Backstory: Finding some solace amid the bloodshed in Christchurch and Colombo

FILE PHOTO: A security officer stands guard outside St. Anthony's Shrine, days after a string of suicide bomb attacks on churches and luxury hotels across the island on Easter Sunday, in Colombo, Sri Lanka April 26, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha/File Photo

By Tom Lasseter

COLOMBO (Reuters) – The island nations of New Zealand and Sri Lanka are separated by some 6,600 miles (10,600 km) of ocean. But in just over a month’s time, each has seen mass killings that generated similar headlines.

In Christchurch, New Zealand, a man with his finger on the trigger of an AR-15 assault rifle stormed into mosques during Friday prayers on March 15. By the end of it, 51 people who had come to worship in two houses of God were dead.

In Colombo and other Sri Lankan cities, a group of nine suicide bombers struck in coordinated explosions on April 21. They strolled into St. Anthony’s Shrine in the capital, St. Sebastian’s Church in nearby Negombo and a church to the east of the country as the faithful sat in pews on Easter Sunday.

They also entered crowded restaurants in the Shangri-La and other hotels, as families tucked into breakfast buffets. The explosions that followed killed at least 253 people in total.

I flew into both cities in the aftermath of the massacres.

There was an obvious temptation to dwell on the symmetry of the tragedies.

The gunman in Christchurch had names written down the side of his rifle evoking past crusades by Christians against Muslims. Videos surfaced of the alleged ringleader of the Sri Lankan bombings, a radical Muslim preacher, calling for death to non-believers.

As I crisscrossed Sri Lanka in the back of a sport utility vehicle last week, though, I wondered about investing too much in the similarities, of seeing them as a part of an inevitable string of modern terror.

Instead, I thought about the different paths taken by two Muslim men we profiled – one a victim, one a suspected killer.

FILE PHOTO: Imam Ibrahim Abdelhalim of the Linwood Mosque poses for a picture at the door of his house in Christchurch, New Zealand March 16, 2019. REUTERS/Jorge Silva/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Imam Ibrahim Abdelhalim of the Linwood Mosque poses for a picture at the door of his house in Christchurch, New Zealand March 16, 2019. REUTERS/Jorge Silva/File Photo

In Christchurch, I wrote about Ibrahim Abdelhalim. He moved to New Zealand in 1995. He’d enjoyed a relatively comfortable life in Cairo, but wanted a better future for his children.

Once there, the only job he could find was as a clerk at Work and Income, the government agency for employment services and financial assistance. No matter.

He also served as an imam, or spiritual leader, at a mosque.

When the gunman began shooting into the mosque where Abdelhalim was praying, the 67-year-old grandfather watched, helpless, as bullets pinned down his son on the floor before him. Abdelhalim’s wife was shot in the arm. It seemed possible he was about to witness the slaughter of his loved ones.

But after the violence, which his family survived, Abdelhalim threw himself into counseling the relatives of the dead. His heart was broken, but Abdelhalim decided to serve and to rebuild.

About a month later, I traveled with a colleague from the Singapore bureau, Shri Navaratnam, to the Sri Lankan town of Kattankudy. There we dug into the background of Mohamed Hashim Mohamed Zahran, the alleged leader of the Easter Sunday bombings.

He was expelled from his Islamic studies school for being too radical. Throughout his life, he was shunned by many of the Muslims around him.

Zahran went into hiding in 2017 after a fight in which his men confronted Sufi Muslims with swords. He disappeared again the next year after popping up in another town, where Buddha statues were vandalized.

FILE PHOTO: A police officer inspects the site of a gun battle between troops and suspected Islamist militants, on the east coast of Sri Lanka, in Kalmunai, April 28, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: A police officer inspects the site of a gun battle between troops and suspected Islamist militants, on the east coast of Sri Lanka, in Kalmunai, April 28, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte/File Photo

The variation in that pair of narratives is, to me, worth remembering. During my years of covering war and its aftermath in Iraq and then Afghanistan, I saw communities warped by the shock of repeated violence and the sometimes brutal forces of identity and clan-based power. But even on the bloodiest of days, there were hints of solace.

After our story about Zahran was published last Friday, there was another development.

His father and two brothers were killed during a gun battle when security forces stormed their safe house. They had recorded a video calling for jihad, or holy war.

I suppose you could dwell on that and the fact that others close to him had gone down the same road.

But this is what caught my eye: the cops raided the house based on a tip that armed strangers had moved into the community. Passing that information along could have put the sources at risk. Who had spoken up? Muslims at a local mosque.

