allowed some nations to continue importing Iranian crude, Washington said Riyadh and Abu Dhabi would help compensate for any shortage in oil supply.

Falih said the attack aimed to undermine maritime freedom and the security of oil supplies to consumers worldwide.

“The international community has a joint responsibility to protect the safety of maritime navigation and the security of oil tankers, to mitigate against the adverse consequences of such incidents on energy markets and the danger they pose to the global economy,” he said.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said the incident “has a negative impact on maritime transportation security” and asked regional countries to be “vigilant against destabilizing plots of foreign agents”, the semi-official ISNA news agency reported.

The U.S. Maritime Administration said in an advisory on Sunday that incidents off Fujairah, one of the seven emirates that make up the UAE, had not been confirmed and urged caution.

The Maritime Administration had said earlier this month that U.S. commercial ships including oil tankers sailing through Middle East waterways could be targeted by Iran in one of the threats to U.S. interests posed by Tehran.

Washington said it was sending a U.S. aircraft carrier and other forces to the Middle East due to what it said were Iranian threats, while Tehran has called the U.S. military presence “a target” rather than a threat. Iran has said it would not allow its oil exports to be halted.

(Additional reporting by Jonathan Saul and Robin Emmott in London, Saeed Azhar in Dubai and Oslo newsroom; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Edmund Blair and Mark Potter)

Chicago mayor demands answers after Smollett hoax charges dropped

FILE PHOTO: Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel speaks during an interview at City Hall in Chicago, Illinois, U.S. June 14, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Lott/File Photo

(Reuters) – Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said on Wednesday he wanted to “find out what happened” to cause prosecutors to abruptly drop charges against “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett, who was accused of staging a hoax hate crime to boost his career.

The saga began in January when the actor, who is black and gay, said two men had attacked him on a Chicago street, putting a noose around his neck and shouting racist and homophobic slurs.

Prosecutors on Feb. 21 accused him of paying two brothers, Abimbola and Olabinjo Osundairo, $3,500 to carry out an attack they called a hoax to advance his career but abruptly dropped the charges on Tuesday.

“Let’s get to the bottom of this,” Emanuel said in an ABC News interview. “Let’s find out what happened.”

Emanuel said Smollett had “abused” the city of Chicago, a day after the actor walked out of court saying he had been vindicated in insisting he had not staged a racist assault against him in January.

Smollett, who plays a gay musician on Fox’s hip-hop TV drama “Empire,” had been charged with 16 felony counts of disorderly conduct alleging he gave false accounts of an attack on him to police investigators.

On Tuesday, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office said it stood by its accusation against Smollett but was dropping all the charges, saying the actor’s prior community service and his agreeing to forfeit his $10,000 bond was a just outcome.

“The state’s attorney’s office is saying he’s not exonerated, he actually did commit this hoax,” Emanuel said in the ABC interview. “He’s saying he’s innocent and his words are true. They better get their stories straight, because this is making fools of all us.”

Chicago’s chief prosecutor, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, defended her office’s decision in an interview with WBEZ on Wednesday as proportionate to the charges.

Foxx had recused herself from the case prior to Smollett’s being charged because of conversations she had about the incident with one of Smollett’s relatives, according to her spokesman.

“There’s some people who were never gonna be satisfied unless Mr. Smollett spent many nights in prison, and then there were others who believed that the charging of 16 counts of disorderly conduct was excessive,” she said in the interview. She said the charges Smollett faced were unlikely to have led to a prison sentence if he had been convicted.

“What I can tell you is that most people who come through the criminal justice system don’t give up $10,000 of their hard-earned money, or engage in volunteer services connected with an alleged offense, without viewing that as a way of being held accountable,” she said.

Smollett initially earned widespread sympathy from celebrities and some Democratic presidential candidates over his account of the alleged assault.

The Chicago Police Department released what it said were all its records from the case on Wednesday, totaling 61 pages, with some names and other personal details redacted.

The records conformed with the information included in court filings, including summaries of interviews with the Osundairo brothers who said Smollett gave them a $3,500 check and $100 in cash to buy the rope, ski masks, gloves and red baseball caps used in the attack.

