As Pakistan-India tensions flare, a child mistakes a bomb for a toy

A relative displays the picture of 4-year-old Mohammad Ayan Ali, who, according to his family, was killed after he found a device that looked like a toy and exploded in his hands at home in the village of Jabri, in Neelum Valley, in Pakistan-administrated Kashmir. Pakistan's military says the device was an unexploded cluster bomb.. REUTERS/Saiyna Bashir

By Saad Sayeed

JABRI, Pakistan (Reuters) – Deep in the mountains of the Neelum Valley, where a river separates India and Pakistani Kashmir, is the small village of Jabri, usually far enough away to avoid being hit by exchanges of fire between the countries’ armies.

That changed late last month when Indian artillery shells hit the village and an unexploded device found its way into the hands of four-year-old Ayan Ali.

“He found a bomb that looked like a toy and he brought it here,” said Ali’s uncle, Abdul Qayyum, pointing to their home.

Ali showed the “toy” to his siblings as the family sat down to breakfast. It exploded, killing Ali and wounding eight of his siblings, his mother, and a young cousin.

“They tried to snatch it from him and then it exploded. He died on the spot,” Qayyum said, adding that two of the children are in hospital in critical condition.

Pakistan’s military said the device was a cluster bomb, a weapon that releases many smaller bomblets that can kill or wound people over a wider area. They are prohibited under the Geneva Convention governing international warfare.

The Indian government and army denied the allegation, and two army officials told Reuters that its shelling across the border was proportionate and in response to Pakistani fire.

On a visit to the Jabri area on Friday, a Reuters journalist was unable to independently verify the type of device that killed Ali, though there were signs of damage in the home.

A small crater in the concrete floor marked the place where Ali was standing when the device exploded.

“The little kids were playing and then there was a loud sound. There was smoke everywhere, I couldn’t see anything,” said Sadaf Siddiq, Ali’s older sister.

A shell hit another nearby home, opening a large hole in the roof but nobody inside was injured, said its 37-year-old owner Muhammad Hanif.

The Pakistan military said they had cleared a number of unexploded devices from the area. One military official showed a toy-sized device that he said was part of a cluster bomb, which could not be independently verified by Reuters.

Cross border exchanges of fire have intensified in recent years and India and Pakistan accuse each other of regularly violating a ceasefire agreement along the 740-km (460-mile) Line of Control (LoC), which serves as a de-facto border in the disputed Kashmir region.

Tensions increased this week after India set a new policy to revoke Jammu and Kashmir state’s rights to set its own laws, arrested hundreds of political leaders and activists, and severed nearly all communications from Indian Kashmir.

Both countries claim Kashmir and have fought two of their three wars over the Himalayan region, which they have disputed since partition and independence from British colonial rule in 1947.

(Writing by Saad Sayeed; Editing by Martin Howell and Darren Schuettler)

Militant family uses child in suicide bomb attack on Indonesian police

Police aim their weapons at a man who was being searched by other police officers following an explosion at nearby police headquarters in Surabaya, Indonesia May 14, 2018 in this photo taken by Antara Foto. Antara Foto/ Didik Suhartono / via REUTERS

By Kanupriya Kapoor

SURABAYA, Indonesia (Reuters) – A family of Islamist militants in Indonesia carried an eight-year-old into a suicide bomb attack against police in Surabaya on Monday, a day after another militant family killed 13 people in suicide attacks on three churches in the same city.

The suicide bombers rode two motorbikes up to a checkpoint outside a police station and blew themselves up, police chief Tito Karnavian told a news conference in Indonesia’s second-largest city.

He said the child survived the explosion, and CCTV footage showed the girl stumbling around in the aftermath.

Four officers and six civilians were wounded in the attack, East Java police spokesman Frans Barung Mangera said.

“We hope the child will recover. We believe she was thrown 3 meters (10 ft) or so up into the air by the impact of the explosion and then fell to the ground,” said Mangera, adding she had been rushed to hospital.

President Joko Widodo branded the attacks in Surabaya the “act of cowards”, and pledged to push through a new anti-terrorism bill to combat Islamist militant networks.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.

Police suspected Sunday’s 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 Indonesian sympathizers of Islamic State.

“In the case of Surabaya, they escaped detection, but once it happened we moved fast to identify their network,” Karnavian said.

The father of the family involved in those attacks was the head of a JAD cell in the city, the police chief said.

Earlier, police said his family was among 500 Islamic State sympathizers who had returned from Syria, but the police chief said that was incorrect.

During the hunt for the cell, police shot dead four suspects and arrested nine, media reported police as saying.

The police chief said the JAD cell may have been answering a call from Islamic State in Syria to “cells throughout the world to mobilize.”

He said the imprisonment of JAD’s leader, Aman Abdurrahman, could be another motive, and cited clashes with Islamist prisoners at a high-security jail near Jakarta last week in which five counter-terrorism officers were killed.

Karnavian said the JAD attacks used a powerful home-made explosive triacetone triperoxide (TATP), known as the “mother of Satan”, and commonly used in Islamic State-inspired attacks.

In another incident in Sidoarjo, south of Surabaya, police recovered pipe bombs at an apartment where an explosion killed three members of a family alleged to have been making bombs, Karnavian said. Three children from the family survived and were taken to hospital.

