Taliban reject Afghan ceasefire, kidnap nearly 200 bus passengers

FILE PHOTO: Afghan President Ashraf Ghani speaks during a news conference in Kabul, Afghanistan July 15, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail/File Photo

By Abdul Qadir Sediqi, Rupam Jain and Jibran Ahmad

KABUL/PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) – The Taliban rejected on Monday an Afghan government offer of a ceasefire and said they would persist with their attacks, militant commanders said, while insurgents ambushed three buses and nearly 200 passengers traveling for a holiday.

Two Taliban commanders said their supreme leader rejected President Ashraf Ghani’s Sunday offer of a three-month ceasefire, beginning with this week’s Eid al-Adha Muslim holiday.

In June, the Taliban observed a government ceasefire over the three-day Eid al-Fitr festival, leading to unprecedented scenes of government soldiers and militants embracing on front lines, and raising hopes for talks.

But one of the Taliban commanders said the June ceasefire had helped U.S. forces, who the Taliban are trying to drive out of the country. Taliban leader Sheikh Haibatullah Akhunzada rejected the new offer on the grounds that it too would only help the American-led mission.

“Our leadership feels that they’ll prolong their stay in Afghanistan if we announced a ceasefire now,” a senior Taliban commander, who declined to be identified, said by telephone.

An official in Ghani’s office said the three-month-long ceasefire declared by the government was conditional, and if the Taliban did not respect it, the government would maintain military operations.

The Taliban have launched a wave of attacks in recent weeks, including on the city of Ghazni, southwest of Kabul. Hundreds of people have been killed in the fighting.

Government officials are trying to secure the release of at least 170 civilians and 20 members of the security forces who were taken hostage by Taliban from three buses in the northern province of Kunduz.

Esmatullah Muradi, a spokesman for the governor of Kunduz, said the kidnapping happened when the buses were traveling through Kunduz from Takhar province.

“The buses were stopped by the Taliban fighters, passengers were forced to step down and they have been taken to an undisclosed location,” Muradi said.

A Taliban commander in neighboring Pakistan said civilian hostages were being divided into small groups to be sent back home. However, members of Afghan security forces had been shifted to the Taliban’s secret jail. “Most probably we would exchange them for our prisoners later,” said the commander.

‘TRAVELING FOR HOLIDAY’

The Taliban confirmed they had captured “three buses packed with passengers”.

“We decided to seize the buses after our intelligence inputs revealed that many men working with Afghan security forces were traveling to Kabul,” Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban, said by telephone.

“We are now identifying members of the security forces,” he said, adding that civilians would be released.

Kunduz provincial council member Sayed Assadullah Sadat said people on the buses were traveling to be with family in Kabul for the holiday.

A senior interior ministry official in Kabul said officials in the area were talking to Taliban leaders in Kunduz to get the estimated 190 hostages released. “We’re are trying our level best to secure freedom for all passengers,” the official said.

Separately, Mujahid said the Taliban would release at least 500 prisoners, including members of the security forces, on Monday, a day before Eid celebrations begin.

Sporadic clashes between Taliban fighters and Afghan forces erupted on the outskirts of Ghazni on Monday as aid workers tried to get help into the city, aid agency officials said.

The government has said its forces had secured the city after the Taliban laid siege to it for five days this month.

At least 150 soldiers and 95 civilians were killed and hundreds were injured. Aid agencies officials said their teams had entered the city but clashes in the outskirts prevented them from launching large-scale operations.

(Editing by Paul Tait, Robert Birsel and editing by David Stamp)

New Mexico family believed dead boy’s spirit would lead attacks: prosecutors

Personal articles are shown at the compound in rural New Mexico where 11 children were taken in protective custody after a raid by authorities near Amalia, New Mexico, August 10, 2018. Photo taken August 10, 2018. REUTERS/Andrew Hay

By Andrew Hay

TAOS, N.M. (Reuters) – A 3-year-old boy found buried at a New Mexico desert compound died in a ritual to “cast out demonic spirits,” but his extended family believed he would “return as Jesus” to identify “corrupt” targets for them to attack, prosecutors said in court on Monday.

Prosecutors’ account of an exorcism-like ritual, allegations of weapons training for children and references to martyrdom and conspiracy were aimed at persuading a judge to deny bond for the five adults charged with child abuse in the case.

Defense attorney Thomas Clark (R) sits next to his client, defendant Siraj Ibn Wahhaj, defense attorney Marie Legrand Miller (2nd L) and her client Hujrah Wahhaj (L) during a hearing on charges of child abuse in which they were granted bail in Taos County, New Mexico, U.S. August 12, 2018. REUTERS/Andrew Hay

Defense attorney Thomas Clark (R) sits next to his client, defendant Siraj Ibn Wahhaj, defense attorney Marie Legrand Miller (2nd L) and her client Hujrah Wahhaj (L) during a hearing on charges of child abuse in which they were granted bail in Taos County, New Mexico, U.S. August 12, 2018. REUTERS/Andrew Hay

However, state District Judge Sarah Backus said at the end of the four-hour detention hearing she remained unconvinced that the defendants posed a danger to the community and set bail at $20,000 for each of them.

