UK PM May joins families to remember Manchester pop concert victims

Painted stones are left in tribute in St Anne's Square on the first anniversary of the Manchester Arena bombing, in Manchester, Britain, May 22, 2017. REUTERS/Darren Staples

LONDON (Reuters) – Prime Minister Theresa May will join Prince William at a memorial service in Manchester on Tuesday to remember the 22 victims of a suicide bombing on a pop concert a year ago, Britain’s deadliest attack for more than a decade.

Salman Abedi, a 22-year-old Briton born to Libyan parents, blew himself up at the end of a show by U.S. singer Ariana Grande at the Manchester Arena in northern England in the deadliest militant attack in Britain for 12 years.

People wearing Ariana Grande sweatshirts look at tributes left in St Anne's Square on the first anniversary of the Manchester Arena bombing, in Manchester, Britain, May 22, 2017. REUTERS/Darren Staples

People wearing Ariana Grande sweatshirts look at tributes left in St Anne’s Square on the first anniversary of the Manchester Arena bombing, in Manchester, Britain, May 22, 2017. REUTERS/Darren Staples

His victims included seven children, the youngest aged just eight, while more than 500 were injured.

On Tuesday, an hour-long service of commemoration will be held at Manchester Cathedral, including a nationwide one-minute silence at 1330 GMT, with William meeting some of the bereaved families privately afterwards.

“The targeting of the young and innocent as they enjoyed a care free night out in the Manchester Arena on May 22, 2017, was an act of sickening cowardice,” May wrote in an article for the Manchester Evening News newspaper.

“It was designed to strike at the heart of our values and our way of life, in one of our most vibrant cities, with the aim of breaking our resolve and dividing us. It failed.”

In other events, singers from local choirs, including the Manchester Survivors Choir made up of those caught up in the attack, will join together in the city for a mass singalong titled “Manchester Together – With One Voice”.

It echoes a moment when crowds broke into an emotional chorus of “Don’t Look Back in Anger” by Manchester rock group Oasis after a minute of silent tribute days after the bombing.

FILE PHOTO: Britain's Prime Minister, Theresa May, speaks on science and the Industrial Strategy at Jodrell Bank in Macclesfield, Britain May 21, 2018. REUTERS/Darren Staples/Pool/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Britain’s Prime Minister, Theresa May, speaks on science and the Industrial Strategy at Jodrell Bank in Macclesfield, Britain May 21, 2018. REUTERS/Darren Staples/Pool/File Photo

“Thinking of you all today and every day. I love you with all of me and am sending you all of the light and warmth I have to offer on this challenging day,” Grande wrote on Twitter, including a bee emoticon, the symbol of Manchester.

Britain is seeking the extradition of Abedi’s brother Hashem from Libya over the attack, although the authorities do not believe a wider network was involved.

The Manchester bombing was the deadliest of five attacks in Britain last year blamed on militants which killed a total of 36 people.

(Reporting by Michael Holden; editing by Kate Holton)

Indonesia suicide bomber mum ‘chatted to neighbors about schools, swapped recipes’

FILE PHOTO: Burned motorcycles are seen outside a church, one of the three hit by suicide bombers in Surabaya, Indonesia May 13, 2018. REUTERS/Beawiharta

By Kanupriya Kapoor

SURABAYA, Indonesia (Reuters) – The mother of an Indonesian family of six who launched suicide bomb attacks on three churches chatted to neighbors about schooling and swapped recipes, leading what appeared to be a regular middle-class life and eluding counter-terrorism forces.

The family killed at least 18 people, including themselves, by bombing the churches in Indonesia’s second-biggest city of Surabaya on Sunday in the worst militant attacks in the world’s biggest Muslim-majority country in more than a decade.

Home was a quiet, relatively affluent neighborhood of Surabaya. Most houses in the area have hatchbacks and family cars parked outside and in front a small yard more often than not strewn with toys and children’s bicycles.

“My wife talked to the mother all the time about the children’s education, about recipes. They often met at the local market,” said Wery Trikusuma, who lives next door.

“They were quite open and interactive. They contributed money to neighborhood repairs for example for roads. They often left their front gates open to receive guests, he said, adding it “seemed impossible that they could do this”.

The day after the church bombings, six died, including four bombers, in another suicide attack. Another family of five blew themselves up, but the eight-year-old daughter survived.