In all, 31 people have died since Sunday in attacks, including 13 suspected perpetrators and 14 civilians, police said.

CHILDREN USED IN ATTACKS

CCTV footage of the blast outside the police station early on Monday morning showed two motorbikes arriving at a checkpoint next to a car followed by an explosion as officers approached.

Security experts said the attacks represented the first time in Indonesia that children had been used by militants on a suicide mission.

“The objective of using a family for terror acts is so it is not easily detected by the police,” said Indonesian security analyst Stanislaus Riyanta.

He said that families could also avoid communicating using technology that could be tracked.

Indonesia’s chief security minister said that police backed by the military would step up checks across Indonesia.

In Surabaya, police officers wearing balaclavas were posted at major hotels and landmarks on Monday.

President Widodo said he would issue a regulation in lieu of a new anti-terror law next month if parliament failed to pass the bill.

Police have complained that laws do not give them enough powers to detain suspects to prevent attacks.

Speaker of parliament Bambang Soesatyo told Metro TV that the house was committed to wrap up debate on the bill this month, but called on the government to help resolve differences.

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

(Additional reporting by Agustinus Beo Da Costa, Fransiska Nangoy, Tabita Diela and Gayatri Suroyo; Writing by Ed Davies; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

Special Report: Why ‘higher risk’ human targets get shocked with Tasers

Taylor Wiggington sits with a photo of her father, Doug Wiggington, in the area where he was shocked by a Taser on May 12, 2017, in Greenfield, Indiana, U.S., December 21, 2017.

By Grant Smith, Jason Szep, Peter Eisler, Linda So and Lisa Girion

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The maker of the Taser says the electroshock weapon is the safest tool on a police officer’s belt – with a few caveats.

In pages of warnings, Axon Enterprise Inc advises police to beware that some people are at higher risk of death or serious injury from the weapons. Pregnant women. Young children. Old people. Frail people. People with heart conditions. People on drugs or alcohol. The list goes on.

Taken together, the tally of people particularly susceptible to harm from a Taser’s powerful shock covers nearly a third of the U.S. population, a Reuters analysis of demographic and health data found. Yet police have repeatedly used Tasers on people who fall into the very groups the company warns about.

Dailene Rosario was one of them. Last winter, a New York City police officer fired his Taser’s electrified barbs into the rib cage of Rosario, 17, as she screamed she was pregnant. Thanks to a viral video taken by a bystander, the world watched as Rosario, 14 weeks into her term, crumpled to the ground, wailing.

What happened afterward has not been told.

Rosario’s daughter Raileey survived. But the baby is not faring well. In September, Rosario said, the two-month-old was rushed to the hospital, struggling to breathe after developing tremors and coughing fits. Raileey spent nearly all of November at Children’s Hospital at Montefiore in the Bronx, undergoing tests for a possible seizure disorder.

“Now it happens so frequently,” Rosario said of the tremors. “We can only just monitor her and try to keep her relaxed.”

Her lawyer, Scott Rynecki, said he plans to make the baby’s health a central issue in a $5 million legal claim she has filed against the New York Police Department. The NYPD said the incident remains under investigation and declined to comment further.

There’s no telling how often police use Tasers on pregnant women and the other “higher-risk populations” the manufacturer warns about: The stun guns are unregulated as police weapons, and there is no national tracking of their use.

Yet people in those groups account for more than half of the 1,028 cases identified by Reuters in which people died after being shocked by Tasers, often along with other force. Such people, Axon’s warnings say, should be targeted “only if the situation justifies an increased risk” of injury or death.

Particularly vexing for police is the difficulty of determining which potential Taser targets belong to population cohorts deemed to be at increased risk.

Some fatalities examined by Reuters involved people who obviously fell into a higher-risk category. Four, for instance, involved people over 75.

Yet many others involved vulnerabilities difficult to spot, particularly in the chaos of confrontation. Some 245 had a heart condition. And 643 people were drunk or high on drugs – a state often, but not always, easy to identify.

“People don’t walk around with signs” listing their medical conditions, said James Ginger, a former Evansville, Indiana, policeman now working as a consultant and court-appointed monitor of police compliance with judicial orders. The Taser is an important police tool, Ginger said. But if officers avoided anyone who potentially has a higher-risk condition, “you couldn’t use it.”

Axon calls Tasers the “safest force option available to law enforcement.”

The company told Reuters its warnings and training “do not identify any population group as ‘high risk,’ rather, they recognize that certain people may be at increased risk during encounters requiring force, regardless of the force option chosen.”

But the warnings issued to police by Axon, formerly known as Taser International Inc, note explicitly that “some individuals may be particularly susceptible to the effects” of its weapons. They identify an array of “higher-risk populations” and other vulnerable groups.

Law enforcement began embracing Tasers in the early 2000s. The manufacturer began listing higher-risk populations in 2009, when it also warned of possible cardiac effects from shocks to the chest. The list grew in the next few years.

Many in the police community say Tasers nevertheless offer a valuable option for controlling combative subjects without resorting to firearms. “There have been instances where we have saved a person’s life by using this piece of equipment,” said Virginia Beach Police Chief James Cervera. But as warnings on the weapons’ risks have evolved, he added, the department has “tightened up” on their use.