“The state alleges that there was a big plan afoot,” Backus said in rendering her decision. “But the state hasn’t shown to my satisfaction, in clear and convincing evidence, what that plan was.”

Defense attorneys said prosecutors sought to criminalize their clients for being African-Americans of Muslim faith.

“If these people were white and Christian, nobody would bat an eye over the idea of faith healing, or praying over a body or touching a body and quoting scripture,” defense lawyer Thomas Clark told reporters after the hearing. “But when black Muslims do it, there seems to be something nefarious, something evil.”

Under terms of the judge’s order, four defendants were expected to be placed under house arrest with electronic ankle bracelets to ensure they remain within Taos County for the duration of the case.

The five suspects, who had established a communal living arrangement with their children in the high-desert compound, have been in custody since authorities raided their ramshackle homestead north of Taos 10 days ago.

The two men and three women are all related as siblings or by marriage. Three are the adult children of a prominent New York City Muslim cleric who is himself the biological grandfather of nine of the children involved.

The principal suspect, Siraj Ibn Wahhaj, 39, has also been charged with abducting his severely ill 3-year-old son, Abdul-Ghani Wahhaj, from the Atlanta home of the boy’s mother in December.

Clark said Ibn Wahhaj would remain in custody due to a fugitive warrant against him in Georgia stemming from the cross-country manhunt that led investigators to the New Mexico compound.

The body of a young boy believed to be his son was found in a tunnel at the site three days after the raid. No charges have been filed in connection with the death.

For now, the thrust of the government’s case remains 11 counts of felony child abuse filed against each of the defendants – Ibn Wahhaj and his wife, Jany Leveille, along with his brother-in-law and sister – Lucas Morton and Subhannah Wahhaj – and a second sister, Hujrah Wahhaj.

The 11 children, ranging from one to 15 years old and described by authorities as starving and ragged when they were found, were placed in protective custody after the Aug. 3 raid.

WEAPONS AND RITUALS

According to prosecutors’ presentation on Monday, some of the children were given weapons training to defend the compound against a possible raid by law enforcement. However, the government said there was more to it than that.

Federal Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Travis Taylor testified that the 15-year-old son of Ibn Wahhaj recounted one of the adults telling him the spirit of the dead 3-year-old would return “as Jesus” to direct the group in carrying out violent attacks. Taylor said prospective targets would include “the financial system, law enforcement, the education system.”

Prosecutor John Lovelace said the 3-year-old boy died during “a religious ritual” intended to “cast out demonic spirits.”

Abdul-Ghani stopped breathing, lost consciousness and died during a ceremony in which his father put his hand on the boy’s head and recited verses from the Koran, Taylor testified, citing interviews with Ibn Wahhaj’s 15-year-old and 13-year-old sons.

Prosecutors said in court documents last week that all five defendants were giving firearms instruction to the children “in furtherance of a conspiracy to commit school shootings.”

Authorities acknowledged in court on Monday that police had previously encountered Ibn Wahhaj, Leveille and seven of the children in December when they were involved in a traffic accident in Alabama.

Lovelace said police at the time found weapons and ammunition in the vehicle. Authorities let the group go after Ibn Wahhaj explained he was licensed to carry the guns as a private security agent and that he and the others were en route to New Mexico for a camping trip.

(Reporting by Andrew Hay in Taos; Writing by Steve Gorman, Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Tom Brown, Michael Perry and Paul Tait)

Why is Saudi halting oil shipments through the Red Sea?

FILE PHOTO: General view of Saudi Aramco's Ras Tanura oil refinery and oil terminal in Saudi Arabia May 21, 2018. Picture taken May 21, 2018. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah/File Photo

By Stephen Kalin and Rania El Gamal

RIYADH/DUBAI (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia announced last week it was suspending oil shipments through the Red Sea’s Bab al-Mandeb strait after Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthis attacked two ships in the waterway.

To date, no other exporters have followed suit. A full blockage of the strategic waterway would virtually halt shipment to Europe and the United States of about 4.8 million barrels per day of crude oil and refined petroleum products.

Western allies backing a Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthis in Yemen expressed concern about the attacks, but have not indicated they would take action to secure the strait. That would risk deeper involvement in a war seen as a proxy battle for regional supremacy between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

THE YEMEN WAR

The threat to shipping in Bab al-Mandeb has been building for some time, with the Houthis targeting Saudi tankers in at least two other attacks this year. It is not unusual to reevaluate security after such an incident, but Riyadh’s announcement also carries a political dimension.

Analysts say Saudi Arabia is trying to encourage its Western allies to take more seriously the danger posed by the Houthis and step up support for its war in Yemen, where thousands of air strikes and a limited ground operation have produced only modest results while deepening the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

“Rather than allowing these hostile maneuvers to go unnoticed in the eyes of the world, the Saudi (energy) minister has placed Iran’s subversions of the whole global economy under the spotlight for everyone to see,” said energy consultant Sadad al-Husseini, a former senior executive at Saudi Aramco. “The capture of the port of Hodeidah will go a long way towards putting an end to these disruptions.”