In another blast in an apartment near Surabaya on Sunday night, three members of a family believed to have been making bombs were killed when one device went off by accident. Three children survived.

Police also later shot dead four people with suspected links to the attacks.

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

RAW INTELLIGENCE

The families all lived in ordinary middle-class districts where neighbors say they saw few things to mark them out.

“We had received very raw intelligence that there may be an attack in the week before Ramadan but not about when exactly or where,” said a senior government official, referring to the Muslim fasting month that started on Thursday in Indonesia.

“But there was never any report about an entire family being used, or that that was even possible.”

Police say the father in the family that attacked the churches, Dita Oepriarto, was head of the local JAD cell and likely radicalized decades earlier.

Indonesia set up a counter-terrorism unit, Detachment, or “Densus”, 88, in 2003 which is credited with thwarting hundreds of plots, but the Surabaya attacks mark the squad’s biggest challenge in decades.

In all, around 30 people have been killed since Sunday in the attacks, including 13 of the suspected suicide bombers.

According to the senior government official, President Joko Widodo decided not to fire top security personnel when he learnt of the shocking nature of the attacks and instead called for action to dismantle the networks and said he would use executive powers to force through a strengthened anti-terrorism law if parliament did not act.

The presidential palace did not respond to requests for comment.

“This attack demonstrates that entire communities and families can be radicalized,” Rohan Gunaratna, a Singapore based terrorism expert, said.

“This means that a catch and kill response alone will not work. The government must engage more with community leaders, schools, religious leaders in addition to expanding counter-terrorism capabilities,” he said.

FAMILY SECRETS

Wawan Purwanto, a spokesman for the intelligence agency, said militants were being influenced by tactics in the Middle East, where children and women have been used in attacks.

He said there may also have been a belief that the whole family would enter heaven by carrying out an attack together.

Ansyad Mbai, a former head of Indonesia’s anti-terrorism agency (BNPT), said using a family unit for an attack helped ensure planning was kept secret.

The parents of the families had indoctrinated their children and every Sunday evening made them attend a prayer circle with adults, police said.

Oepriarto’s house is now boarded up and cordoned off with police tape after being searched by bomb squad and forensics teams for two days.

“On the day of the attack, the father and the two male children attended morning prayers at the neighborhood mosque and then came back home briefly. They went out again at around 7 a.m. but I didn’t know where they were going. It turned out to be to the churches,” said the neighbor, Trikusuma.

Still, it appears there were some warning signs.

In the attack on Surabaya’s city police headquarters on Monday, the father who brought his family on motorbikes to blow themselves up had come up on police radar after visiting terror convicts in a nearby jail, according to the community head.

Kukuh Santoso, 47, said that six to eight months ago the father, Tri Murtiono, had visited the convicts in a jail in Porong and after that police had paid a visit to the family.

“Besides that, we had absolutely no idea they were even thinking like this”, said Santoso.

A counter-terrorism source confirmed this account, but declined to elaborate.

(Additional reporting by Agustinus Beo Da Costa; Writing by Ed Davies; Editing by Nick Macfie)

Indonesian children who joined suicide attacks kept isolated by parents

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

By Kanupriya Kapoor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MIDDLE CLASS HOUSING COMPLEX

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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)

Young girl’s rape triggers more angry protests in India

FILE PHOTO - Supporters of India's main opposition Congress party participate in a candle light vigil as they protest against the rape of an eight-year-old girl in Kathua near Jammu, and a teenager in Unnao, Uttar Pradesh state, in Ahmedabad, India April 13, 2018. REUTERS/Amit Dave

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – Protests erupted in southern India over the rape of a nine-year-old girl, as anger over the failure of police to stem a series of sex attacks on children boiled over.

Reported rape cases in India have climbed steadily over recent years to around 40,000 in 2016, or about 100 a day, with many more believed to go unreported. Child rape accounts for about 40 percent of the reported cases.

A mob blocked highways on Thursday and sat on railway tracks near Guntur, in the state of Andhra Pradesh, demanding public punishment for a rickshaw puller accused of the attack.

The crowd attacked the accused’s house and thrashed his son, media said.

On Friday, the accused, said to be around 55, was found hanging in a wood and police said he had likely committed suicide.