Axon’s warnings and guidelines are not binding on police departments, and while more than 90 percent of police agencies deploy Tasers, there are no universal standards for usage.

The uncertainty raises a challenge, some in law enforcement say. If large swaths of people are potentially at higher risk of death or serious injury from a Taser, how can police ever be sure the weapons are safe to use?

Nearly 80 percent of the population could fit into one of the higher risk groups identified by Taser’s maker, Reuters’ analysis shows. For example, any woman of childbearing age – about 20 percent of the population – could be pregnant. Any adult male could have impaired heart function, another third of the populace.

Police often have mere seconds to weigh such factors, said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a think tank that advises police on policy issues, including use-of-force. As a result, he said, “the Taser may be the most complicated weapon that a police officer wears today.”

A BIG HEART

Michael Mears, 39, was found on the floor in a hallway at his Los Angeles apartment complex on Christmas Eve 2014, bloodied and crying: “Help me. Help me.”

The police called to help the disabled veteran shocked him repeatedly with a Taser.

Mears had a vulnerability the officers couldn’t see: an enlarged heart.

In 2009, the manufacturer introduced the possibility that Taser shocks could affect the heart. By Christmas 2014, it had warned that “serious complications could also arise in those with impaired heart function.”

That didn’t protect Mears, nor many others like him. Of the 750 Taser-involved deaths in which Reuters obtained autopsy information, 245 involved people with pre-existing heart problems. And of the 159 cases in which coroners ruled the Taser shock caused or contributed to the death, 68, or 43 percent, involved cardiac conditions.

Mears grew up in Florida and joined the Marines after high school. At 19, he helped evacuate United Nations troops from Somalia in 1995.

He injured his back in a shipboard fall two years later, said his mother, Joanna Wysocki. Surgery to repair his spine instead left him unable to walk. After years of rehabilitation, he had begun to walk again. But he often lost feeling in his weakened legs and needed a walker or wheelchair.

Wysocki said she talked to her son by phone the morning of his death, and he was excited about having friends over for Christmas Eve dinner. But that afternoon, he began acting strangely, court records show.

He rolled a candlestick across the floor as if he were throwing a grenade, and then ran out of the apartment. A neighbor peeked through a door and saw him lying on the floor, crying for help, she told detectives. Mears was covered in blood from rolling in shards of glass from a broken fire extinguisher case.

“He has PTSD,” a friend told the paramedics who arrived. Several LAPD officers followed. The first two hit Mears with pepper spray and batons because, the autopsy report said, he appeared combative.

The Taser’s log shows Mears was shocked six times totaling 53 seconds over three minutes. The longest: 32 seconds. Taser guidelines advise officers to avoid “repeated, prolonged or continuous” shocks, noting that safety testing typically involved no more than 15 seconds of exposure.

The officer who stunned Mears testified he believed he was applying 5-second shocks and had no idea his Taser delivered electricity for as long as he held the trigger. The LAPD declined to discuss the case or make the officer available for comment.

The Los Angeles County Medical Examiner-Coroner ruled Mears’ death a homicide, concluding that cocaine and police efforts to restrain him, including the Taser shocks, were too much for his heart.

His parents sued the city. Jurors blamed the city for being “deliberately indifferent” to officer training and awarded them $5.5 million.

Mears died Christmas morning, while his mother was flying from Florida. “I’ll never get to say goodbye,” she said.

NURSING HOME TRAGEDY

Sometimes, the vulnerabilities are more obvious.

There was no mistaking Stanley Downen was elderly when Columbia Falls police answered a call from the Montana Veterans’ Home for help with a wandering resident in June 2012. Downen, 77 with advanced Alzheimer’s, was just outside the gate, circled by several staffers urging him to come back inside.

A retired ironworker and Navy vet, Downen had scooped up landscaping rocks, one as big as a softball, and was threatening to throw them at anyone who came near. Officers Mike Johnson and Gary Stanberry approached, asking him to put down the rocks.

Downen cursed at the officers and said he wanted to go home.

They tried again; same response.

Johnson drew his Taser and fired. He later testified that Downen had reared back as if to throw one of the rocks. “I believed that I was going to be physically harmed.”

Paralyzed by the Taser’s electrified darts, Downen’s body seized and he fell forward, his head smacking the pavement. Handcuffed, he continued cursing and struggling.

Downen was taken to a nearby hospital, but his dementia worsened. He died there three weeks later.

Axon has warned since 2008 about using its weapons on “elderly” people and advises that doing so “could increase the risk of death or serious injury.” A model Taser policy from the Police Executive Research Forum includes similar warnings.

But neither designates an age threshold for “elderly,” and dozens of police department policies reviewed by Reuters specify no age limit.

Reuters identified 13 cases in which people 65 and older – the eligibility age for Medicare – died after being stunned by police with Tasers. All but two occurred well after the manufacturer’s first warnings.

By the time Columbia Falls police confronted Stanley Downen in 2012, the warnings had been in place for years. Officer Johnson later testified he never saw them.