Hodeidah, Yemen’s main port, is the target of a coalition offensive launched on June 12 in a bid to cut off the Houthis’ primary supply line. After failing to make major gains, the coalition halted operations on July 1 to give the United Nations a chance to resolve the situation, though some fighting has continued.

The suspension of Saudi shipments – with the implied threat of higher oil prices – may also be aimed at pressuring European allies, who have continued to support the nuclear deal with Iran following the U.S. withdrawal in May, to take a stronger stance against Tehran’s ballistic missiles program and support for armed groups across the region.

There was no official confirmation that the move was coordinated with Washington but one analyst said it would be astonishing if it were not, given the strategic alliance between the two countries.

FILE PHOTO: Saudi soldiers walk by oil tanker trucks delivered by Saudi authorities to support charities and NGOs in Marib, Yemen January 26, 2018. Picture taken January 26, 2018. REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser /File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Saudi soldiers walk by oil tanker trucks delivered by Saudi authorities to support charities and NGOs in Marib, Yemen January 26, 2018. Picture taken January 26, 2018. REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser /File Photo

RAISE THE STAKES

No party has much appetite for an all-out conflict, but the situation can easily deteriorate. Both the Saudis and the Houthis appear to want to raise the stakes – with different goals in mind.

“The Houthis are trying to provoke a situation where there’s a great effort to negotiate an end to the war in Yemen,” said James Dorsey, senior fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

“The Saudis are trying to create a situation in which the U.S. would in one form or another significantly step up support … so that they can claim military victory.”

The risk is that one side miscalculates, eliciting a response that is stronger than anticipated.

“We’re just one missile away somewhere from getting into a more direct confrontation,” said Helima Croft, global head of commodity strategy at RBC Capital Markets.

OPTIONS FOR SAUDI OIL

Saudi Arabia announced it was halting oil shipments through the Red Sea “until the situation becomes clearer and maritime transition through Bab al-Mandeb is safe”.

It is unclear when that will be. But there may not be a big rush as the world’s top oil exporter has other ways to supply European and U.S. markets.

Redirecting ships around the southern tip of Africa would cost a lot more in time and money, making it an unlikely alternative.

Instead, Saudi Arabia will probably use the Petroline, or East-West Pipeline, through which it transports crude from fields in its Eastern Province to the Red Sea port of Yanbu for export to Europe and North America.

It could also charter non-Saudi ships to carry its oil through Bab al-Mandeb, as it does with Asian customers using different routes, industry and trading sources say.

POLITICAL SOLUTION NEEDED

Even before last week’s attack, shipping companies had taken extra precautions, including armed guards, more lookouts at sea, sailing faster and increased contact with international navies.

A January United Nations report said existing measures would not protect ships against attacks involving waterborne improvised explosive devices, anti-ship missiles, land based anti-tank guided missiles or sea mines.

Experts say the United States and other partners could provide naval escorts to tankers and take more steps to reduce the Houthis’ capacity to target shipping, including arms supplies and help with logistics, intelligence and targeting.

Increased naval patrols helped curb pirate attacks in the nearby Gulf of Aden a decade ago, but Western allies are less likely to get directly involved this time to avoid being dragged into the Yemen war.

While a military approach might deal with the threat to shipping, Elizabeth Dickinson at the International Crisis Group says the only real solution is a settlement to the war in Yemen, which remains elusive.

HOW MIGHT IRAN RESPOND?

After withdrawing from a 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and world powers, Washington is now pushing countries to end imports of Iranian oil from November. Tehran has warned of counter-measures and threatened to block Gulf oil exports if its own exports are halted.

Despite exchanging bellicose threats with President Donald Trump, Iranian officials consider the possibility of a military confrontation with the United States “very low”. Some still believe in the possibility of direct negotiations, but several contacted by Reuters warned that Tehran’s response to a U.S.-initiated war would be costly.

“Our military power might not be equal to America’s but Iran’s non-conventional capabilities can and will be a blow to Americans, which will drag them into another quagmire in the region,” said a senior official who asked not to be named.

Besides disrupting the flow of oil in the Gulf, insiders say that in a direct confrontation, Iran could target U.S. interests from Jordan to Afghanistan, including troops in Syria and Iraq.

TANKER WAR UNLIKELY

During the “tanker war” of the mid-1980s, Gulf waters were mined as Iran and Iraq attacked oil shipments. U.S., British and other foreign forces escorted other nations’ tankers – with some Kuwaiti ships reflagging with the U.S. banner – and conducted limited strikes on Iranian maritime targets.

While the Saudis could fly different flags now to try to avoid Houthi attacks, analysts say that would undermine their efforts to project power in the region.

(For a graphic on ‘Oil transit chokepoints’ click https://tmsnrt.rs/2K3HPVf)

(Additional reporting by Jonathan Saul in London, Parisa Hafezi in Ankara and Yara Bayoumy in Washington; Writing by Stephen Kalin)

‘Horrors that can’t be told’: Afghan women report Islamic State rapes

FILE PHOTO: An Islamic State flag is seen in this picture illustration. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic

By Abdul Matin Sahak

SHEBERGHAN, Afghanistan (Reuters) – A mother of three from a remote area of northwestern Afghanistan remembers the day the head of a local Islamic State group came to her village, demanding money he said her husband had promised.