Several cases of sexual assault of children have come to light in recent weeks from different parts of the country, leading to an outpouring of anger.

The government introduced the death penalty for the rape of girls younger than 12 last month after a particularly gruesome case of rape and murder of a Muslim girl in Jammu and Kashmir state.

Police superintendent Venkata Appala Naidu said the girl who had been assaulted in Guntur was recovering in hospital.

Registered cases of sexual violence have been rising despite the national outrage that followed the fatal gang rape of a student on a bus in New Delhi in 2012.

(Reporting by Malini Menon; Editing by Nick Macfie)

Another 49 Central Americans from caravan cross U.S. border

People traveling with a caravan of migrants from Central America line up for eat at a camp near the San Ysidro checkpoint, after U.S. border authorities allowed the first small group of women and children entry from Mexico on Monday night, in Tijuana, Mexico May 1, 2018. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

By Delphine Schrank

TIJUANA, Mexico (Reuters) – Forty-nine Central Americans from a migrant caravan that angered President Donald Trump crossed into the United States to seek asylum on Wednesday morning, while dozens more woke to a rainy, cold third day camped outside a U.S. port of entry.

The 49 migrants, including a first group of mostly women, children and transgender people who had been waiting at the U.S. gate for about 15 hours, were let through by midday, according to the group’s organizers, raising the total number of migrants who had crossed to 74.

Since Monday, border officials have allowed only a trickle at a time to cross the U.S. border, saying that the busy San Ysidro crossing to San Diego is saturated and the rest must wait their turn.

More than 100 members of the caravan, most from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, have been camped in a square near the entrance of the San Ysidro pedestrian bridge that leads from Mexico to the United States, waiting for their turn to enter the facility.

A group of people travelling with a caravan of migrants from Central America line up to eat at a camp near the San Ysidro checkpoint, after U.S. border authorities allowed the first small group of women and children entry from Mexico overnight, in Tijuana, Mexico May 1, 2018. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

A group of people travelling with a caravan of migrants from Central America line up to eat at a camp near the San Ysidro checkpoint, after U.S. border authorities allowed the first small group of women and children entry from Mexico overnight, in Tijuana, Mexico May 1, 2018. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

At least 28 migrants who made it into the United States on Wednesday had been next on the list. Late Tuesday they had anxiously filed through the walkway to the U.S. gate.

Two by two, some walked up to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer standing in the gate to ask if they might pass through.

First to try was a man and his small nephew, a football under his arm; then a mother and child; then a women with her grandsons.

Turned away, they bedded down in a small space pressed up against metal bars separating them from the United States, bundled against the cold under blankets and sheets of tarpaulin tenting.

No one knew when, or how many of them, would next be allowed through.

Among them was Reina Isabel Rodriguez, who had fled Honduras with her grandsons. Throughout the caravan’s 2,000-mile (3,220-km) odyssey from southern Mexico, the possibility that U.S. officials might reject her plea for asylum, and of being separated from the boys for not being their biological parent, had never seemed so real.

“I’m scared, I’m so scared, I don’t want to be sent home,” she said, tears streaming down her face. Christopher, 11, watched her with anguish, and Anderson, 7, sat at her feet, his head drooping, a toy robot in his lap.

Rodriguez was among the many migrants of the caravan who told Reuters they were forced from their homes by Central America’s brutal Mara street gangs, along with other life-threatening situations.

Trump’s administration, however, cites a more than tenfold rise in asylum claims in the past seven years, growing numbers of families and children and a shift to more Central Americans as signs that people are fraudulently taking advantage of the system.

Trump wants to tighten U.S. law to make it harder for people to claim asylum. For now though, despite his orders to keep such migrant caravans out of the country, international and U.S. law obliges the government to listen to people’s stories and decide whether they deserve shelter.

The U.S. Department of Justice said on Monday it launched prosecutions against 11 “suspected” caravan members on charges of crossing the border illegally.

About half of them are represented by the federal public defender in San Diego, according to the office’s chief trial attorney, Shereen Charlick, including three women who had planned to present themselves and their children to make asylum claims at the official border port of entry.

Long lines at the entry point led the women and their children to try crossing a few miles away, she said, where they were apprehended by immigration authorities. Defense lawyers are trying to track down the location of their children, Charlick said.