In depositions and court records from a lawsuit filed by Tamara Downen, Stanley’s granddaughter, Johnson and the police department acknowledged he had not been trained or certified on Taser use since 2006 – two years before the manufacturer first warned against shocking the elderly. Officers are supposed to be re-trained and certified on the weapons annually, according to guidelines from the manufacturer and independent law enforcement groups.

The department also had no formal policy on Taser use, court records show, and its procedures manual never mentioned the weapon.

Tamara Downen sued the state-run nursing home and city police, alleging unsafe practices and improper Taser use in her grandfather’s death. “It just wasn’t right, what he went through,” she said. The city settled for $150,000; the state for $20,000.

Columbia Falls later hired a new police chief, Clint Peters. Citing the litigation, he declined to comment on the case or make the officers available for interviews. But he said the force now has a Taser policy based on guidelines from national law enforcement groups.

‘TOTALLY INTOXICATED’

Axon has warned since 2005 that people agitated or intoxicated by drugs may face higher risks of medical consequences from Tasers’ electrical current. Data collected by Reuters underline that risk: More than 60 percent of 1,028 people who died in police confrontations involving Tasers were either drunk or on drugs.

Some who died were unmistakably intoxicated – like Doug Wiggington.

In Greenfield, Indiana, last May 12, Wiggington stumbled out of the local Elks Lodge just after 6 p.m., falling as he walked near a two-lane highway. James Fornoff, 74, called police. “He had no clue what he was doing,” Fornoff said.

When the first officer arrived at 6:27 p.m., Wiggington, 48, was lying in the grass, wiggling his feet, police dash-cam videos showed. “What have you taken?” Officer Dillon Silver asked.

As officer Rodney Vawter joined him, Silver rolled Wiggington onto his side, patting him down. Silver began to pull him onto his back but Wiggington stiffened. Silver grabbed his arm, saying, “Do not tense up on me.” Wiggington, 6 feet and 230 pounds, rolled onto his stomach.

“Tase him,” said Silver. Vawter pulled the trigger and the barbs struck Wiggington’s back. He writhed and grunted. “I’m going to do it again if you don’t listen!” Vawter said. The struggle continued. Vawter fired again.

When the officers turned him over, Wiggington was unconscious. They gave him two shots of Narcan, an overdose antidote for opioids, and started CPR. When the ambulance arrived, Wiggington had no pulse. Thirty minutes later, he was pronounced dead.

The autopsy said Wiggington died from “acute cocaine and methamphetamine intoxication.” The Taser was listed first among contributing factors.

“We have a lot of unanswered questions,” said Wiggington’s daughter, Brittany, 30, who has filed legal notice of her intent to sue the department.

By the time Wiggington was shocked, the company’s training materials had noted explicitly for years that Tasers cause “physiologic and/or metabolic effects that may increase the risk of death or serious injury” – and drug users “may be particularly susceptible.”

None of that language appeared in the Greenfield Police Department’s Taser policy at the time. The officer who shocked Wigginton, Vawter, hadn’t been re-certified on the Taser in more than three years.

Greenfield Police Chief Jeff Rasche said the two officers did not violate department policy and were cleared by an internal investigation and a separate state probe. Axon, he added, does not explicitly bar using the weapon on people under the influence of drugs or alcohol, but instead warns of the risks.

Rasche, chief since last January, said he had ordered his 42 officers to undergo a six-hour Taser re-certification class before the death. At the time of the incident, nine had completed it. Vawter wasn’t among them.

Since the death, Rasche has ordered all officers to undergo “crisis intervention training,” emphasizing de-escalation strategies in lieu of using force such as Tasers.

“We can’t just do the same thing we’ve been doing forever because it’s not working,” the chief said. “People are unfortunately dying and officers are having to use lethal force when they, you know, probably shouldn’t be.”

THE PREGNANCY PROBLEM

At any given time, 6 percent of women of childbearing age are pregnant. But, in the early stages, the signs of pregnancy are rarely obvious.

Since 2003, Axon has warned that pregnant women are at particular risk of injury from falls after being shocked. Still, the company suggested then that the weapons’ electrical charge posed no other special risks to women or fetuses. In 2004, it cited lab tests in which an electric charge was delivered to the abdomens of pregnant pigs with “no adverse effect on fetuses.”

In 2009, Axon identified pregnant women as a “higher risk population.” By 2011, news reports described nearly a dozen women who had suffered miscarriages or other pregnancy complications after stun-gun shocks.

Definitively measuring the risks of shocking a pregnant woman is impossible: There has never been a controlled study of the Taser’s effects on pregnant women. Such tests, by their nature, are too risky to undertake.

Yet since electricity is a known cardiac hazard, doctors theorize it poses some risk.

“There may be an instantaneous fetal effect when the Taser discharges, but you may not know about that until when he is a small child,” said Michael Cackovic, an obstetrician who heads the maternal cardiac disease program at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

Cackovic said risks from a Taser shock include disrupting the flow of oxygen from the mother, potential fatal cardiac arrhythmia, damage affecting the brain and other problems that may emerge years after birth.

No government authorities track miscarriages or other problems linked to pregnant women stunned by Tasers. A Reuters review of court filings and news articles found 19 incidents of women stunned while pregnant, at least 11 of which were followed by a miscarriage, since 2001.

