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. urges Iran to stop executions of juveniles on death row

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein talks to reporters in Jakarta, Indonesia February 7, 2018. REUTERS/Beawihart

GENEVA (Reuters) – The top United Nations human rights official called on Iran on Friday to halt executions of young people convicted of carrying out crimes when they were under the age of 18.

In a “surge” in January, three people were executed for murders committed at 15 or 16, while some of the 80 juvenile offenders on death row are in danger of “imminent execution”, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein said.

“The execution of juvenile offenders is unequivocally prohibited under international law, regardless of the circumstances and nature of the crime committed,” Zeid said in a statement.

There was no immediate reaction from authorities in Iran, which has signed an international treaty strictly banning the execution of people who commit crimes under the age of 18.

In 2017, Iran is known to have executed five juvenile offenders, the U.N. statement said.

“I am sad to say that Iran violates this absolute prohibition under international human rights law far more often than any other state,” Zeid said, decrying the practice that has gone on for decades.

Among the latest criminals executed was Mahboubeh Mofidi, 20, who was convicted of killing her husband when she was 16, three years after their marriage, the statement said.

A fourth juvenile offender, believed to have been on the point of being executed on Wednesday, has reportedly received a temporary reprieve of two months, it said.

“There are appeal processes, but sometimes it’s rather opaque as to exactly what’s happening,” U.N. human rights spokesman Rupert Colville told a news briefing.

“Often you do get these kind of negotiations going on between the family of the convicted person and the family of the victim in murder cases,” he said, referring to “diyah” or blood money paid to halt an execution.

On Jan. 3, independent U.N. human rights experts called on Iran to spare the life of Amir Hossein Pourjafar, who was convicted of raping and killing a child when he was 15. He is among the three listed in Zeid’s statement as having been executed so far this year.

Zeid welcomed a bill passed in Oct. 2017 under which some drug offences previously punishable by the death penalty were now subject to a prison term, but said that the mandatory death sentence has been retained for a wide range of drug-related offences.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay, editing by Larry King)

U.S. officials warn ‘intense’ flu season to continue, urge shots

: A box of masks is shown in the emergency room at Palomar Medical Center in Escondido, California, U.S., January 18, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Blake

(Reuters) – Adults who get a flu shot are 36 percent less likely to get the disease, while for children the figure was an unexpectedly high 59 percent, U.S. health officials said on Thursday, predicting that the current “intense” season could continue for weeks.

Anyone not already immunized should get a flu shot despite the lateness of the season, because “some protection is better than none,” one of the officials told a news briefing.

A total of 63 children in the United States have died of influenza this season, and three-quarters of them did not get a vaccine, said Anne Schuchat, acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“This flu season continues to be extremely challenging and intense, with very high levels of office visits for flu and hospitalization rates, all indications that flu activity is high and likely to continue for several more weeks,” Schuchat said.

Flu symptom rates are close to those seen in the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic and for the past few weeks the whole country has been experiencing the flu, she said.

The current vaccine’s effectiveness rate is based on an interim study conducted nationally through Feb. 3 covering thousands of people, Schuchat said.

Effectiveness against the season’s dominant strain, the H3N2 strain, was lower at about 25 percent. It was better against the other viruses, at 67 percent against H1N1 and 42 percent against influenza B viruses, she said.

Getting the shot can mean the difference between a mild illness and a hospital stay, Schuchat said, particularly for people at higher risk such as children and the aged.

“There’s still plenty of time. Go get a flu shot. Do it for yourself, your family and your community,” Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told the briefing.

As many as 646,000 people are dying globally from seasonal influenza each year, U.S. health officials said in December, a rise from earlier assessments of the disease’s death toll.

(Reporting by Eric Walsh in Washington and Stephanie Kelly in New York; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

U.S. flu outbreak worsens, likely to linger for weeks: CDC

A box of masks is shown in the emergency room at Palomar Medical Center in Escondido, California, U.S., January 18, 2018

(Reuters) – One of the worst flu outbreaks in the United States in nearly a decade worsened last week and will likely linger for several weeks, causing more deaths, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Friday.