“I told him we didn’t have any money but that if we found any we would send it to him. But he didn’t accept that and said I had to be married to one of his people and leave my husband and go with them,” Zarifa said.

“When I refused, the people he had with him took my children to another room and he took a gun and said if I didn’t go with him he would kill me and take my house. And he did everything he could to me.”

Even by the bloody standards of the Afghan war, Islamic State has gained an unmatched reputation for brutality, routinely beheading opponents or forcing them to sit on explosives.

But while forced marriages and rape have been among the most notable features of Islamic State rule in Iraq and Syria they have been much less widely reported in Afghanistan.

While there have been reports in Nangarhar, the eastern province where Islamic State first appeared in 2014 and in Zabul in the south, deep taboos that can make it impossible for women to report sexual abuse make it hard to know its scale.

The group has a growing presence in Zarifa’s province of Jawzjan, on the border with Turkmenistan, exploiting smuggling routes and attracting both foreign fighters as well as unemployed locals and fighting both U.S.-backed Afghan forces and the Taliban.

For Zarifa, the attack forced her to leave her home in the Darzab district of south Jawzjan and seek shelter in the provincial capital of Sheberghan.

“My husband was a farmer and now I can’t face my husband and my neighbors and so, despite the danger, I left,” she said.

TEN MONTHS OF TERROR

Another woman, Samira, who escaped Darzab and now lives in Sheberghan, said fighters came to her house and took her 14 year-old sister to their commander. Like Zarifa, she did not want to use her full name because of the stigma against victims of sexual violence.

“He didn’t marry her and no one else married her but he raped her and his soldiers forced themselves on her and even the head of the village who is in Daesh forced himself on my sister and raped her,” she said. Daesh is an Arabic term for Islamic State.

“This girl was there with Daesh for 10 months but after 10 months she escaped and now she’s with us. But I can’t tell anyone about this out of shame.”

Stories like those told by Samira and Zarifa have emerged in recent months as thousands have fled Darzab.

“Daesh has committed many horrors in Darzab that can’t be told,” said the Taliban’s main spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid.

“Daesh does not abide by any rules and there is no doubt about the horrors people have been speaking about.”

Islamic State has no known spokesman in Afghanistan. But the accounts were broadly endorsed by government officials who say Islamic State is trying to import an entirely foreign ideology.

Documents captured in Syria in 2015 revealed ways in which Islamic State theologians regulated the use of female captives for sexual purposes.

“It is completely against our culture and traditions,” said Mohammad Radmanish, a defense ministry spokesman, who said that Darzab was not the only area where rapes and sexual slavery by Islamic State had been reported.

“When they came to our area, everyone knew what these Daesh had come for,” said Kamila, a woman from Darzab, who said that three girls were taken from the area where she lived.

“They would bind a girl or woman from a house and take her with them. At first they said that we would have to marry them. But then, when they took them, many men forced themselves on them and raped them.”

(Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Nick Macfie)

Business leaders turn up heat on Mexican government over crime surge

FILE PHOTO: Police officers guard the entrance of the Coca-Cola FEMSA distribution plant after it closes down due to the issues of security and violence during the campaign rally of Independent presidential candidate Margarita Zavala (unseen) in Ciudad Altamirano, Guerrero state, Mexico April 3, 2018. REUTERS/Ginnette Riquelme/File Photo

By Anthony Esposito and Sharay Angulo

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Mexican business leaders called out the government on Monday over a recent wave of criminal activity that has terrorized large swaths of Latin America’s second-largest economy and led some prominent firms to cut back operations.

Two of Mexico’s top business groups urged the administration of President Enrique Pena Nieto and the candidates hoping to succeed him in a July 1 election to stem the violence and robberies, which they say are putting workers’ lives at risk and hurting investment.

“The high levels of violence have become the greatest obstacle to (economic) activity,” Mexico’s powerful CCE business lobby said in a statement.

Tens of thousands of people have been killed in turf wars between drug cartels and their clashes with security forces since former President Felipe Calderon sent in the military to crush the gangs soon after taking office at the end of 2006.

In recent weeks, dairy producer Grupo Lala shuttered a distribution center in the northern state of Tamaulipas and the world’s biggest Coke bottler, Coca-Cola Femsa, indefinitely shut down a 160-employee distribution center in southwestern Guerrero state.

Canada’s Pan American Silver Corp was the latest to act, saying on Monday it would reduce operations and suspend staff movements at its Dolores silver mine in the border state of Chihuahua because of recent security incidents.

Companies risk extortion, theft, attacks on their logistics chain and physical assault on their employees, according to the American Chamber of Commerce of Mexico (AmCham).

“The impact of corruption, public insecurity, an inadequate justice (system) definitely impacts the cost of investment,” while fear of crime even keeps some executives from coming to Mexico, said Luis Gerardo del Valle, AmCham Mexico’s head of tax affairs.

Train and truck freight thefts have jumped as criminals employ more sophisticated methods.