(Additional reporting by Shri Navaratnam and Tom Westbrook; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

Sri Lanka imposes emergency, says international network involved in attacks; 290 killed 500 wounded

Sri Lankan military stand guard inside a church after an explosion in Negombo, Sri Lanka April 21, 2019. REUTERS/Stringer

By Sanjeev Miglani

COLOMBO (Reuters) – Sri Lanka said on Monday it was invoking emergency powers in the aftermath of devastating bomb attacks on hotels and churches, blamed on militants with foreign links, in which 290 people were killed and nearly 500 wounded.

A family who lives near the church that was attacked yesterday, leave their house as the military try to defuse a suspected van before it exploded, in Colombo, Sri Lanka April 22, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

A family who lives near the church that was attacked yesterday, leave their house as the military try to defuse a suspected van before it exploded, in Colombo, Sri Lanka April 22, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

The emergency law, which gives police and the military extensive powers to detain and interrogate suspects without court orders, will go into effect at midnight on Monday, the president’s office said.

Colombo, the seaside capital of the Indian Ocean island, was jittery on Monday. Police said 87 bomb detonators were found at the city’s main bus station, while an explosive went off near a church where scores were killed on Sunday when bomb squad officials were trying to defuse it.

A night curfew will go into effect at 8 p.m., the government announced.

There was no claim of responsibility for the attack but suspicion was focusing on Islamist militants in the Buddhist-majority country.

Investigators said seven suicide bombers took part in the attacks while a government spokesman said an international network was involved.

Police had received a tip-off of a possible attack on churches by a little-known domestic Islamist group some 10 days ago, according to a document seen by Reuters.

Special Task Force Bomb Squad officers inspect the site of an exploded van near a church that was attacked yesterday in Colombo, Sri Lanka April 22, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

Special Task Force Bomb Squad officers inspect the site of an exploded van near a church that was attacked yesterday in Colombo, Sri Lanka April 22, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

The intelligence report, dated April 11 and seen by Reuters, said a foreign intelligence agency had warned authorities of possible attacks on churches by the leader of the group, the National Thawheed Jama’ut. It was not immediately clear what action, if any, was taken on the tip-off.

Police said 24 people had been arrested, all of whom were Sri Lankan, but they gave no more details.

International anti-terrorism experts said even if a local group had carried out the attacks, it was likely that al Qaeda or Islamic State were involved, given the level of sophistication.

Two of the suicide bombers blew themselves up at the luxury Shangri-La Hotel on Colombo’s seafront, said Ariyananda Welianga, a senior official at the government’s forensic division. The others targeted three churches and two other hotels.

A fourth hotel and a house in a suburb of the capital Colombo were also hit, but it was not immediately clear how those attacks were carried out.

“Still the investigations are going on,” Welianga said.

Friends and relatives pray as they mourn Shaini, 13, who died as bomb blasts ripped through churches and luxury hotels on Easter, in Negombo, Sri Lanka April 22, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

Friends and relatives pray as they mourn Shaini, 13, who died as bomb blasts ripped through churches and luxury hotels on Easter, in Negombo, Sri Lanka April 22, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

Most of the attacks came during Easter services and when hotel guests were sitting down for breakfast buffets.

“Guests who had come for breakfast were lying on the floor, blood all over,” an employee at Kingsbury Hotel told Reuters.

Cabinet spokesman Rajitha Senaratne said an international network was involved, but did not elaborate.

“We do not believe these ‘attacks’ were carried out by a group of people who were confined to this country,” Senaratne said. “There was an international network without which these attacks could not have succeeded.”

The president, Maithripala Sirisena, said in a statement the government would seek foreign assistance to track the overseas links.

Sri Lanka was at war for decades with ethnic minority Tamil separatists, most of them Hindu, but violence had largely ended since the government victory in the civil war, 10 years ago.

Sri Lanka’s 22 million people include minority Christians, Muslims and Hindus.

FOREIGN VICTIMS

Most of the dead and wounded were Sri Lankans although government officials said 32 foreigners were killed, including British, U.S., Australian, Turkish, Indian, Chinese, Danish, Dutch and Portuguese nationals.

Denmark’s richest man Anders Holch Povlsen and his wife lost three of their four children in the attacks, a spokesman for his fashion firm said.

A British mother and son at breakfast at the Shangri-La, British media reported, while five Indian political workers were killed at the same hotel, relatives told Indian media.

The hotel said several guests and three employees were killed.

The U.S. State Department said in a travel advisory “terrorist groups” were plotting possible attacks in Sri Lanka and targets could include tourist spots, transport hubs, shopping malls, hotels, places of worship and airports.

There were fears the attacks could spark communal violence, with police reporting late on Sunday there had been a petrol bomb attack on a mosque in the northwest and arson attacks on two shops owned by Muslims in the west.