Another 10 children were reported to have died of the flu in the week ending Feb. 3, bringing the total infant mortality so far this season to 63, Dr. Anne Schuchat, the CDC’s acting director, told reporters. The CDC does not require national reporting of flu deaths in adults.

“I wish there were better news this week, but almost everything we’re looking at is bad news,” Schuchat said. “There have been far too many heart-wrenching stories in recent weeks about families who have lost loved ones to influenza.”

It was unclear whether the outbreak had reached its peak yet or if it would get worse, she said. Previous outbreaks had lasted between 11 and 20 weeks, and the current outbreak was in its 11th week, she said.

The number of people hospitalized for flu-like illnesses is the highest the CDC has seen since starting its current tracking system in 2010.

The dominant flu strain this season, influenza A (H3N2), is especially potent, linked with severe disease and death, particularly among children and the elderly.

The outbreak has reached almost every corner of the country, with every state except Hawaii and Oregon reporting widespread flu, Schuchat said.

She urged sick people to stay home and said it is still not too late for people to get a flu vaccine, which offers some protection.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York; Editing by Paul Simao)

U.S. flu-related hospitalizations highest in nearly a decade: agency

Emergency room nurse Christine Bauer treats Joshua Lagade of Vista, California, for the flu as his girlfriend Mayra Mora looks on in the emergency room at Palomar Medical Center in Escondido, California, U.S., January 18, 2018.

By Deena Beasley

(Reuters) – Flu activity worsened over the past week as more people headed to doctors’ offices and emergency rooms, with hospitalizations at the highest in nearly 10 years, U.S. health officials said on Friday.

Sixteen children died of the flu in the week ended Jan. 27, bringing total pediatric deaths to 53 for the season, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s weekly report.

Out of every 100,000 people in the general population, an estimated 51.4 have been hospitalized for the flu, surpassing the rate in the last severe season of 2014/2015, when 710,000 were hospitalized and 148 children died. Adults aged 65 or older had the most hospitalizations, followed by those aged 50 to 64, and children below 5.

The dominant strain during this flu season is an especially nasty type called influenza A (H3N2) that in seasons past had been linked with severe disease and death, especially in the elderly and young.

“So far this year the cumulative rate of hospitalization is the highest since we began tracking in this way,” Dr. Anne Schuchat, acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told reporters on a conference call. The CDC began its current hospital flu surveillance program during the 2009-2010 H1N1 swine flu pandemic.

Schuchat was named acting CDC director earlier this week after Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald resigned from the post because of financial conflicts of interest, including purchases of tobacco and healthcare stocks while in office.

Flu is widespread in 48 states, down from 49 last week, with Oregon reporting less flu activity, the CDC said.

“We are not out of the woods yet,” Schuchat said, noting that sick people should stay home to avoid transmitting the virus to others, frequently wash hands and cover their mouth while coughing or sneezing.

The CDC official also said it was not too late to get a flu vaccine.

(Reporting by Deena Beasley; Editing by Richard Chang)

U.S. says Syria’s Assad may again be using chemical weapons, lays blame on Russia

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson attend a press conference with Britain's Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson in London, January 22, 2018.

PARIS (Reuters) – The Syrian government may still be using chemical weapons after a suspected chlorine attack in the rebel enclave of eastern Ghouta, the United States said on Tuesday, adding that Russia ultimately bore responsibility.

“Only yesterday more than 20 civilians, mostly children, were victims of an apparent chlorine gas attack,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said after a conference on chemical weapons in Paris. “The recent attacks in East Ghouta raise serious concerns that Bashar al-Assad may be continuing to use chemical weapons against hiss own people.”

Tillerson added that whoever conducted the attacks, “Russia ultimately bears responsibility for the victims in eastern Ghouta and countless other Syrians targeted with chemical weapons since Russia became involved in Syria”.

(Reporting by John Irish; editing by Luke Baker)

CDC director urges flu vaccinations as pediatric deaths mount

Emergency room nurse Christine Bauer treats Joshua Lagade of Vista, California, for the flu as his girlfriend Mayra Mora looks on in the emergency room at Palomar Medical Center in Escondido, California, U.S., January 18, 2018.

By Julie Steenhuysen

CHICAGO (Reuters) – Of the 30 U.S. children who have died from the flu so far this season, some 85 percent had not been vaccinated, said Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, who urged Americans to get flu shots amid one of the most severe flu seasons in years.