On Tuesday, Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson also criticized the prosecutor’s decision, saying it did not serve justice.

Smollett had pleaded not guilty to the charges, and told reporters on Tuesday he had been “truthful and consistent” in maintaining his innocence.

His lawyers said he hopes to move on with his acting career, but it remains unclear whether he will return to “Empire” after being written out of the last two episodes of the most recent season.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York; Editing by Bill Berkrot and Richard Chang)

Dozens killed as gunman livestreams New Zealand mosque shootings

An injured person is loaded into an ambulance following a shooting at the Al Noor mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, March 15, 2019. REUTERS/SNPA/Martin Hunter

By Praveen Menon and Charlotte Greenfield

WELLINGTON/CHRISTCHURCH (Reuters) – A gunman shot dead 49 people and wounded more than 40 at two New Zealand mosques, some as they were kneeling at prayer, livestreaming online some of the killings that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern condemned as terrorism.

The gunman broadcast footage of the attack on one mosque in the city of Christchurch on Facebook, mirroring the carnage played out in video games, after publishing a “manifesto” in which he denounced immigrants, calling them “invaders”.

The video footage widely circulated on social media, apparently taken by a gunman and posted online live as the attack unfolded, showed him driving to one mosque, entering it and shooting randomly at people inside.

Worshippers, possibly dead or wounded, lay huddled on the floor, the video showed. Reuters was unable to confirm the authenticity of the footage.

It was the worst ever mass killing in New Zealand which raised its security threat level to the highest, Ardern said, adding that “this can now only be described as a terrorist attack”.

Police said three people were in custody including one man in his late 20s who had been charged with murder. He will appear in court on Saturday.

Police have not identified any of the suspects.

“We were not chosen for this act of violence because we condone racism, because we are enclave for extremism,” Ardern said in a national address. “We were chosen for the fact that we are none of these things. It was because we represent diversity, kindness, compassion, a home for those who share our values.

“You have chosen us but we utterly reject and condemn you.”

Police Commissioner Mike Bush said 49 people had been killed in total. Health authorities said 48 people were being treated for gunshot wounds, including young children.

U.S. President Donald Trump condemned the “horrible massacre” in what the White House called a “vicious act of hate”.

“The U.S. stands by New Zealand for anything we can do,” Trump wrote in a post on Twitter.

The gunman’s manifesto praised Trump as “a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose”. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

One man who said he was at the Al Noor mosque told media the gunman was white, blond and wearing a helmet and a bulletproof vest. The man burst into the mosque as worshippers were kneeling for prayers.

“He had a big gun … he came and started shooting everyone in the mosque, everywhere,” said the man, Ahmad Al-Mahmoud. He said he and others escaped by breaking through a glass door.

Forty-one people were killed at the Al Noor mosque, seven at a mosque in the Linwood neighborhood and one died in hospital, police said. Hospitals said children were among the victims.

The visiting Bangladesh cricket team was arriving for prayers at one of the mosques when the shooting started but all members were safe, a team coach told Reuters.

Three Bangladeshis were among the dead and one was missing, the consulate said.

Shortly before the attack began, an anonymous post on the discussion site 8chan, known for a wide range of content including hate speech, said the writer was going to “carry out an attack against the invaders” and included links to a Facebook live stream, in which the shooting appeared, and a manifesto.

The manifesto cited “white genocide”, a term typically used by racist groups to refer to immigration and the growth of minority populations, as his motivation.

The Facebook link directed users to the page of a user called brenton.tarrant.9.

A Twitter account with the handle @brentontarrant posted on Wednesday images of a rifle and other military gear decorated with names and messages connected to white nationalism. What looked like the same weapons appeared in the livestream of the mosque attack on Friday.

Facebook and Twitter said they would take down content involving the shootings.

KILLINGS CONDEMNED

It was not immediately clear if the attacks at the two mosques were carried out by the same man.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said one of the men in custody was Australian.