BOMB FOUND NEAR AIRPORT

Traffic was uncharacteristically thin in normally bustling Colombo after an island-wide curfew was lifted earlier Monday.

Soldiers with automatic weapons stood guard outside major hotels and the World Trade Center in the business district, a Reuters witness said.

An Australian survivor, identified only as Sam, told Australia’s 3AW radio the hotel was a scene of “absolute carnage”.

He said he and a travel partner were having breakfast at the Shangri-La when two blasts went off. He said he had seen two men wearing backpacks seconds before the blasts.

“There were people screaming and dead bodies all around,” he said. “Kids crying, kids on the ground, I don’t know if they were dead or not, just crazy.”

There were similar scenes of carnage at two churches in or near Colombo, and a third church in the northeast town of Batticaloa, where worshippers had gathered. Pictures showed bodies on the ground and blood-spattered pews and statues.

Dozens were killed in a blast at the Gothic-style St Sebastian church in Katuwapitiya, north of Colombo. Police said they suspected it was a suicide attack.

Questions over why the intelligence report warning was not acted upon could feed into a feud between Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and the president.

Sirisena fired the premier last year and installed opposition strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa in his stead. Weeks later, he was forced to re-instate Wickremesinghe because of pressure from the Supreme Court but their relationship is still fraught as a presidential election nears.

(Reporting by Sanjeev Miglani; Additional reporting by Ranga Sirilal; Writing by Paul Tait and Raju Gopalakrishnan; Editing by Michael Perry, Robert Birsel)

Insurgents start leaving south Damascus pocket, release hostages

A soldier loyal to Syria's President Bashar al Assad forces talks to a woman in a bus after they were released by militants from Idlib, Syria May 1, 2018. SANA/Handout via REUTERS

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Dozens of hostages held by militants in northern Syria reached army lines on Tuesday, launching a deal for insurgents to quit an enclave south of Damascus, state media and a monitor said.

State news agency SANA said 42 people were freed in the first step of the agreement, arriving in government territory at a crossing near Aleppo city.

Soldiers loyal to Syria's President Bashar al Assad are seen near a bus carrying rebels from Yarmouk Palestinian camp in Damascus, Syria April 30, 2018. SANA/ via REUTERS

Soldiers loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al Assad are seen near a bus carrying rebels from Yarmouk Palestinian camp in Damascus, Syria April 30, 2018. SANA/ via REUTERS

Women, children, and men including some soldiers wept and hugged on the bus, live on state TV. Islamist rebels had kidnapped the people in a village in rural Idlib as they swept into the province three years ago.

South of Damascus, buses shuttled 200 fighters and relatives out of the Yarmouk enclave under the swap between the government and insurgents, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The fleet arrived at the same crossing near Aleppo in the early hours, the UK-based war monitoring group said. The fighters from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, formerly linked to al-Qaeda, would go to Idlib in the northwest near the Turkish border.

President Bashar al-Assad’s military and its allies have pushed to crush the last insurgent footholds around the capital Damascus through a string of offensives and withdrawal deals.

The pocket south of Damascus includes zones held by Islamic State and others by rebel factions, which have fought each other. It has been the focus of intense fighting since the Syrian army recaptured eastern Ghouta last month with Russian and Iranian help.

Bombing has left parts of the once-teeming Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in ruins, and the United Nations raised warnings over the fate of civilians still stuck there.

The evacuation deal for Tahrir al-Sham to surrender also includes allowing people to leave two pro-government Shi’ite villages, which the insurgents have encircled in Idlib.

State media said ambulances carried some critically ill patients out of the villages, al-Foua and Kefraya, on Tuesday morning in the first step of the agreement.

(Reporting by Ellen Francis, Editing by William Maclean)

Syria attack triggered Western action, but on the ground Assad gained

By Suleiman Al-Khalidi

AMMAN (Reuters) – After Syrian forces bombed the town of Douma earlier this month in an attack the United States says involved chlorine gas, Washington and its allies launched missile strikes as punishment.

The retribution has changed little in the course of the seven-year civil war, but the alleged poison gas attack did.

Rebels had held the stronghold of Douma, near the capital Damascus, for years despite repeated offensives. Within hours of the April 7 attack they were in retreat.

Under pressure from beleaguered residents and facing Russian threats of further such attacks, the rebel group Jaish al-Islam finally agreed to surrender Douma and leave for the Turkish border, Mohammad Alloush, a top official in the movement, said.

By the time the West struck back just under a week later, armed resistance in the areas around the Syrian government’s seat of power had all but collapsed, further strengthening the hand of President Bashar al-Assad.