Last week, miner and infrastructure firm Grupo Mexico said seven freight train derailments between the port of Veracruz and central Mexico were due to “sabotage” and would cost the company 312 million pesos ($16 million).

Mexican industry association Canacintra estimates that small and medium-sized companies spend the equivalent of 6 percent of their income on security, double what they did a decade ago.

‘WE CAN’T KEEP WAITING’

Mexican employers’ federation Coparmex called on the government to stop waiting until the election was over.

“Time is running out for this government, as is the public’s patience. We can’t keep waiting. This is the last call,” Coparmex said in a statement.

Pena Nieto took office in December 2012 promising to get a grip on gang violence and lawlessness. After some initial progress, the situation deteriorated and killings hit their highest level on record last year.

The president’s office had no immediate response to a request for comment.

Pena Nieto is constitutionally barred from seeking re-election, and the prospects of his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) retaining power look grim. PRI candidate Jose Antonio Meade has been running third in nearly all opinion polls.

The principal beneficiary has been leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who has built up a strong poll lead on the back of widespread disenchantment with the PRI over corruption and rising violence, as well as sluggish economic growth.

But Lopez Obrador has also faced criticism for floating a possible amnesty for criminals to restore order.

In a thinly veiled jab at Lopez Obrador, the CCE said: “While it is true that violence is not solved by violence, it is also true that crime is not ended by forgiveness or calls to Mass.”

(Reporting by Anthony Esposito and Sharay Angulo; Additional reporting by Stefanie Eschenbacher; Editing by Dave Graham and Peter Cooney)

In costly quest for security, U.S. schools face law of diminishing returns

FILE PHOTO: Children demonstrate how they might take shelter in a school under a bulletproof blanket sold by Elite Sterling Security LLC (ESS) in Aurora, Colorado March 19, 2013. REUTERS/Rick Wilking/File Photo

By Joseph Ax

(Reuters) – From gunshot detection devices to wireless panic buttons and bulletproof windows, schools across the United States are pursuing aggressive security measures to prevent a shooting massacre on their campuses.

Pressure from parents and community members to find solutions, both high and low tech, has grown in the wake of deadly mass shootings at high schools in Parkland, Florida, and Santa Fe, Texas, among other violent incidents.

In the rush to find answers, school security has ballooned into a multibillion-dollar industry. Meanwhile, some schools are spending precious funds on untested technologies, safety experts said, even though the most robust and effective safety measures can only mitigate the risk, not eliminate it.

“We’ve seen this huge shift to unproven tactics, based on a lot of emotion,” said Chris Dorn, an analyst with Safe Havens International, which conducts on-site safety assessments at hundreds of schools every year. “What we really need to do is to get back to basics.”

Those include single-point entry that restricts access to buildings, classrooms that lock from the inside, training in emergency protocols and effective supervision of campuses by either police officers or school staff.

School officials must also strive to balance the need for security with a desire to preserve an atmosphere conducive to learning, experts said, warning that schools can become fortified bunkers that feel like prisons to students.

“There’s a diminishing amount of returns,” Dorn said, noting that even extraordinarily secure places like the Pentagon and the Fort Hood military base have faced shootings.

Metal detectors, for example, are expensive, require armed personnel and can create long lines outside buildings, providing yet another target for potential attackers.

Many schools have considered door-barricading devices, but experts said they can endanger students by preventing escape and stopping law enforcement from accessing rooms. Instead, schools should ensure their classrooms can be locked from the inside.

Even cameras are not necessarily helpful during an active shooter situation unless they are monitored live at all times, requiring additional personnel.

The majority of schools now have single-point entries, forcing visitors during the day to come through one entrance and get approved by a main office, a practice that security experts say is among the most effective. Many districts, like Littleton, Colorado, near the site of the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, have installed video intercom systems to restrict assess.

But most schools use multiple points of entry at arrival and dismissal due to the sheer number of students. In Parkland, perimeter gates were opened shortly before the end of the day.

School resource officers – armed police officers assigned to campuses – have also become more common, and several states, including Florida and Maryland, have approved funding to pay for more officers this year.

Some schools, like Healdton Public School in Oklahoma, have installed expensive bulletproof shelters in classrooms that can shield students from incoming fire.

BUCKETS OF ROCKS

Even low-budget solutions, like providing classrooms with makeshift weapons – one Pennsylvania school district put buckets of rocks in all of its 200 classrooms – can have unexpected drawbacks if they are used in student assaults.

Beyond physical protections, schools have increasingly used threat assessment teams, which seek to identify troubled students and intervene before any violence can occur. The teams consist of school officials, mental health professionals and law enforcement.

“The people who plan these will typically tell you if there’s planning to do something violent or not,” said Marisa Randazzo, the former chief research psychologist at the U.S. Secret Service and co-author of a landmark study following Columbine that established the standards for school threat assessments.

Maryland and Florida recently passed laws requiring that all schools adopt threat assessment models in the wake of school shootings, joining Virginia as the only states to mandate the practice, Randazzo said.

“Before you connect the dots, you have to collect the dots,” said Gary Sigrist of Safeguard Risk Solutions, which provides security consulting to schools.