She said some of the mothers apprehended are no longer with their children, and that lawyers in the office are trying to figure out how they were separated.

Nicole Ramos, an attorney advising caravan members in Mexico, said she did not believe the individuals facing U.S. criminal charges were part of the caravan group.

“Quite a few people have claimed to be part of the caravan, including a sizable contingent of Guatemalan men who were never part,” Ramos said.

(Reporting by Delphine Schrank, editing by Robert Birsel and Jonathan Oatis)

Central American ‘caravan’ women and children enter U.S., defying Trump

Members of a caravan of migrants from Central America line up to receive food near the San Ysidro checkpoint as the first fellow migrants entered U.S. territory to seek asylum on Monday, in Tijuana, Mexico April 30, 2018. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

By Delphine Schrank

SAN YSIDRO PORT OF ENTRY (Reuters) – Hopes rose on Tuesday among a caravan of migrants who traveled from Central America to seek asylum in the United States after U.S. border authorities allowed the first small group of women and children entry from Mexico overnight.

Gathering people along the way, the caravan set off a month ago on a 2,000-mile (3,220-km) trek across Mexico to the U.S. border, drawing attention from American news media after President Donald Trump took to Twitter to demand such groups not be granted entry and urging stronger immigration laws.

Celebrations erupted on Monday night among dozens of migrants camped near the U.S. border crossing in Tijuana, Mexico, after U.S. officials admitted eight women and children, fueling the determination of others to remain until they were admitted.

However, the U.S. Department of Justice late on Monday announced what it described as the first prosecutions against members of the caravan, filing criminal charges against 11 migrants accused of entering the country illegally about four miles (6 km) west of the San Ysidro, California, border crossing.

“The United States will not stand by as our immigration laws are ignored and our nation’s safety is jeopardized,” U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement announcing the charges.

The statement did not provide a figure on any other caravan members who might have also been detained.

On the asylum applicants, the Trump administration’s hands are tied by international rules obliging the United States to accept some applications. Most in the caravan said they were fleeing death threats, extortion and violence from powerful street gangs.

Dozens of members of the caravan slept in the open for a second cold desert night in the surroundings of the busy San Ysidro port of entry, after pumping fists and cheering the news late on Monday that Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) had opened the gate to eight women and children.

Those left behind said they would continue their sit-in until they were at least allowed to recount their stories to border officials and try to convince them that it was unsafe to go home. The caravan swelled to 1,500 people at one point but has since dwindled to a few hundred.

“We crossed the whole of Mexico,” said Angel Caceres, who said he fled Honduras with his 5-year-old son after his brother and nephew were murdered and his mother beaten and raped. They would stay, he said, “until the last person is in, as long as it takes.”

It was not clear when more of the group would be allowed to make their asylum bids. A CBP spokeswoman said the port of entry was congested with other undocumented immigrants, and that the caravan members might have to wait in Mexico temporarily.

The majority of asylum claims by Central Americans are ultimately unsuccessful, resulting in detention and deportation. The Trump administration says many claims are fake, aided by legal loopholes.

Vice President Mike Pence has accused the caravan’s organizers of persuading people to leave their homes to advance an “open borders” agenda.

Only two of the dozens of people in the caravan who spoke to Reuters over the past month said they were aware of the caravan’s existence before they left home. They said it had not played a role in their decision to flee what they described as appalling conditions.

Asylum seekers must demonstrate a well-founded fear of persecution at home, most often from a state entity. Central Americans fare badly in such claims because the state is rarely seen as directly responsible for the life-threatening situations they leave behind.

U.S. border authorities said in a statement over the weekend that some people associated with the caravan were caught trying to slip through the border fence.

Trump on Monday railed against a system that may see some of the caravan members freed in the United States until their cases are resolved, because a shortage of beds at detention centers and rules that limit how long women with children can be held.

“Catch and release is ridiculous. If they touch our property, if they touch our country, essentially you catch them and you release them into our country. That’s not acceptable to anybody, so we need a change in the law,” he said.