Syria and Russia condemned the Western military intervention early on Saturday, and deny the use of chemical weapons in Douma.

Moscow branded it a lie concocted with the help of Britain, while the British government said a significant body of information, including intelligence, indicated the Syrian government was responsible.

Whatever happened on that day, it prompted a dramatic shift on the ground.

Medical relief groups said dozens of civilians were killed, and one video circulated by activists showed the bodies of around a dozen men, women and children lifeless on the floor, some of them with foam at the mouth.

A couple of hours later, according to Alloush, mediators from the rebel group held talks with a team led by a senior officer from the Russian defence ministry.

“The threat came: ‘You saw what happened in Douma. Now you can only sign, or there will be more strikes and nobody left in the town’,” Alloush, who is based in Istanbul, told Reuters.

He blamed Russia for helping the Syrian army carry out the attack in order to end the rebellion.

“They bombed and bombed and we weren’t defeated by conventional weapons so they found the only way was to use chemical (weapons).”

The Russian defence ministry did not respond to detailed questions about Alloush’s comments sent by Reuters.

After talking with the Russians, Jaish al-Islam members then met a civilian council representing Douma residents: tens of thousands have stayed on despite the fighting that has reduced much of the town to rubble.

The residents’ message to the rebels was clear: “They said ‘we can no longer hold on. If you don’t leave, we are going over to the regime’,” said Alloush. “Civilian morale collapsed with the scenes of death.”

A council member who declined to be named told Reuters that civilians said they could no longer resist, given the threat of further attacks.

Dozens of people had been killed under intense bombardment the day before poison gas was allegedly deployed, but there was a difference, Alloush said.

“Chemical weapons create more terror.”

 

ESCALATING TENSIONS

Syria’s civil war has been going Assad’s way since Russia intervened on his side in 2015.

After the key capture of eastern Aleppo in late 2016, Assad and his allies have taken back one area after another from rebels who face Russian air power and lack sufficient aid from foreign states that back them only half-heartedly.

Significant areas of Syria still remain beyond the president’s grasp, including nearly all of the north, much of the east, and a chunk of the southwest, areas where foreign interests will complicate further gains.

But in the region around the capital he has made big gains. Eastern Ghouta fell last month, leaving Douma as the last major rebel bastion.

Its fall – insurgent fighters have been bussed towards the Turkish border over the past few days – marks another milestone.

The Ghouta offensive was directed from the start by Russia and waged on the ground by elite Syrian forces, according to a commander in the regional military alliance that backs Assad.

When the assault got underway in February, the besieged area was pounded from the ground and air before troops thrust in. So far, the Ghouta offensive has killed more than 1,700 civilians, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Hamstrung by rivalries and weakened by the “scorched earth” bombardment, the handful of eastern Ghouta rebel groups were steadily defeated and forced to accept safe passage to opposition-held territory at the Turkish border.

Jaish al-Islam, however, believed it could avoid the same fate even as Syrian troops encircled Douma, saying it wanted to protect the town and its people from forced displacement imposed by the Assad government.

CIVILIANS FLEE

Once the biggest rebel group in eastern Ghouta, Jaish al-Islam claimed to have fortified Douma extensively, meaning government forces could face a costly battle to capture it.

The group also said it could have held out thanks to weapons factories it built up during the war and enough supplies to feed people for a year.

Hundreds of thousands of residents had already fled the area in the years and months preceding April 7, but tens of thousands stayed.

In negotiations with Russian military personnel, Jaish al-Islam pressed for a deal that would let in Russian military police, keep out the Syrian military and allow its fighters to stay as a local security force.

Alloush said the talks appeared to be going well two days before the suspected chemical attack, with the Russians having promised to study fresh proposals.

But, he said, Russia’s response the following day was a threat: face chemical attacks or leave to northern Syria.

That afternoon the most ferocious bombardment yet was unleashed on Douma. Thick clouds of dark smoke rose from the town in a live state TV broadcast.

The government accused Jaish al-Islam of shelling residential areas of Damascus and reneging on promises to release abducted soldiers and civilians held by the group.

The rebels denied opening fire.

“We were fighting the Russians. We were not fighting the regime,” Alloush said.

“THE RUSSIANS GOT ANGRY”

The pro-Assad commander who declined to be named said the army had been mobilized on April 6 in preparation for a possible assault, after Jaish al-Islam reneged on an agreement to leave the town and introduced unacceptable demands.

These included its legalization as a political party, and a requirement that the Syrian army stay out of Douma. The Russians were furious, according to the pro-Assad commander.

“The Russians got very angry with them … and asked them ‘what are these impossible conditions’?”