One such case played out on a hot August morning in Lima, Ohio, in 2016. Brittany Osberry, 24, stumbled into a crime scene as she pulled into her friend’s driveway to pick up her nieces and nephews. Police were monitoring the home because they mistakenly thought a suspect in a shooting may be inside. Within seconds, three officers swarmed her car.

“You need to leave!” officer Mark Frysinger shouted, gun drawn, the altercation captured on a neighbor’s cellphone. “This is a crime scene.”

When she asked why, Frysinger accused her of disorderly conduct and told her to leave again. She protested: She wanted first to pick up the children. The officers moved in. “Show me your hands,” Frysinger yelled, pulling her from the car. Three officers pushed her up against the door.

“You all better know I’m pregnant,” she shouted. “You all better know that.”

One officer put her in a choke-hold and lifted the 104-pound woman back so high the tips of her toes touched the driveway. Another officer, Zane Slusher, drove a Taser into her abdomen. “Oh my God!” she screamed.

In an incident report, police said Osberry was combative and struck an officer – assertions a federal judge said were “not conclusively” borne out by the video. Osberry was arrested for obstructing official business, resisting arrest, disorderly conduct and assault. The charges were later dismissed. No official reason was given.

Within hours, she said, she felt stomach cramps. A month later, ultrasounds couldn’t detect the baby’s heartbeat. Other tests found a beating heart, but her doctors identified another problem: Osberry was suffering from preeclampsia, a dangerous spike in blood pressure during pregnancy that can interfere with blood flow to the placenta and fetus.

She underwent tests twice a week. The fetus wasn’t gaining weight.

Then, that New Year’s Eve, with Osberry 30 weeks pregnant, her doctor said the baby was coming. Contractions began and the baby’s heartbeat plunged, she said. On the way to the hospital, she wept, “not knowing if I would lose him.”

Kannon was born at 2 pounds, 2 ounces and stayed at the hospital nearly two months. Today, he’s generally healthy but struggles to use his left leg; doctors aren’t sure if he’ll face long-term developmental problems.

In February, Osberry filed suit against Lima Police and the officers involved. The department said it had “probable cause” to arrest her and cited “qualified immunity,” a concept providing legal protection to officers unless police violate “clearly established’’ legal principles.

In November, a federal judge rejected the department’s attempt to have the case dismissed. Lima Police have appealed the ruling.

“Given the factual allegations, I am hard-pressed to imagine a scenario less deserving of qualified immunity,” wrote U.S. District Judge James Carr. A “reasonable officer,” he said, should know not to use a Taser on a “non-resisting pregnant woman.”

(Reported by Grant Smith, Jason Szep, Peter Eisler, Linda So and Lisa Girion. Editing by Ronnie Greene)

Suspected Russian jets bomb residential area near Damascus; kill 30

A boy walks on rubble of damaged buildings after an airstrike on the Eastern Ghouta town of Misraba, Syria, January 4, 2018.

AMMAN (Reuters) – At least 30 civilians were killed early on Thursday when jets dropped bombs on a residential area in a besieged rebel enclave east of Syria’s capital, a war monitor said, identifying the planes as Russian.

At least four bombs flattened two buildings in the Eastern Ghouta town of Misraba, in an attack that killed around 20 and wounded more than 40 people, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and civil defense sources said.

Elsewhere in Eastern Ghouta, the last major rebel enclave near Damascus, at least ten people were killed in aerial strikes in other nearby towns, the Observatory, rescuers and residents said.

The Observatory, a war monitor based in Britain, said 11 women and a child were among the dead in the strikes in Misraba, which it said were carried out by Russian planes.

Backed by Russian strikes, government forces have escalated military operations against Eastern Ghouta in recent months, seeking to tighten a siege that residents and aid workers say is a deliberate use of starvation as a weapon of war, a charge the government denies.

Russia rejects Syrian opposition and rights groups’ accusations that its jets have been responsible for deaths of thousands of civilians since its major intervention two years ago that turned the tide in the country’s nearly seven-year-old war in favor of President Bashar al-Assad.

Moscow says it only attacks hardline Islamists.

Video footage posted on Thursday by activists on social media in Eastern Ghouta showed rescue workers pulling women and children from rubble. The footage could not be independently confirmed.

Jets also pounded Harasta, on the western edge of the enclave, where rebels this week besieged and overran a major military base which residents say the army uses to pound residential areas.

The rebel assault aimed partly to relieve the pressure of the tightening siege.

The United Nations says about 400,000 civilians besieged in the area face “complete catastrophe” because aid deliveries by the government are blocked and hundreds of people who need urgent medical evacuation have not been allowed outside the enclave.

Scores of hospitals and civil defense centers in Ghouta and across Syria have been bombed during the conflict in what the opposition said is a “scorched earth policy” to paralyze life in rebel-held areas.

Syrian state news agency SANA said on Thursday rebel shelling of the government-held capital Damascus killed one and injured 22 in the Amara district of the city.

A man stands on rubble of damaged buildings after an airstrike on the Eastern Ghouta town of Misraba, Syria, January 4, 2018.