“My message is, if you haven’t gotten a vaccine, please get a vaccine. Also, please get your children vaccinated,” said Fitzgerald, who is urging citizens “to take every advantage that you can to protect yourself.”

The dominant strain during this flu season is an especially nasty type called influenza A (H3N2) that in seasons past has been linked with severe disease and death, especially in the elderly and young. This year’s seasonal flu epidemic is especially severe.

In its latest report, the CDC said the virus is present in every state, with 32 states reporting severe flu activity.

Although the vaccine is only estimated to be about 30 percent effective against the H3N2 strain, it has been shown in studies to reduce severity and duration if people do become infected, said Dr. Dan Jernigan, director of the influenza division at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Fitzgerald conceded in a telephone interview that reports that the flu vaccine in Australia was only 10 percent effective may have caused people to think the vaccine would not be worth the trouble.

Fitzgerald said the agency’s flu division has been on the job during the three-day federal government shutdown. Senators on Monday reached a deal to keep the government funded through Feb. 8.

Studies have shown that even a vaccine that has lower overall effectiveness can decrease the number of days spent in hospital, duration of the flu and the degree of symptoms.

“That helps support the point of getting a vaccine,” Jernigan said.

Fitzgerald said the flu vaccine and antiviral drugs used to fight the flu are widely available across the country, noting that people can go to the CDC website and enter their zip code to find the nearest flu clinics with vaccines.

Fitzgerald also recommended that people frequently wash their hands or use hand sanitizer, avoid those who are sick or coughing and carry disinfectant wipes.

The CDC does not have numbers for adult deaths from the flu because adult flu is not a reportable disease in all U.S. states. But she said North Carolina, which collects such data, has reported 42 adult flu deaths so far this season.

Official estimates from the CDC are expected at the end of the current season, based on a calculation from hospitals and states reporting data to the agency.

In the 2014/2015 flu season, in which the H3N2 strain was also the leading strain, there were an estimated 35.6 million cases, 710,000 hospitalizations and 56,000 deaths. At this point, it is not clear whether the current flu season will surpass those estimates, Jernigan said.

(Reporting by Julie Steenhuysen; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

Parents charged after 13 siblings found starved, chained in California

A van sits parked on the driveway of the home of David Allen Turpin and Louise Ann Turpin in Perris, California, U.S. January 15, 2018.

By Phoenix Tso and Mike Blake

PERRIS, Calif. (Reuters) – The 13 California siblings who police say were starved and chained to beds by their parents rarely left their disheveled house and, when they did, they appeared small and pale and acted strangely, neighbors said.

David Allen Turpin, 57, and Louise Anna Turpin, 49, were arrested on Sunday and each charged with nine counts of torture and 10 counts of child endangerment after a 17-year-old, emaciated girl escaped their house in Perris, about 70 miles (115 km) east of Los Angeles and called police, the Riverside County Sheriff’s Office said on Monday.

Police said in a statement that they found several of the couple’s 13 children, ranging in age from 2 to 29, “shackled to their beds with chains and padlocks in dark and foul-smelling surroundings”.

“The victims appeared to be malnourished and very dirty,” it said.

Kimberly Milligan, 50, who lives across the street from the family, told Reuters that she only saw the infant in the mother’s arms and three other children since she moved in across the street two years ago, describing them as small and pale.

“Why don’t we ever see the kids?” Milligan said. “In hindsight, we would have never thought this, but there were red flags. You never don’t hear or see nine kids.”

Two years ago, while walking around the neighborhood admiring Christmas lights and decorations, Milligan said she encountered three of the Turpin children and complimented them on the manger with a baby Jesus that they had outside their home. She said the children froze if by doing so they could become invisible.

“20-year-olds never act like that,” she said. “They didn’t want to have a social conversation.”

Nicole Gooding, 35, who has lived in the neighborhood for three years, said that the first time she saw the family was two months ago when the mother and children cleaning up yard that was full of weeds and overflowing trash cans.

“I had never seen them at all until that day,” she said.

The parents, who are scheduled to appear in court on Thursday, are being held on $9 million bail, police said.