The Syrian government’s position was clear, the commander said. The rebels must go “to Jarablus”, a town at the Turkish border.

Sources in the rebel group, however, said that talks with the Russians had been about the terms of them staying in Douma, not about conditions of a withdrawal.

The ensuing onslaught smashed Jaish al-Islam’s defensive lines, according to both Alloush and the pro-Assad commander.

As the air strikes continued, Alloush reiterated Jaish al-Islam’s demand that it be allowed to stay in Douma to protect its people.

The next evening, more than 500 people, mostly women and children, began arriving at medical centers in Douma showing symptoms consistent with exposure to a chemical agent, according to Syrian American Medical Society, a relief organization.

“Following the chemical attack, the target site and the surrounding area of the hospital receiving the injured were attacked with barrel bombs, which hindered the ability of the ambulances to reach the victims,” it said.

Hours later, the rebels began to withdraw.

GRAPHIC: Overview of chemical warfare, click http://tmsnrt.rs/2pKDWOY

(Additional reporting by Stephen Kalin in Riyadh, Laila Bassam, Tom Perry and Ellen Francis in Beirut and Christian Lowe in Moscow; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Mike Collett-White)

Texas bombing suspect blows himself up as police close in

FILE PHOTO: Law enforcement personnel investigate an incident that they said involved an incendiary device in the 9800 block of Brodie Lane in Austin, Texas, U.S., March 20, 2018.REUTERS/Loren Elliott

By Jon Herskovitz

PFLUGERVILLE, Texas (Reuters) – An unemployed 23-year-old man suspected of a three-week bombing campaign in Texas that killed two people and injured five others before blowing himself up on the side of a highway was identified by local media on Wednesday.

The suspect was identified as Mark Anthony Conditt, of Pflugerville, Texas, according to the local CBS television affiliate and Austin American-Statesman newspaper, citing unnamed law enforcement sources. Reuters could not immediately confirm the suspect’s identity.

Public records showed Conditt’s age as 23. Officials had said the suspect was 24.

Police tracked the suspect to a hotel about 20 miles north of Austin, the state capital, and were following his vehicle when he pulled to the side of the road and detonated a device, killing himself, Austin Police Chief Brian Manley told reporters near the scene.

“The suspect is deceased and has significant injuries from a blast that occurred from detonating a bomb inside his vehicle,” Manley told reporters. He declined to further identify the suspect, except to say he was white.

Investigators had tracked him for a couple of days before closing in at an unidentified hotel in Round Rock, Texas, not for from his home in Pflugerville, Governor Greg Abbott told Fox News on Wednesday.

“We’ve known for a couple of days who the suspect likely was,” Abbott said. “Law enforcement is at his house in Pflugerville where we are learning whether or not that was the location he was making his bombs.”

The governor added that the suspect is believed to have lived with two roommates, who are not currently considered suspects, Abbott said. The suspect was not a military veteran, Abbott said.

Texas law enforcement officials blocked off the street where the suspect lived, not far from where the first bomb went off on March 2, killing one person.

Jay Schulze, a 42-year-old network engineer, said on Wednesday he lived a few houses away from the bombing suspect and that the suspect and his friends would hang out late at night.

“They would be out in back playing music and partying pretty late,” Schulze said.

While jogging on Tuesday night, Schulze noticed a heavy police presence in the area, with drones flying overhead. He said he was stopped briefly by a person who he thought was an FBI agent.

‘DO NOT UNDERSTAND’ MOTIVATION

Manley said the suspect was believed to be responsible for six bombs around Austin, all but one of which detonated. He said the motivation for the bombings or whether the suspect had help was not yet known.

Manley warned residents to be cautious since it was not clear whether any more bombs had been left around the city.

The bombings killed two people and injured at least five others, unnerving residents of Austin, a city of some 1 million people. The first bombings occurred as the city was hosting the annual South By Southwest music, film and technology festival.

While officers waited for reinforcements before they arrested him, the suspect left the hotel and police followed.

The suspect pulled off the city’s main highway and two Austin police officers approached his vehicle when he set off the device. One officer fired at the vehicle and the other sustained a minor injury when the bomb went off, Manley said.

U.S. President Donald Trump congratulated authorities on Twitter: “Great job by law enforcement and all concerned!”

The first three devices were parcel bombs dropped off in front of homes in the Austin area. A fourth went off on Sunday night, apparently detonated with a trip wire also around Austin, and a fifth exploded inside a FedEx Corp <FDX.N> facility near San Antonio on Tuesday.

The bombings bewildered authorities, who by Sunday had publicly called on the bomber to contact them and explain why he was carrying out the attacks.