All mosques in New Zealand had been asked to shut their doors and post armed guards, police said, adding they were not actively looking for any other “identified suspects”.

Political and Islamic leaders across Asia and the Middle East condemned the killings.

“I blame these increasing terror attacks on the current Islamophobia post-9/11,” Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan posted on social media. “1.3 billion Muslims have collectively been blamed for any act of terror.”

Al-Azhar University, Egypt’s 1000-year-old seat of Sunni Islamic learning, said the attacks had “violated the sanctity of the houses of God”.

“We warn the attack is a dangerous indicator of the dire consequences of escalating hate speech, xenophobia, and the spread of Islamophobia.”

Six Indonesians had been inside one of the mosques, with three managing to escape and three unaccounted for, its foreign minister said.

Afghanistan’s ambassador said on Twitter three Afghans had been wounded. Two Malaysians were wounded, their foreign ministry said.

Muslims account for just over 1 percent of New Zealand’s population, a 2013 census showed.

‘FIRING WENT ON AND ON’

The online footage, which appeared to have been captured on a camera strapped to a gunman’s head, showed him driving as music played in his vehicle. After parking, he took two guns and walked a short distance to the mosque where he opened fire.

Over the course of five minutes, he repeatedly shot worshippers, leaving more than a dozen bodies in one room alone. He returned to the car during that period to change guns, and went back to the mosque to shoot anyone showing signs of life.

One man, with blood still on his shirt, said in a television interview that he hid from a gunman under a bench and prayed that he would run out of bullets.

“I was just praying to God and hoping our God, please, let this guy stop” Mahmood Nazeer told TVNZ.

“The firing went on and on. One person with us had a bullet in her arm. When the firing stopped, I looked over the fence, there was one guy, changing his gun.”

The video shows the gunman then driving off at high speed and firing from his car. Another video, taken by someone else, showed police apprehending a gunman on a pavement by a road.

Police said improvised explosive devices were found. The gunman’s video had shown red petrol canisters in the back of his car, along with weapons.

The Bangladesh cricket team is in Christchurch to play New Zealand in a third cricket test starting on Saturday.

“They were on the bus, which was just pulling up to the mosque when the shooting begun,” Mario Villavarayen, a team coach, told Reuters in a message. “They are shaken but good.”

The third cricket test was canceled, New Zealand Cricket said later.

Violent crime is rare in New Zealand and police do not usually carry guns. Britain’s Queen Elizabeth, the head of state of New Zealand, said she was deeply saddened by the shootings.

Before Friday, New Zealand’s worst mass shooting was in 1990 when a gun-mad loner killed 13 men, women and children in a 24-hour rampage in the tiny seaside village of Aramoana. He was killed by police.

(Additional reporting by Tom Westbrook, John Mair and Swati Pandey in Sydney, Ruma Paul in Dhaka and Michael Holden in London; Writing by Micheal Perry; Editing by Robert Birsel and Nick Macfie)

France shaken by outbreak of anti-Semitic violence and abuse

French President Emmanuel Macron looks at a grave vandalised with a swastika during a visit at the Jewish cemetery in Quatzenheim, France February 19, 2019. Frederick Florin/Pool via REUTERS

By Luke Baker

PARIS (Reuters) – A series of attacks across France in recent days has alarmed politicians and prompted calls for action against what some commentators describe as a new form of anti-Semitism among the far-left and Islamist preachers.

The problem was starkly underlined on Tuesday with the discovery of more than 90 graves in a Jewish cemetery in eastern France desecrated with swastikas and other abuse. It remains unclear who carried out the attack.

Graves desecrated with swastikas are seen in the Jewish cemetery in Quatzenheim, near Strasbourg, France, February 19, 2019. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler

Graves desecrated with swastikas are seen in the Jewish cemetery in Quatzenheim, near Strasbourg, France, February 19, 2019. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler

“Whoever did this is not worthy of the French Republic and will be punished,” declared President Emmanuel Macron as he paid homage at the site. “We’ll take action, we’ll apply the law and we’ll punish them.”