But experts in security say even the best safety measures have their limits. A determined shooter will usually find a way to inflict damage, especially in cases such as the Texas incident in which the suspect is a student authorized to be on campus.

“If there’s any one lesson we’ve learned, there is no 100 percent foolproof method to prevent these acts of violence,” said Ronald Stephens, who runs the National School Safety Center, a group that offers training and on-site technical assistance to schools.

(Reporting by Joseph Ax in New York; Editing by Frank McGurty and Cynthia Osterman)

Indonesian children who joined suicide attacks kept isolated by parents

Anti-terror policemen walk during a raid of a house of a suspected terrorist at Medokan Ayu area in Surabaya, Indonesia May 15, 2018. REUTERS/Sigit Pamungkas

By Kanupriya Kapoor

SURABAYA, Indonesia (Reuters) – The parents of Indonesian children and young adults who took part in deadly suicide bombings in Surabaya had isolated them within a tightly knit circle of militant Islamists, police said on Tuesday.

A family of six killed at least 13 people, including themselves, by bombing three churches in Surabaya on Sunday in the worst militant attack in the world’s biggest Muslim-majority country since the bombing of restaurants in Bali in 2005.

On Monday, another militant family of five riding two motorbikes blew themselves up at a police checkpoint in the city, wounding 10 people and killing four of the family and two others. An eight-year-old daughter survived.

“These children have been indoctrinated by their parents. It seems they did not interact much with others,” East Java Police Chief Machfud Arifin told reporters.

The eight-year-old daughter who survived did not have explosives strapped to her, but was thrown three meters (10 ft) into the air by the blast and was receiving intensive care in hospital, police said.

“She’s conscious. She will be accompanied by relatives and social workers when questioned by police,” said Arifin.

Police in Sidoarjo, near Surabaya, recovered pipe bombs at an apartment where a blast on Sunday killed three members of a family alleged to have been making bombs.

Three children survived and in interviews with police described how they had interacted only with parents and adults of similar ideology.

Every Sunday evening they were made to attend a prayer circle with these adults, said Arifin, adding that the families behind the two sets of suicide attacks had attended.

Police said that the fathers of the families involved in the church bombing and the apartment in Sidoarjo where bombs were found were also friends.

After some major successes tackling Islamist militancy since 2001, there has been a resurgence in recent years, including in January 2016 when four suicide bombers and gunmen attacked a shopping area in the capital, Jakarta.

MIDDLE CLASS HOUSING COMPLEX

Police suspect the attacks on the churches were carried out by a cell of the Islamic State-inspired group Jemaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD), an umbrella organization on a U.S. State Department terrorist list that is reckoned to have drawn hundreds of Indonesian sympathizers of Islamic State.

The family involved in those attacks lived in a middle class housing complex in the city and police said the father was the head of a local JAD cell.

“I think the family setting and the isolation from the outside world… were perfect settings for him to indoctrinate the rest of his family,” said Alexander Raymond Arifianto, an Indonesia expert at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

Surabaya Mayor Tri Rismaharini was quoted as saying by news portal Tempo.co that one of the sons had also refused to attend flag raising ceremonies or go to classes on Indonesia’s state ideology Pancasila, which enshrines religious diversity under an officially secular system.

Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla urged the public to provide information that could help stop attacks.

“Please be the government’s eyes and ears so these things won’t happen in the future,” Kalla told a conference in Jakarta.

In all, around 30 people have been killed since Sunday in attacks, including 13 suspected perpetrators, police said.

Sidney Jones, of the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, said in a commentary for the Lowy Institute that the attacks showed how urgent it was for authorities to learn more about family networks.

“If three families can be involved in two days’ worth of terrorist attacks in Surabaya, surely there are more ready to act,” he said.

(For a graphic on ‘Bomb attacks in Indonesia’ click https://tmsnrt.rs/2rBtid8)

(Additional reporting by Jessica Damiana and Gayatri Suroyo; Writing by Ed Davies; Editing by Nick Macfie)

Israeli troops wound dozens on Gaza border as Palestinians bury dead from earlier violence

A Palestinian hurls stones at Israeli troops during clashes at the Gaza-Israel border at a protest demanding the right to return to their homeland, in the southern Gaza Strip March 31, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

GAZA (Reuters) – Israeli troops shot and wounded about 70 Palestinians among crowds demonstrating at the Gaza-Israel border on Saturday, health officials said, after one of the deadliest days of unrest in the area in years.

Thousands of people marched through the streets of Gaza in funerals for the 15 people killed by Israeli gunfire on Friday, and a national day of mourning was observed in the enclave and in the occupied West Bank.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said Israel was responsible for the violence. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel was protecting its sovereignty and citizens.

An Israeli military spokesman said he was checking the details of Saturday’s unrest. It broke out when Palestinians gathered on the border between the Hamas-run enclave and Israel then began throwing stones. Palestinian health officials said about 70 were wounded.

A Palestinian hurls stones at Israeli troops during clashes at the Gaza-Israel border at a protest demanding the right to return to their homeland, in the southern Gaza Strip March 31, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

A Palestinian hurls stones at Israeli troops during clashes at the Gaza-Israel border at a protest demanding the right to return to their homeland, in the southern Gaza Strip March 31, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

On Friday at least 15 Palestinians were killed by Israeli security forces confronting protesters. The military said some had shot at them, rolled burning tyres and hurled rocks and fire bombs toward troops across the border.