The first two bombs killed black men, raising fears that they were part of a hate crime, but investigators said the blasts that came later and were more random made that less likely.

Manley said investigators have no clear idea of what prompted the suspect to carry out the bombing, saying, “We do not understand what motivated him to do what he did.”

(Reporting by Jonathan Herskovitz; Additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee and Jonathan Allen and Gina Cherelus in New York; Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Larry King and Jeffrey Benkoe)

Trip wire may have set off bomb in Austin, wounding two men: police

Police maintain a cordon near the site of an incident reported as an explosion in southwest Austin, Texas, U.S. March 18, 2018. REUTERS/Tamir Kalifa

By Jon Herskovitz

AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) – Two men on bicycles were wounded in an explosion of a bomb that may have been detonated by a trip wire, police said on Monday in the Texas capital, where earlier this month three parcel bombs killed two people.

The two men, thought to be in their 20s, suffered non-life threatening injuries and were taken to the hospital on Sunday after they came upon a suspicious device on the side of a road in a residential neighborhood on the west side of the city, Austin Police Chief Brian Manley said during a press conference.

The possibility that the road-side bomb was triggered when someone handled, kicked or came in contact with a trip wire, differs from the previous explosions that were set off when individuals handled packages that were left on doorsteps, Manley said.

“We now need the community to have an extra level of vigilance and pay attention to any suspicious device,” he said. “Given that there may have been a different triggering mechanism in this device, we wanted to get that out as early as possible.”

Residents were told to stay in their homes in the west side neighborhood several miles from where the earlier blasts occurred, Manley said.

“We’re working on the belief that they are connected,” he said, noting that authorities will wait until daylight to process the scene.

FBI and U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) agents were at the scene, the Federal Bureau of Investigation said on Twitter.

Investigators are still looking for the culprits behind the three parcel bombs that exploded in three separate east side neighborhoods of the city, killing two African-American males and leaving a 75-year-old Hispanic woman fighting for her life.

Earlier on Sunday, Austin police said whoever was responsible for the bombs was trying to send a message and should contact authorities to explain any motive.

“We are not going to understand that (message) until the suspect or suspects reach out to us to talk to us about what that message was,” Manley said.

Manley said police were also investigating the bombings as possible hate crimes.

The first bombing on March 2 killed Anthony Stephan House, a 39-year-old black man. It ripped a hole in a home entrance wall and damaged the front door.

A bomb last Monday morning killed Draylen Mason, a 17-year-old African American teenager and promising musician. It also injured his mother. A few hours later, a third bombing injured the 75-year-old Hispanic woman, who has not been named.

Police have received more than 735 calls about suspicious packages since the three parcel bomb attacks, but authorities had not found any that posed a security risk, Manley said.

A reward of $115,000 has been offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or people responsible.

(Corrects with addition of missing word in paragraph 6.)

(Additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Louise Heavens)

More bombs hit Syria’s Ghouta after heaviest death toll in years

A helicopter is seen flying over the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, Damascus, Syria February 20, 2018. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Pro-government forces pounded Syria’s eastern Ghouta on Tuesday, killing at least 66 people after the enclave’s heaviest one-day death toll in three years, a monitoring group said.

Sparking an international outcry, the surge in air strikes, rocket fire, and shelling has killed more than 210 adults and children in the rebel pocket near Damascus since late on Sunday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

France described the government bombing as a serious violation of international humanitarian law.

There was no immediate comment from the Syrian military. Damascus says it only targets militants.

Recent violence in the besieged suburb is part of a wider surge in fighting on several fronts as President Bashar al-Assad’s military pushes to end the seven-year rebellion against him.

A U.N. coordinator called for an immediate ceasefire on Monday and said that Ghouta was “spiraling out of control” after an “extreme escalation in hostilities”.

In Geneva, the U.N. children’s agency expressed outrage at the casualties among the enclave’s children, saying it had run out of words.

Those killed since the escalation began on Sunday include 54 children. Another 850 people have been injured, the Britain-based Observatory said.

In Brussels, Syrian opposition leader Nasr al-Hariri – a delegation head at stalled U.N. peace talks – told the European Union the intensified attacks consisted a “war crime”, and pleaded for more international pressure on Assad to stop.

WARPLANES IN THE SKY

Rescuers said the air raids create “a state of terror” among residents in eastern Ghouta, where the United Nations says nearly 400,000 people live. The pocket of satellite towns and farms, under government siege since 2013, is the last major rebel bastion near the capital.

Factions in Ghouta fired mortars at Damascus on Tuesday, killing six people and injuring 28, Syrian state TV said. The army retaliated and pounded militant targets, state news agency SANA said.