Politicians from across the spectrum will join marches against anti-Semitism across France on Tuesday evening, including in Paris. Macron will visit the Holocaust memorial in the city, together with the heads of parliament.

France is home to the largest Jewish community in Europe, around 550,000 people, a population that has grown by about half since World War Two. But anti-Semitic attacks remain common, with more than 500 alone in 2018, a 74 percent increase on 2017, according to figures released last week.

Almost every day over the past two weeks there has been new evidence of anti-Semitism.

A tree in memory of Ilan Halimi, a young Jewish man kidnapped, tortured and murdered in 2006, was cut in two. A bagel shop in Paris was spray-painted with the word “Juden”, German for Jews, in yellow letters. Portraits of Simone Veil, a Holocaust survivor and magistrate, were defaced with swastikas.

Then last Saturday, a group of around 30 ‘yellow vest’ protesters were filmed harassing Alain Finkielkraut, a well-known writer and son of a Holocaust survivor, as he walked through a Paris neighborhood, calling him a “dirty Zionist shit” and telling him to “go back to Tel Aviv”.

A French gendarme conducts their investigation as he photographs graves that were desecrated with swastikas in the Jewish cemetery in Quatzenheim, near Strasbourg, France, February 19, 2019. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler

A French gendarme conducts their investigation as he photographs graves that were desecrated with swastikas in the Jewish cemetery in Quatzenheim, near Strasbourg, France, February 19, 2019. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler

UNCHECKED INCITEMENT

Some commentators have blamed the resurgence on unchecked incitement by fringe Islamist preachers, calling it a new form of anti-Semitism, as opposed to that most commonly associated with Nazi ideology and the far-right.

Others point to the increasingly virulent criticism of Israel coming from the far-left and the rise of anti-Zionism – opposition to the existence of Israel as a homeland for the Jewish people – which has morphed into hatred of the Jews.

Among those filmed hurling abuse at Finkielkraut was a Muslim on a watchlist, according to French officials.

Francis Kalifat, the head of Crif, an umbrella organization representing France’s Jewish community, said anti-Zionism needed to be regarded as akin to anti-Semitism.

“If you want to have an effective fight against anti-Semitism, you need to be able to fight against all forms of it,” he said. “It’s not enough to fight against the (anti-Semitism) of the extreme right, or that of the extreme left or the Islamists. We need to fight against all forms, and that’s what we’re waiting for from political leaders.”

The leader of France’s far-left, Jean-Luc Melenchon, defended the ‘yellow vest’ movement against accusations of anti-Semitism on Tuesday, following the video targeting Finkielkraut.

Melenchon, whose La France Insoumise party draws support from the ‘yellow vests’, criticized the “politicization” of anti-Semitism, saying people from across the political spectrum needed to stand against all forms of racism and hatred.

“No, the ‘yellow vest’ movement does not deserve to be tarred by these despicable acts,” he said.

“No, the ‘yellow vest’ movement is not a racist movement, no the ‘yellow vest’ movement is not an anti-Semitic movement.”

France’s parliament on Tuesday debated whether anti-Zionism should be classified as a form of anti-Semitism, a position President Emmanuel Macron said he was opposed to.

“Those who today want the disappearance of Israel are those who want to attack the Jews,” he said. “But nevertheless, I think that when you delve into the detail, a penal condemnation of anti-Zionism creates other problems.”

Amid the rash of attacks, Israel’s immigration minister sent a tweet calling on French Jews to leave France and move to Israel, where around 200,000 French Jews already live.

(Additional reporting by Richard Lough and Johnny Cotton in Paris; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

Police hunt through eastern France for Strasbourg Christmas market attacker

French soldiers patrol past the traditional Christmas market in Nice, France, December 12, 2018. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

By Vincent Kessler and John Irish

STRASBOURG, France (Reuters) – Police searched through eastern France on Wednesday for a man suspected of killing at least two people in a gun attack on a Christmas market in Strasbourg and who was known to have been religiously radicalized while in jail.

Witnesses told investigators the assailant cried out “Allahu Akbar” (God is Greater) as he launched his attack on the market, the Paris prosecutor said.