(Writing and additional reporting by Frank Jack Daniel in Mexico City; editing by Daniel Flynn, Raissa Kasolowsky and Jonathan Oatis)

Eight on trial for rape, murder of girl in India’s Kashmir amid public anger

Children attend a protest against the rape of an eight-year-old girl, in Kathua, near Jammu and a teenager in Unnao, Uttar Pradesh state, in New Delhi, India April 15, 2018. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton

By Fayaz Bukhari

SRINAGAR, India (Reuters) – Eight men accused of involvement in the rape and murder of an eight-year-old Muslim girl in India’s Jammu and Kashmir state appeared in court on Monday for the first hearing in a case that sparked nationwide outrage and criticism of the ruling party.

The girl, from a nomadic community that roams the forests of Kashmir, was drugged, held captive in a temple and sexually assaulted for a week before being strangled and battered to death with a stone in January, police said.

Public anger at the crime led to protests in cities across India over the past few days, with outrage fueled by support for the accused initially shown by state government ministers from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The protests have also focused on another rape allegedly involving a BJP lawmaker in the crime-ridden, most populous, poor northern state of Uttar Pradesh.

The outrage has drawn parallels with massive protests that followed the gang rape and murder of a woman on a Delhi bus in 2012, which forced the then Congress-led government to enact tough new rape laws including the death penalty.

Yet India has long been plagued by violence against women and children – reported rapes climbed 60 percent from 2012 to 40,000 in 2016, and many more go unreported, especially in rural areas.

Reports of torture, rape and murder of another child have emerged from Modi’s western home state of Gujarat.

In that case, the corpse of a girl was found near a cricket ground in the city of Surat a week ago.

The post-mortem showed she had been tortured and sexually assaulted before being strangled. The body had 86 injury marks, including some inflicted to her genitalia with hard, blunt objects, while more minor injuries suggest she had been beaten with a stick or slapped.

Doctors estimate that the unidentified girl was about 12, police said.

As the groundswell of revulsion grew, Modi assured the country on Friday that the guilty would not be shielded, but he has been criticized for failing to speak out sooner.

Before leaving for an official visit to Europe this week, Modi received a letter from 50 former police chiefs, ambassadors and senior civil servants upbraiding the political leadership over its weak response.

“The bestiality and the barbarity involved in the rape and murder of an eight-year-old child shows the depths of depravity that we have sunk into,” the former officials said.

“In post-Independence India, this is our darkest hour and we find the response of our government, the leaders of our political parties inadequate and feeble.”

The letter went further by blaming the BJP and likeminded right-wing Hindu groups for promoting a culture of “majoritarian belligerence and aggression” in Jammu, and in the Uttar Pradesh case it blasted the party for using feudal strongmen, who behave like gangsters, to shore up its rule.

The former officials said they held no political affiliation other than to uphold the values of India’s secular constitution that guarantees equal rights to all citizens. Some of the signatories have spoken out in the past also against Modi’s Hindu nationalist party accusing it of whipping up hostility towards India’s 172 million Muslims.

THREATS AGAINST LAWYER

Fallout from the 2012 rape case led to the resignation of Congress chief minister of Delhi. This time, Congress was quick to realize the mood of the country, with party leader Rahul Gandhi leading the first major protest in the capital last week.

On Monday, Gandhi tweeted that there had been nearly 20,000 child rapes in India in 2016, and urged Modi to fast-track prosecutions “if he is serious about providing ‘justice for our daughters'”.

Though the rape and killing of the girl in Kashmir had been known about for months, the backlash erupted after the charge sheet giving gruesome details of the crime was filed last week.

It alleged that the attack was part of a plan to drive the nomads out of Kathua district in Jammu, the mostly Hindu portion of India’s only Muslim-majority state.

The alleged ringleader of the campaign, retired bureaucrat Sanji Ram, looked after a small Hindu temple where the girl had been held and assaulted. Two of the eight on trial are police officers who stand accused of being bribed to stifle the investigation.

After Monday’s initial hearing in Srinagar, the judge adjourned the case until April 28 while the Supreme Court heard a petition from the lawyer representing the victim’s family to have the trial held elsewhere due to fears for her safety.

Ahead of the trial, the lawyer said she had been threatened with rape and death for taking up the case.

“I was threatened yesterday that ‘we will not forgive you’. I am going to tell Supreme Court that I am in danger,” said the lawyer, Deepika Singh Rawat, who has fought for a proper investigation since the girl’s body was found in January.

The Supreme Court also ordered security for the victim’s family after her father said he too feared for their safety.