The police statement did not detail the parents’ motive for holding the children and a police spokesman said he had no further details.

Six of the couple’s children are minors, while the other seven are over 18, parents said.

A Facebook page that appeared to have been created by the parents showed the couple dressed in wedding clothes, surrounded by 10 female children in matching purple plaid dresses and three male children in suits.

David Turpin’s parents, James and Betty Turpin of West Virginia, told ABC News they are “surprised and shocked” by the allegations against their son and daughter-in-law, saying they can’t understand “any of this”.

(Additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Boy’s death shows danger for besieged Syrians seeking food

Heba Amouri, mourns as she holds the body of her two-year-old son, Emir al-Bash at a medical center in the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria January 8, 2018.

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Two-year-old Emir al-Bash’s blood still showed on his mother’s hand as she sat in a medical center in Syria’s besieged eastern Ghouta where his body was taken after he died from a shellblast.

His family had left their home in the village of Kafr Batna on Monday for a market in a nearby village, seeking food for their malnourished children, but a mortar shell landed close to them, instantly killing the boy.

“My child died hungry. We wanted to feed him. He was crying from hunger when we left the house,” said the mother, Heba Amouri. Emir is the second child she has lost since the war began six years ago.

Eastern Ghouta is the last big stronghold of rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad near the capital Damascus and has been besieged for years.

The United Nations estimates it is home to 400,000 civilians and says food and medical supplies have run low. The army and its allies – Russia and Iran-backed militias – bombard it daily. Rebels there shell government-held Damascus.

After Emir’s death, Amouri tried to quiet her surviving baby, a hungry two-month-old girl, by placing her finger in her mouth at the medical center. Malnutrition means she is unable to breastfeed, she said.

On Saturday, the International Committee of the Red Cross said it was alarmed by the ongoing violence in eastern Ghouta and the growing number of civilian casualties and displacement since the start of the year.

“Now I lost my second child. My baby daughter is the only surviving child,” Mahmoud al-Bash, 27, Emir’s father said. A year ago, the family lost another son to the bombardment.

The United Nations children’s agency UNICEF said in November that 11.9 percent of children under five in eastern Ghouta suffered acute malnourishment.

Mothers of infants had reduced breastfeeding or stopped it altogether because of their own poor nutrition, it said.

On Monday evening, Emir’s father carried Emir’s tiny body wrapped in bright white cloth, marked with a big blood stain, to the village’s cemetery.

“May God protect the children, and everyone, and take the life of Bashar (al-Assad),” he said, fixing his eyes on his child as he bid him a last farewell.

(Writing by Beirut bureau; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

Apple should address youth phone addiction, say two large investors

Customers arrive to purchase an iPhone X at an Apple store in New York, U.S., November 3, 2017.

By Elizabeth Dilts

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Apple Inc shareholders Jana Partners and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System are urging the smartphone maker to take steps to address what they say is a growing problem of young people getting addicted to Apple’s iPhones, Jana partner Charles Penner said.

Jana, a leading activist shareholder, and CalSTRS, one of the nation’s largest public pension plans, delivered a letter to Apple on Saturday asking the company to consider developing software that would allow parents to limit children’s phone use, the Wall Street Journal reported earlier on Sunday.

Jana and CalSTRS also asked Apple to study the impact of excessive phone use on mental health, according to the publication.

CalSTRS and Apple did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Jana and CalSTRS together control about $2 billion worth of Apple shares, the Journal reports.

The social rights issue is a new turn for Jana, which is known for pushing companies it invests in to make financial changes.

However, the issue of phone addiction among young people has become a growing concern in the United States as parents report their children cannot give up their phones. CalSTRS and Jana worry that Apple’s reputation and stock could be hurt if it does not address those concerns, according to the Journal.

Half of teenagers in the United States feel like they are addicted to their mobile phones and report feeling pressure to immediately respond to phone messages, according to a 2016 survey of children and their parents by Common Sense Media.

The phone addiction issue got a high-profile boost from the former Disney child star Selena Gomez, 24, who said she canceled a 2016 world tour to go to therapy for depression and low self-esteem, feelings she linked to her addiction to social media and the mobile photo-sharing app Instagram.

(Reporting by Elizabeth Dilts; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)