The Syrian foreign ministry said militants in Ghouta were targeting Damascus and using people there as “human shields”. It said in a letter of complaint to the U.N. that some Western officials were denying the government’s right to defend itself.

The Civil Defence in eastern Ghouta, a rescue service that operates in rebel territory, said jets battered Kafr Batna, Saqba, Hammouriyeh, and several other towns on Tuesday.

“The warplanes are not leaving the sky at all,” said Siraj Mahmoud, a civil defense spokesman in Ghouta, as the sound of explosions rang out in the background.

Mahmoud said that government forces bombed houses, schools and medical facilities, and that rescuers had found more than 100 people dead “in one day alone” on Monday.

Reuters photos showed bandaged people waiting at a medical point in the town of Douma, some of them with blood streaming down their faces and their skin caked in dust.

Bombs struck five hospitals in the enclave on Monday, said the UOSSM group of aid agencies that funds medical facilities in opposition parts of Syria.

DE-ESCALATION ZONES

Assad’s most powerful backer, Russia, has been pushing its own diplomatic track which resulted in establishing several “de-escalation zones” in rebel territory last year.

Fighting has raged on in eastern Ghouta even though it falls under the ceasefire plans that Moscow brokered with the help of Turkey and Iran. The truces do not cover a former al-Qaeda affiliate, which has a small presence in the besieged enclave.

Residents and aid workers say the “de-escalation” deals have brought no relief. Food, fuel, and medicine have dwindled.

The two main rebel factions in eastern Ghouta, which signed the deals with Russia last summer, accuse Damascus and Moscow of using the jihadist presence as a pretext for attacks.

Moscow did not comment on the renewed bombing in eastern Ghouta on Tuesday.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov blamed on Monday “armed provocations” by Nusra militants, formerly linked to al-Qaeda, for conditions in Ghouta. He said Moscow and its allies could “deploy our experience of freeing Aleppo … in the eastern Ghouta situation”.

U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura warned on Tuesday that the escalating battle in Ghouta could turn into a repeat of the bloody fight for Aleppo, which Damascus regained full control of in late 2016 after years of fighting.

“These fears seem to be well founded,” aid group International Rescue Committee also said on Tuesday. It said malnutrition was widespread and Ghouta’s schools had been closed since early January because of the attacks.

“The people of Eastern Ghouta are terrified… There is nowhere safe for them to run to,” IRC’s Middle East Regional Director Mark Schnellbaecher said.

(Reporting by Angus McDowall, Ellen Francis, and Lisa Barrington; additional reporting by Tom Miles in Geneva; editing by Andrew Roche)

U.N. says Syrian forces killed 85 civilians in besieged zone

A Syria Civil Defence member carries a wounded child in the besieged town of Hamoria, Eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria Janauary 6, 2018.

GENEVA (Reuters) – Syrian government forces and their allies have killed at least 85 civilians since Dec. 31 in stepped-up attacks against the besieged rebel enclave of Eastern Ghouta, the U.N. human rights chief said on Wednesday.

Conditions in the enclave, the last major rebel-held zone near Damascus and where at least 390,000 civilians have been besieged for four years, amount to a humanitarian catastrophe, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein said.

“Residential areas are being hit day and night by strikes from the ground and from the air, forcing civilians to hide in basements,” he said in a statement.

Zeid said warring parties were obliged by law to distinguish between civilians and lawful military targets, and reports from Eastern Ghouta suggested of the attackers were flouting those principles, “raising concerns that war crimes may have been committed.”

Among the dead civilians were 21 women and 30 children, Zeid said.

Backed by Russian strikes, Syrian government forces have escalated military operations against Eastern Ghouta in recent months. Russia rejects accusations that its jets have been targeting civilians.

Zeid said failure to evacuate urgent medical cases from the enclave was also against international humanitarian law.

Armed opposition groups holed up in Eastern Ghouta had also continued to fire rockets into residential areas of Damascus, which he said caused terror among the population.

A rocket landed near a bakery in Old Damascus on Jan. 4, killing a woman and injuring 13 other civilians, he said.

(Reporting by Tom Miles; Editing by Robin Pomeroy and John Stonestreet)

Bishop says state of emergency not enough to protect Egypt’s Copts

People walk on a street in Egypt’s Southern governorate of Minya, Egypt April 12, 2017. REUTERS/Amina Ismail

By Amina Ismail

MINYA, Egypt (Reuters) – The Egyptian government needs to do more to protect the country’s Coptic Christians from a “wave of persecution” following bombings that killed dozens during the church’s most solemn week of the year, a senior bishop said.

Bishop Macarius, head of the Coptic diocese in Minya, south of Cairo, was skeptical that a state of emergency imposed after the Islamist attacks on Palm Sunday was adequate security and said the church wanted further guarantees.