Hamas said five of them were members of its armed wing. Israel said eight of the 15 dead belonged to Hamas, designated a terrorist group by Israel and the West, and two others belonged to other militant groups.

Tens of thousands of Palestinians had gathered on Friday along the fenced 65-km (40-mile) frontier, where tents had been erected for a planned six-week protest pressing for a right of return for refugees and their descendents to what is now Israel.

But hundreds of Palestinian youths ignored calls from the organizers and the Israeli military to stay away from the frontier and violence broke out.

The protest, organized by Hamas and other Palestinian factions, is scheduled to culminate on May 15, the day Palestinians commemorate what they call the “Nakba” or “Catastrophe” when hundreds of thousands fled or were driven out of their homes in 1948, when the state of Israel was created.

Israel has long ruled out any right of return, fearing an influx of Arabs that would wipe out its Jewish majority. It says refugees should resettle in a future state the Palestinians seek in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza. Peace talks to that end have been frozen since 2014.

Israel withdrew its troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005 but still maintains tight control of its land and sea borders.

Egypt also keeps its border with Gaza largely closed.

Abbas’s spokesman, Nabil Abu Rdainah, said: “The message of the Palestinian people is clear. The Palestinian land will always belong to its legitimate owners and the occupation will be removed.”

A Palestinian is evacuated during clashes with Israeli troops at the Gaza-Israel border at a protest demanding the right to return to their homeland, in the southern Gaza Strip March 31, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

A Palestinian is evacuated during clashes with Israeli troops at the Gaza-Israel border at a protest demanding the right to return to their homeland, in the southern Gaza Strip March 31, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

Israeli military spokesman Brigadier-General Ronen Manelis said Hamas was using the protests as a guise to launch attacks against Israel and ignite the area. He said violence was likely to continue along the border until May 15.

“We won’t let this turn into a ping-pong zone where they perpetrate a terrorist act and we respond with pinpoint action. If this continues we will not have no choice but to respond inside the Gaza Strip,” Manelis told reporters.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called for an independent investigation into Friday’s bloodshed, and appealed for all sides to refrain from any actions that could lead to further casualties or put civilians in harm’s way.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi and Maayan Lubell, Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Britain seeks European help against Russian spy networks: diplomats

Inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) arrive to begin work at the scene of the nerve agent attack on former Russian agent Sergei Skripal, in Salisbury, Britain March 21, 2018. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

By Gabriela Baczynska and Robin Emmott

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Britain is seeking help from other European countries to take action against Russian spy networks that could be preparing similar attacks as the nerve agent assault on a former Russian spy in England, diplomats said.

Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May will urge “coordinated action” among European Union governments at a summit in Brussels on Thursday, where she will also try to persuade the bloc’s leaders to condemn Russia squarely over the attack in Salisbury.

May accused Russia of the first known offensive use of a nerve toxin in Europe since World War Two after Sergei Skripal, a former Russian double agent, and his daughter were found unconscious on a public bench in the English city on March 4.

In the worst crisis between the two powers since the Cold War, May has expelled 23 Russian diplomats whom she says were spies working under cover. Moscow, which has denied involvement in the attack, has taken retaliatory steps.

“Britain says there are these networks that organize such things like Salisbury, that these networks exist across our borders and that it would be good to go after them together,” a senior EU diplomat said.

“They have already been approaching EU states on that bilaterally and today May will tell EU leaders more.”

Diplomats stressed May was not seeking a formal or immediate EU strategy because the bloc has little joint competence on intelligence, meaning any such work would be done directly with other governments.

“There is movement among several willing states to do something together in reaction to Skripal,” said another EU diplomat. This could be done bilaterally outside the EU so as not to press too hard on those bloc members worried about their ties with Moscow, the person said.

Reluctance from countries – Greece and Hungary among them – mean a draft joint statement by EU leaders now says only that they take “extremely seriously” London’s assessment that it was highly likely Russia was responsible for the attack.

But May will push fellow EU leaders to blame Moscow directly for the poisoning of the Skripals who British authorities say have been critically ill since the attack by a Soviet-produced military-grade nerve agent called Novichok.

A British official confirmed London was seeking to work with groups of countries on intelligence sharing over spy networks.

“Russia has shown itself as a strategic enemy, not a strategic partner,” said another British official, who stressed however that Britain was not seeking new economic sanctions.

May will seek to demonstrate to EU governments that all Western countries are vulnerable to such attacks, as well as what NATO says is a Russian strategy to undermine the West, officials said.

“The Russia threat does not respect borders and as such we are all at risk,” a second senior British official said.

PROOF

May will need to overcome reluctance from the Russia doves in the EU since the bloc is traditionally split on how to deal with Moscow.

Ties between Moscow and the West plummeted over Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Kiev and support for rebels in east Ukraine, which have triggered sanctions by the EU.

French President Emmanuel Macron said on Wednesday the Salisbury attack could not go without response.