A man stands on rubble of damaged buildings after an airstrike on the Eastern Ghouta town of Misraba, Syria, January 4, 2018. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

IDLIB PUSH

Supported by Iran-backed militias and intensive Russian bombing, the Syrian army has since last month waged a new campaign to push into the heart of another rebel-held part of Syria, Idlib province in the country’s northwest.

Idlib is a heavily populated area where over two million people live.

Rescue workers said there had been a spike in civilian casualties there in the last twenty days from stepped-up aerial strikes on residential areas, documenting 50 dead at least in that period.

“There have been at least six major massacres perpetrated by Russia in indiscriminate bombing of cities and towns with thousands fleeing their homes in the last two weeks,” said Mustafa al Haj Yousef, the head of Idlib’s Civil Defence, rescuers who work in opposition-held areas.

On Wednesday air strikes hit a maternity hospital in Idlib’s Ma’arat al-Nu’man city, killing five people, the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) charity, which supports the hospital, said.

The hospital, which SAMS said delivers around 30 babies a day, had been struck three times in four days and the last strikes temporarily put the hospital out of service.

Overnight, a family of seven was buried under rubble in Tel Dukan village, rescuers said.

The army has been gaining ground in Idlib and the adjoining eastern Hama countryside, with scores of villages seized from rebels mainly belonging to Tahrir al Sham, a coalition of jihadist groups with mainstream Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions also engaged in the battles.

(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Additional reporting by Lisa Barrington in Beirut; Editing by Nick Macfie and John Stonestreet)

Child playing with stove may have started deadly N.Y. fire, mayor says

Fire Department of New York (FDNY) personnel work on the scene of an apartment fire in Bronx, New York, U.S., December 28, 2017.

By Jonathan Allen

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Mayor Bi A child playing with a stove may have caused the fire in a New York City apartment building that killed 12 people, including four children, Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Friday.

People react near the scene of an apartment fire in Bronx, New York, U.S., December 29, 2017.

People react near the scene of an apartment fire in Bronx, New York, U.S., December 29, 2017. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

The fire, the deadliest in the city in a quarter of a century, broke out a little before 7 p.m. EST (midnight GMT) on Thursday on the first floor of a brick building and quickly spread upstairs, killing people on multiple floors, the New York City Fire Department said.

A crowd gathers as New York Fire Department personnel fight a fire in the Bronx borough of New York City, New York, in this still image taken from a December 28, 2017 social media video.

A crowd gathers as New York Fire Department personnel fight a fire in the Bronx borough of New York City, New York, in this still image taken from a December 28, 2017 social media video. Francesca Rosales/via REUTERS

“What we think at this point is that unfortunately it emanated from an accident, a young child playing with a stove on the first floor of the building,” de Blasio said in an interview with WNYC radio.

Children ages 1, 2 and 7 died along with four men and four women, local media reported. An unidentified boy also died.

Authorities said firefighters rescued 12 people from the building and four people were in the hospital in critical condition. More than 160 firefighters responded to the four-alarm blaze.

The building, with 26 apartments, has at least six open building code violations, according to city records. One violation was for a broken smoke detector in an apartment on the first floor, reported in August. It was not clear if the detector had been fixed or replaced or whether it had played any role in the fire.

“I know there were concerns raised about the building itself,” de Blasio told WNYC. “Based on the research we have at this moment, it does not appear there was anything problematic about the building or the fire safety in the building.”

The building is in the Belmont section of the Bronx, a primarily residential, close-knit neighborhood known as the “Little Italy” of the borough, near Fordham University and the Bronx Zoo.

It was the deadliest fire in the city since an arsonist torched a Bronx nightclub in 1990, killing 87 people inside the venue that did not have fire exits, alarms or sprinklers, the New York Times reported.

In 2007 10 immigrants from Mali, including nine children, died after a space heater caught fire in a Bronx building.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen, Stephanie Kelly and Dan Trotta in New York, Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles and Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Jeffrey Benkoe)

Man charged as authorities says missing North Carolina girl presumed dead

(Reuters) – A man has been arrested and charged in North Carolina in connection with the disappearance of three-year-old Mariah Woods who went missing from her bedroom five days ago, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and local sheriff said on Saturday.

Earl Kimrey, 32, was taken into custody on Friday in Onslow County, North Carolina, and charged with several crimes including concealing a death and obstruction of justice, the FBI and Onslow County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement.

Kimrey also faces burglary, felony larceny and possession of stolen property charges, the statement said.

The girl is believed to be dead due to evidence gathered during the investigation, the statement said.

“At this time, the location of Mariah is unknown,” the statement said. “The searches will now shift to a recovery process.”

Kimrey, who is being held on a $1 million bond, is the live-in boyfriend of the girl’s mother Kristy Woods, local media reported.

Woods said she put her daughter to bed about 11 p.m. on Sunday, and said her boyfriend saw the girl about an hour later when the child got up and he had told her to go back to bed, WRAL, an NBC affiliate in Raleigh, North Carolina, reported.

The couple contacted the Onslow County sheriff’s office early the next morning to say the girl had disappeared, officials said.