Copts make up about 10 percent of the 92-million population of mostly Muslim Egypt and are the region’s largest Christian denomination, with a nearly 2,000-year-old history in the country.

The Coptic church in Egypt will mark Easter in a subdued fashion, Macarius said, with the usual prayers and religious observances but none of the celebrations and visits from dignitaries that would normally enliven the day.

“We can consider ourselves in a wave of persecution, but the church has gone through a lot in 20 centuries,” the bearded Macarius told Reuters in an interview.

“There are waves of persecution. It reaches to the highest point like a pyramid and then it goes down again,” the bishop said on Wednesday. “We are at a very high point.”

The bombings that killed 45 in Alexandria and Tanta last Sunday followed a series of sectarian attacks against the Copts and came days before Pope Francis is due to make his first visit to Egypt on April 28-29.

The attacks, claimed by Islamic State, represent a challenge to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who has pledged to protect the Copts as part of his campaign against extremism. Sisi visited Coptic Pope Tawadros in Cairo on Thursday to express his condolences.

Although Copts have suffered attacks before from their Muslim neighbors, who have burnt their homes and churches in rural areas, the community has felt increasingly insecure since Islamic State has spread through Iraq and Syria and started targeting Christians.

After the Palm Sunday attacks, Sisi’s government introduced a three-month state of emergency which gives it sweeping powers to act against what it calls enemies of the state.

Prime Minister Sherif Ismail said the step was essential to combating what he called terrorist groups bent on undermining the country.

NO POLICE STATE

With a picture of Sisi hanging on the wall behind him, Macarius said the problem could not be tackled with a crackdown alone.

“Security solutions never succeeded alone. No state in the world should be a police state, either here or elsewhere,” the bishop said. “Emergency all the time makes people nervous.”

Sisi needs advisers who could brief him better on the religious, cultural and security aspects of the crisis, said Macarius, wearing an embroidered black cap.

The state also needed to find those who endorsed the ideology of the suicide bomber, he said, and authorities should devote more effort to monitoring social media.

Not far from where Macarius was speaking, Emad Aziz, 56, sat in his clothes shop counting the cost of the latest assault.

Egyptians usually buy new clothes to mark holidays such as Easter. Not this year, however.

“People are sad, and people buy new clothes when they are happy. The situation is really bad,” Aziz, a Christian, told Reuters. “Why would any Egyptian do this to his country? Is this loyalty to the country? Many people don’t want Egypt to get better.”

He agreed a state of emergency was “not a solution” to the situation of Copts in Egypt – where an economic crisis has severely eroded the living standards of millions.

Security appeared light at the Minya diocese but in Cairo, police have deployed around churches in force, erecting security barriers and metal detectors to screen those attending services in the days leading up to Easter.

In the Cairo district of Shubra, where many Christians live, worshippers filled a service at St Mark’s church, some following proceedings by scrolling the order of service across the screens of their smart phones.

A metal detector had been moved down the street so that any bomber could be stopped before reaching the church.

Romainy, a security guard, said members of the congregation were “sad but not scared”.

Across the street, a chicken seller, her dress flecked with feathers, said people were attending church as they always had.

“I would have gone to the service myself but I have work to do,” she said, declining to give her name.

Not everyone was so relaxed. At a nearby church, a plainclothes police officer told journalists: “It’s a very tense time in Egypt.”

(Additional reporting and writing by Giles Elgood; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

Suspected Islamic State cell was planning attacks on U.S. forces in Kuwait

An Islamic State flag is seen in this picture illustration taken

KUWAIT CITY (Reuters) – Suspected Islamic State militants arrested in Kuwait and the Philippines were planning to carry out bombings against U.S. military forces in Kuwait, the Gulf country’s al-Rai newspaper reported on Monday.

The suspects were also plotting a suicide attack on a Hussainiya, or Shi’ite Muslim meeting hall, said al-Rai, which has close ties to the security services.

Philippine security forces arrested a Kuwaiti and a Syrian for suspected links to Islamic State on March 25, three months after they arrived in Manila.

Al-Rai said Kuwaiti security forces also arrested a Syrian chemistry teacher suspected of involvement with the plots.

A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait referred queries to Kuwaiti authorities. Kuwaiti security officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Kuwait, home to several U.S. military bases, suffered its deadliest militant attack in decades when a Saudi suicide bomber blew himself up inside a packed Shi’ite mosque in June 2015, killing 27 people. Islamic State claimed responsibility.

(Reporting by Ahmed Hagagy Writing by Katie Paul; Editing by Janet Lawrence)