Macron and May, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. President Donald Trump, have already said in a joint statement they “share” Britain’s assessment of Russian responsibility.

Diplomats said EU leaders could to settle for similar language, though some bloc members remained concerned there was not enough direct proof to incriminate Russia in the attack.

European Council President Donald Tusk, who will chair the summit and has sided with Britain, said: “It is clear we should improve our preparedness for future attacks.”

He wants the bloc to discuss how to better protect itself from chemical and biological attacks, including in cooperation with NATO, as well as to how to beef up counter-intelligence capabilities to combat hybrid threats.

(Additional reporting by Elizabeth Piper, Richard Lough, Jean-Baptiste Vey, Editing by Richard Balmforth)

U.S. hints at shift on Russia with sanctions and condemnation

National flags of Russia and the U.S. fly at Vnukovo International Airport in Moscow, Russia April 11, 2017. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

By Arshad Mohammed and John Walcott

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – By imposing new sanctions on Russia and condemning a suspected Russian chemical attack in Britain, Washington has hinted at a tougher stance toward Moscow despite President Donald Trump’s stated desire for better ties.

The U.S. Treasury slapped sanctions on 19 Russian citizens and five entities for election meddling and cyber attacks in the most significant steps the United States has taken against Russia since Trump took office amid U.S. intelligence agency allegations that Moscow tried to help him win the 2016 election.

While the Treasury put off targeting oligarchs and officials close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, it said further sanctions were coming and for the first time blamed Moscow for cyber attacks stretching back at least two years that targeted the U.S. power grid, including nuclear facilities.

After initially equivocating about a chemical attack on a former Russian double agent in Salisbury, England, the White House joined a statement by the leaders of Britain, France and Germany in which they said they “abhor the attack” and blamed it on Moscow.

Moscow has denied any involvement in the poisoning.

Thursday’s actions have caused some Russia analysts to ask whether the administration is taking a more confrontational stance despite Trump’s repeated statements in the election campaign that he wanted a better relationship with Moscow, his praise for Putin and apparent reluctance to criticize the Russian leader.

“I think we have hit an inflection point in the current administration’s approach towards Russia,” said a diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity. “There has been a shift in balance.”

The diplomat attributed the evolution partly to a clash between U.S.-backed and Russian-backed forces in the Syrian city of Deir al-Zor in February; Russia pounding Syria’s eastern Ghouta enclave of anti-government rebels with air strikes during the past month; and Putin showing a video on March 1 of a weapon appearing to hover over what looked like a map of Florida, home to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort.

“Those three things, taken together, have caused a shift in analysis in parts … of the administration,” said the diplomat.

TRUMP EXASPERATED

While there was a sense at the White House that there has been a hardening of Trump’s view toward Russia, at least for now, it was unclear whether this represented a long-term shift.

A senior administration official said there was some feeling that the goodwill that Trump extended toward Russia when he took over has not been reciprocated and that the Russians do not want to have good relations with the United States.

This has exasperated Trump, who instructed his team to make sure the United States appeared to be in solidarity with Britain over the nerve agent attack.

Eugene Rumer, a former U.S. national intelligence officer for Russia, suggested Trump’s approach may ultimately be guided by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into whether Russia meddled in the election campaign.

The Kremlin denies interfering. Mueller is also investigating any potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow officials, something Trump denies.

“My hypothesis is … the White House stance on Russia is going to be determined to a large extent by how much they think the investigation threatens their political position,” Rumer said.

Officials from multiple U.S. agencies discussed next steps at a meeting on Thursday, with one aim being to avoid personally attacking Putin and taking in-your-face steps that could prompt retaliation.

In announcing Thursday’s sanctions, U.S. officials made clear more would follow.

“This is just one of a series of ongoing actions that we’re taking to counter Russian aggression,” one U.S. official told reporters. “There will be more to come, and we’re going to continue to employ our resources to combat malicious Russian activity and respond to nefarious attacks.”

Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33, were found unconscious on a bench outside a shopping center on March 4 after being exposed to what the British authorities have identified as a military-grade, Soviet-era Novichok nerve agent.

Another U.S. official attributed the sharper edge to U.S. policy to increasingly brazen behavior by Russia in cyberspace and on the ground, culminating in the Salisbury attack.

This U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, also pointed to Russia’s refusal to restrain Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the role of Russian “mercenaries” in Syria, now entering its eighth year of civil war.

The official said it was unclear if Trump himself saw Russia as an adversary but suggested Putin may have “overplayed his hand” by leaving Russian fingerprints on the hacking, the chemical attack, the deployment of ground-launched cruise missiles which the U.S. says violate an arms control treaty, and a March 1 speech on “invincible” Russian weaponry.

“If the president felt like Putin was one-upping him, not to mention stealing the limelight, then it wouldn’t be surprising that he would react,” the official said.

While more sanctions are expected, it was not clear if the Trump policy toward Russia was changing, especially given Trump’s unpredictability, said a third official, who is involved in talks on next steps.

“Tomorrow is another day,” the official said.

(Additional reporting by Steve Holland and Warren Strobel; Writing by Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Grant McCool and Paul Tait)