Two ministers from the BJP, which shares power in Jammu and Kashmir, were forced to resign after being pilloried for joining a rally in support of the accused men.

(This version of the story corrects first paragraph below sub-head to show Delhi chief minister lost election, not forced to resign)

(Additional reporting by Suchitra Mohanty in NEW DELHI; Writing by Sanjeev Miglani; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore, Robert Birsel)

Nigeria’s Boko Haram has abducted more than 1,000 children since 2013: U.N.

FILE PHOTO: Nigerian soldiers hold up a Boko Haram flag that they had seized in the recently retaken town of Damasak, Nigeria, March 18, 2015. REUTERS/Emmanuel Braun/File Photo

ABUJA (Reuters) – Islamist fighters from Nigeria’s Boko Haram group have abducted more than 1,000 children in the northeast since 2013, the United Nations children’s agency UNICEF said on Friday.

The militants regularly took youngsters to spread fear and show power, the agency said on the eve of the fourth anniversary of the abduction of 276 schoolgirls from the town of Chibok, a case that triggered global outrage.

“Children in northeastern Nigeria continue to come under attack at a shocking scale,” said Mohamed Malick Fall, UNICEF’s Nigeria head.

The agency said it had documented more than 1,000 verified cases, the first time it had published an estimated tally. But the actual number could be much larger, it added.

It said it had interviewed one young woman, Khadija, now 17, who was abducted after a Boko Haram attack on her town, then locked in a room, forced to marry one of the fighters and repeatedly raped.

She became pregnant and “now lives with her young son in an IDP (displaced persons) camp, where she has struggled to integrate with the other women due to language barriers and the stigma of being a ‘Boko Haram wife’,” UNICEF said.

At least 2,295 teachers have been killed and more than 1,400 schools have been destroyed in the conflict, it added.

POLITICALLY CHARGED

The Boko Haram conflict is in its tenth year, but shows little sign of ending. In February, one faction kidnapped more than 100 schoolgirls from the town of Dapchi, previously untouched by the war.

A month later, the militants returned almost all of those girls. About five died while in Boko Haram hands. One other, Leah Sharibu, remains captive because she refused to convert to Islam, her freed classmates have said.

The government said the release was a prelude to ceasefire talks, though some insurgency experts disagree, saying it violated that faction’s ideology to kidnap Muslims.

Boko Haram remains a charged issue politically. President Muhammadu Buhari in 2015 rode to power on promises to end the insurgency. But his administration has failed to defeat Boko Haram, despite pushing the militants out of many towns in the northeast by 2016.

On Monday, Buhari said he plans to seek re-election in 2019.

Four years since the Chibok abduction, about 100 of the schoolgirls are unaccounted for. Some may be dead, according to testimony from the rescued girls and Boko Haram experts.

Boko Haram in January released a video purporting to show some of the missing Chibok girls, saying they wish to remain with their captors.

(Reporting by Paul Carsten; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

As U.S. response looms, Russia and Syria urge inspection of attack site

A man is washed following alleged chemical weapons attack, in what is said to be Douma, Syria in this still image from video obtained by Reuters on April 8, 2018. White Helmets/Reuters TV via REUTERS

By Ellen Francis and Jack Stubbs

BEIRUT/MOSCOW (Reuters) – President Bashar al-Assad’s government has invited international inspectors to send a team to Syria to investigate an alleged chemical attack in the town of Douma in a move apparently aimed at averting possible Western military action over the incident.

At least 60 people were killed and more than 1,000 injured in Saturday’s the suspected attack on Douma, then still occupied by rebel forces, according to a Syrian relief group.

U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday warned of a quick, forceful response once responsibility was established, although he appeared to have little doubt it was the work of Assad’s Russian-backed forces.

The Syrian government and Russia said there was no evidence that a gas attack had taken place and the claim was bogus.

The incident has thrust Syria’s seven-year-old conflict back to the forefront of international concern. Trump will miss a Latin American summit in Peru this week in order to focus on the crisis, the White House said.

Adding to the volatile situation, Iran, Assad’s main ally along with Russia, threatened to respond to an air strike on a Syrian military base on Monday that Tehran, Damascus and Moscow have blamed on Israel.