A days-long search ensued with hundreds of police officers, military troops and volunteers searching the rural area around the family’s mobile home in Jacksonville.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; editing by Alexander Smith and Stephen Powell)

Baby girl ‘teargassed, beaten by Kenyan police’ dies: doctor

Lenzer, mother of six month-old Samantha Pendo, stands next to her bed as the girl remains in critical condition in the Intensive Care Unit of Aga Khan Hospital in Kisumu, Kenya August 14, 2017. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

By Maggie Fick

KISUMU, Kenya (Reuters) – A six-month-old girl has died in Kenya, her doctor told Reuters on Tuesday, after her parents said she was teargassed and clubbed by police in a security crackdown after last week’s disputed election.

Samantha Pendo was asleep in her mother’s arms when police forced their way into their home and beat her and her parents as they searched for protesters, her parents said.

“She remained in coma throughout. She never improved one bit,” said Dr. Sam Oula at the Aga Khan Hospital in the western city of Kisumu.

The baby and her parents were beaten when police were sweeping their neighborhood for opposition protesters on Saturday, residents told Reuters journalists who investigated the incident.

Kisumu is a stronghold of opposition leader Raila Odinga, who is contesting results from last Tuesday’s presidential election. An official tally said President Uhuru Kenyatta won re-election by 1.4 million votes.

Odinga’s accusations of rigging have led to protests in Kisumu and in Nairobi slums. Residents there say police have responded with lethal force and many residents were killed in their homes.

Among the dead are an 8-year-old girl, hit by a stray bullet as she played on her balcony, and an 18-year-old student whose mother said was pulled from under the bed and beaten so badly he died the next day.

Police have promised to investigate all incidents but human rights groups say they rarely hold officers to account for extrajudicial killings.

(Writing by Katharine Houreld; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

Parents of kidnapped U.S. journalist Tice renew plea for release

Debra Tice, the mother of American journalist Austin Tice, holds his picture with her husband Marc Tice during a news conference in Beirut, Lebanon July 20, 2017. REUTERS/Jamal Saidi

BEIRUT (Reuters) – The parents of a U.S. journalist kidnapped in Syria nearly five years ago issued a new plea for his release on Thursday.

Austin Tice, a freelance reporter and former U.S. Marine from Houston, Texas, was kidnapped in August 2012 aged 31 while reporting in Damascus on the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The identity of his captors is not known, and there has been no claim of responsibility for his abduction. The family believe he is alive and still being held captive.

“We are willing to engage with any government, any group, any individual who can help us in this effort to secure Austin’s safe release,” his father Marc Tice said at a news conference in Beirut.

“When any journalist is silenced, we’re all blindfolded.”

His mother Debra Tice added: “Five years is a very long time for any parent to be missing their child … we desperately want him to come home.”

Nothing has been heard publicly about Tice since a video posted online weeks after he disappeared showed him in the custody of armed men.

U.S. officials and Tice’s parents do not think he is held by Islamic State, which typically announces its Western captives in propaganda videos and executed two U.S. journalists in 2014.

The Assad government says it does not know his whereabouts.

(Reporting by John Davison, editing by Pritha Sarkar)

Sold by Islamic State, bought by strangers: Yazidi child reunited with family

boy returned to yazidi family in Iraq

By Isabel Coles

RASHIDIYA, Iraq (Reuters) – His name was Ayman, but the couple who brought the boy home to their Iraqi village after buying him for $500 called him Ahmed.

Islamic State militants had killed or enslaved Ayman’s parents in their purge of the Yazidi religious minority to which he belongs, then sold the four-year-old to Umm and Abu Ahmed, who are Muslims.

For the 18 months he lived with the couple, his relatives assumed he was dead, one of several thousand Yazidis who have been missing since the militants overran their homes in what the United Nations has called genocide.

When Iraqi forces retook east Mosul and the surrounding area last week, they found Ayman and returned him to what is left of his family. While their reunion was full of joy, breaking the bond between Ayman and his adoptive parents brought new sorrow.

Speaking to Reuters journalists brought by Iraqi forces to his home in Rashidiya, north of Mosul, Abu Ahmed swiped through photographs of the boy on his phone: “That’s him riding a bicycle here. That’s him standing in our hall. That’s an exercise machine he played on.”

The windows of the couple’s one-story home on the eastern bank of the Tigris river have been shattered by a blast that destroyed their neighbor’s house, evidence of the fierce fighting that will continue when the army attacks the western side, which is still controlled by Islamic State.

Abu Ahmed emptied the contents of a box onto the bed Ayman used to share with them: toy cars and building blocks, and a children’s book for learning Arabic script.

It was Umm Ahmed’s idea to adopt a child. The couple had no children, and she heard Islamic State was selling orphans in the town of Tel Afar, some 40 km (25 miles) to the west.

“My objective was to win favor (with God),” said Umm Ahmed, only her eyes showing in a gap in her black veil. “To be honest, I wanted to teach him my religion, Islam.”

Her husband, a government employee, was against the idea but could not dissuade his wife, who went alone to get the boy from an orphanage run by the militants, paying for him with her earnings as a teacher.

Although the boy cried and did not want to go with her, she coaxed him, saying: “Come, you will be my child. We will live together and I will buy you everything.”

REALLY SMART

Gradually he grew accustomed to his adoptive parents, who taught him Arabic instead of the Kurdish dialect spoken by Yazidis. They told people he was a nephew they had taken in and enrolled him at the local school under the name Ahmed Shareef, but mostly he was kept indoors.