The prosecutor, Remy Heitz, also suggested the suspect may have chosen his target for its religious symbolism.

“Considering the target, his way of operating, his profile and the testimonies of those who heard him yell ‘Allahu Akbar’, the anti-terrorist police has been called into action,” Heitz told a news conference.

Police identified the suspect as Strasbourg-born Cherif Chekatt, 29, who is on an intelligence services watch list as a potential security risk.

An investigation had been opened into alleged murder with terrorist intent and suspected ties to terrorist networks with intent to commit crimes, Heitz said.

Two people were killed and a third person was brain-dead and being kept alive on life support, he said. Six other victims were fighting for their lives.

France raised its security threat to the highest alert level, strengthening controls on its border with Germany as elite commandos backed by helicopters hunted for the suspect.

French and German agents checked vehicles and public transport crossing the Rhine river, along which the Franco-German frontier runs, backing up traffic in both directions. Hundreds of French troops and police were taking part in the manhunt.

Deputy Interior Minister Laurent Nunez said he could not rule out that the fugitive had already crossed the frontier.

SERIAL CONVICT

The gunman struck at about 1900 GMT on Tuesday, just as the picturesque Christmas market in the historic city was shutting down.

He engaged in two gunfights with security forces as he evaded a police dragnet and bragged about his acts to the driver of a taxi that he commandeered, prosecutor Heitz said.

No one has yet claimed responsibility, but the U.S.-based Site intelligence group, which monitors jihadist websites, said Islamic State supporters were celebrating.

French and German security officials painted a portrait of Chekatt as a serial law-breaker who had racked up more than two dozen convictions in France, Germany and Switzerland and served time in prison.

“It was during these spells in jail that we detected a radicalization in his religious practices. But we there were never signs he was preparing an attack,” Minister Nunez said.

One German security source said the suspect was jailed in southern Germany from August 2016 to February 2017 for aggravated theft but was released before the end of his 27-month sentence so that he could be deported to France.

“He was banned from re-entering Germany at the same time”, the security source in the state of Baden-Wuerttemberg said. “We don’t have any knowledge of any kind of radicalization.”

BORDER CONTROLS

The attack took place at a testing time for President Emmanuel Macron, who is struggling to quell a month-long public revolt over high living costs that has spurred the worst public unrest in central Paris since the 1968 student riots.

The revelation that Chekatt was on a security watchlist will raise questions over possible intelligence failures, though some 26,000 individuals suspected of posing a security risk to France are on the “S File” list.

Of these, about 10,000 are believed to have been radicalized, sometimes in fundamentalist Salafist Muslim mosques, in jail or abroad.

Police had raided the suspect’s home early on Tuesday in connection with a homicide investigation. Five people were detained and under interrogation as part of that investigation.

At the Europa Bridge, the main border crossing in the region used by commuters traveling in both directions, armed police inspected vehicles. Police were also checking pedestrians and trains arriving in Germany from Strasbourg.

“We don’t know where the attacker is and we want to prevent him from entering Germany,” a spokeswoman for the German border police Bundespolizei said.

French Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet said there was no need for the government to declare a state of emergency.

Secular France has for years grappled with how to respond to both homegrown jihadists and foreign militants following attacks in Paris, Nice, Marseille and beyond.

In 2016, a truck plowed into a Bastille Day crowd in Nice, killing more than 80 people. In November 2015, coordinated Islamist militant attacks on the Bataclan concert hall and other sites in Paris claimed about 130 lives.

There have also been attacks in Paris on police on the Champs-Elysees avenue, the offices of satirical weekly publication Charlie Hebdo and a kosher store.

A man drove a trunk into a crowd at a Christmas market in Berlin in December 2016, killing 12 people.

(Reporting by Vincent Kessler, Geert De Clercq, Sophie Louet, Sudip Kar-Gupta, Emmanuel Jarry and Richard Lough in Paris, Vincent Kessler and Gilbert Reilhac in Strasbourg, Sabine Siebold and Andrea Shalal in Berlin; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Angus MacSwan)