Meanwhile on the ground, thousands of militants and their families arrived in rebel-held northwestern Syria after surrendering Douma to government forces. The evacuation deal restores Assad’s control over the entire eastern Ghouta – formerly the biggest rebel bastion near Damascus.

The Hague-based Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is already at work trying to establish what exactly took place in Douma.

But whether a team would try to get there was unclear. OPCW inspectors have been attacked on two previous missions to the sites of chemical weapons attacks in Syria.

“Syria is keen on cooperating with the OPCW to uncover the truth behind the allegations that some Western sides have been advertising to justify their aggressive intentions,” state news agency SANA said, quoting an official Foreign Ministry source.

In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the Kremlin would submit a resolution to the U.N. Security Council proposing that the OPCW investigate the alleged attack.

MILITARY OPTIONS

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said there was no threat of the situation in Syria resulting in a military clash between Russia and the United States.

TASS news agency quoted Bogdanov as saying Russia and U.S. officials had “working contacts” over Syria and he believed common sense would prevail.

On Monday, Trump told a meeting of military leaders and national security advisers in Washington that he would take a decision that night or shortly after on a response, and that the United States had “a lot of options militarily” on Syria.

“But we can’t let atrocities like we all witnessed … we can’t let that happen in our world … especially when we’re able to because of the power of the United States, the power of our country, we’re able to stop it,” Trump said.

At the U.N. Security Council, the United States plans to call for a vote on Tuesday for a new inquiry into responsibility for the use of chemical weapons in Syria, diplomats said.

If the U.S. proposal is put to a vote, it is likely to be vetoed by Russia.

At a meeting on Monday, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said Washington would respond to the suspected weapons attack in Syria whether the Security Council acted or not.

“This is basically a diplomatic set-up,” said Richard Gowan, a U.N. expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“Russia will inevitably veto the U.S. resolution criticising Assad, and Washington will use this to justify military strikes,” he said. “A breakdown at the U.N. will also make it easier for France to justify strikes.”

France said on Tuesday it would respond if it was proven that Assad’s forces carried out the attack. Any riposte would most likely be in coordination with the United States, government aides said.

U.S. officials told Reuters that Washington was weighing a multinational military response. Washington bombed a Syrian government air base last year over a toxic gas attack.

Russian U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia accused the United States, France and Britain of stoking international tensions by engaging in a “confrontational policy against Russia and Syria”.

“Russia is being unpardonably threatened. The tone with which this is being done has gone beyond the threshold of what is acceptable, even during the Cold War.”

MORE CLARITY

Initial U.S. assessments have been unable to determine conclusively what materials were used in the attack and could not say with certainty that Assad’s forces were behind it.

Trump said, however, that Washington was “getting more clarity” on who was responsible.

A previous joint inquiry of the United Nations and the OPCW had found the Syrian government used the nerve agent sarin in an attack in April 2017, and had also several times used chlorine as a weapon. Damascus blamed Islamic State militants for mustard gas use.

The suspected chemical attack came at the end of one of the deadliest Syrian government offensives of the war, with an estimated 1,700 civilians killed in eastern Ghouta in air and artillery bombardments.

Despite the international revulsion over the chemical weapons attacks, the death toll from such incidents is in the dozens, a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of combatants and civilians killed since an uprising against Assad’s rule broke out in March 2011.

The deal over the rebel evacuation of Douma took effect on Sunday, hours after medical aid groups reported the suspected chemical attack

RIA news agency quoted Russia’s Defence Ministry as saying 3,600 militants and their families had left Douma over the past 24 hours. About 40,000 militants and their families are expected to leave, the pro-government Watan newspaper said.

Sixty-seven buses carrying hundreds of fighters, along with family members and other civilians who did not wish to come back under Assad’s rule, reached opposition areas near Aleppo on Tuesday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

As part of the surrender deal, the Jaish al-Islam group that controlled the town released scores of people it had been holding.

Jaish al-Islam’s departure will bring to an end the opposition presence in eastern Ghouta, giving Assad’ his biggest battlefield victory since late 2016, when he took back Aleppo, and underlining his unassailable position in the war.

(Reporting by Jack Stubbs and Maria Kiselyova in Moscow, Tom Perry and Ellen Francis in Beirut, Steve Holland and Michelle Nichols in the United States, John Irish in Paris, Writing by Angus MacSwan; Editing by Kevin Liffey)