“He was really smart. I taught him to pray and perform ablutions. Do you know how much of the Koran he memorized?” Umm Ahmed said.

They did not want him to forget who he was and encouraged him to speak about life in his village of Hardan. But she said: “I always warned him not to tell anyone (he was Yazidi).”

Islamic State imposed a radical version of Islam in Mosul after establishing the city as its de facto capital: banning cigarettes, televisions and radios, and forcing men to grow beards and women to cover from head to toe.

They branded the Yazidis, whose beliefs combine elements of several ancient Middle Eastern religions, as devil-worshipers.

Sometimes Ayman asked about the rest of his family but Umm and Abu Ahmed did not know what happened to them except for a sister in her mid-teens who was taken as a slave by a militant from Tel Afar. The militant brought the sister to visit several times but her current fate is unknown.

The whereabouts of a half-brother who was sold at the orphanage before Ayman are also not known.

As the U.S.-backed campaign to drive Islamic State out of Mosul gathered pace and the Iraqi army’s ninth division reached Rashidiya, things began to unravel for Umm and Abu Ahmed.

On entering the village, a commander received a tip that a Yazidi boy was being held there and dispatched soldiers to retrieve him. The couple had no choice but to give him up.

A video clip of the moment they were parted shows Ayman clinging to Umm Ahmed and crying.

In the clip, provided to Reuters by an aid group embedded with the army, she pleads with the soldiers who came to get the boy. “Leave him with me a bit,” she says, then tries to comfort him in spite of her own distress: “You will go and see your mother now… and when you grow up you will come and see me”.

BACK FROM THE DEAD

Ayman’s parents and most other relatives are still missing, but his grandmother and uncle live on the edge of one of several camps to which the Yazidi community has been displaced en masse, about 50 km (30 miles) away from Rashidiya.

Samir Rasho Khalaf thought his nephew had been killed until he saw a post on Facebook on Jan. 28 that a Yazidi child named Ayman Ameen Barakat had been found.

“I was stunned,” said Khalaf. “It’s a miracle: he came back from the dead.”

That same night, they were reunited. In a video of the reunion shown to Reuters by the soldiers who handed Ayman over, his grandmother strikes herself on the head repeatedly when she sees the boy, picking him up and wailing in disbelief.

“We all cried,” Major Wathiq Amjad Naathar, the army official who oversaw the handover, told Reuters.

That night, Ayman was beside himself and begged to be returned to Umm Ahmed, Khalaf said.

But on a visit by a Reuters reporter and TV crew this week, he appeared happy and calm, if bashful about all the attention.

Asked if he had been happy with his adoptive parents, he said yes, and asked if he was happy to be back with his real family, he said yes too.

Khalaf said he was pleased that Umm and Abu Ahmed kept Ayman safe and healthy, and he was grateful that, unlike so many other Yazidi boys abducted by Islamic State, he was not forced to train with weapons or fight.

But he was angry the couple did not try harder to find his family to say he was alive and well, and has refused to allow them to talk to Ayman, even though they called once.

“We don’t mention them (his adoptive parents) so he will forget them,” he said.

Umm Ahmed said he will never forget them, however, just as they will not forget him.

“I expect he will return,” she said.

(Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

Girl, 7, who tweeted from Aleppo is evacuated from Syrian city

A still image taken on December 19, 2016 from a handout video posted by IHH, shows a still photograph of Syrian girl who tweeted from Aleppo, Bana Alabed, posing with IHH aid worker Burak Karacaoglu in al-Rashideen, Syria.

(Reuters) – A seven-year-old Syrian girl who captured global attention with her Twitter updates from besieged Aleppo has been evacuated from the city, according to an aid organization.

Helped by her mother, Fatemah, who manages the @AlabedBana account, Bana Alabed has uploaded pictures and videos of life during the nearly six-year-old Syrian war, gaining around 331,000 followers on the micro-blogging site since September.

Last week, mother and daughter shared a video of themselves asking U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama for help in reaching a safe place after advances by the Syrian army and allied Shi’ite Muslim militias into rebel-held eastern parts of the city.

A ceasefire and evacuation deal was agreed last Tuesday but thousands of people have struggled to leave due to hold-ups.

“This morning @AlabedBana was also rescued from #Aleppo with her family. We warmly welcomed them,” Turkish aid agency IHH wrote on Twitter on Monday with a picture of the smiling young girl alongside an aid worker.

Speaking to the pro-opposition Qasioun news agency in al-Rashideen on the southwest edge of Aleppo, Fatemah said in English: “I am sad because I leave my country, I leave my soul there … We can’t stay there because there are a lot of bombs, and no clean water, no medicine.

“When we get out, we had a lot of suffering because we stayed almost 24 hours in bus without water and food or anything,” Fatemah continued. “We stayed like a prisoner, a hostage but finally we arrived here.”

An operation to bring thousands of people out of the last rebel-held enclave of Aleppo was under way again on Monday after being delayed for several days, together with the evacuation of two besieged pro-government villages in nearby Idlib province.

(Reporting by Reuters Television; editing by Mark Heinrich)