Blast heard in Kabul as U.S. forces destroy munitions -Taliban

(Reuters) – A large explosion was heard in Kabul late on Thursday as the U.S. military destroyed ammunition, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said on Thursday.

Two witnesses in an area some 3-4 kilometers from the airport said earlier they had heard a huge explosion, hours after an Islamic State suicide attack killed dozens of people trying to board evacuation flights.

(Reporting by James Mackenzie; Editing by Leslie Adler)

Car bomb hits near Kabul ‘Green Zone’; six dead including attackers

KABUL (Reuters) -A car bomb blast followed by sporadic gunfire hit Afghanistan’s capital Kabul on Tuesday near the heavily fortified “Green Zone,” leaving three civilians and three attackers dead, security officials said amid an upturn in violence by Taliban militants.

At least seven other people were wounded, said health ministry spokesperson Ghulam Dastagir Nazari. An interior ministry spokesperson said security forces’ operations ended with the death of all attackers.

A senior security official said the blast appeared to have been caused by a car bomb and the target was the acting defense minister’s home and the adjoining residence of a member of parliament.

The attack – in the heart of one of Kabul’s most secure areas – came during an escalation in violence by the Taliban. Attacks have risen sharply since President Joe Biden announced U.S. troops would leave by September even as the Taliban intensified its attacks on major cities.

Three unidentified gunmen were killed at Tuesday’s attack site which is home to Afghan officials, lawmakers and prominent residents.

No group immediately claimed responsibility.

Minutes after the blast, hundreds of civilians in Kabul came out on to the streets and chanted Allahu Akbar (God is Greatest) to express their support for Afghan government forces and opposition to the Taliban.

The night-time march spilled across the city with mostly men and some women joining in the demonstrations, carrying candles and Afghan flags to signal united opposition to the hardline Islamist group.

“The whole world can choose to be silent about what is going on in Afghanistan but we can’t and won’t stay quiet anymore…we will stand side by side with our security forces until our last breath,” said a demonstrator in Kabul on condition of anonymity.

The country’s first Vice President Amrullah Saleh said the demonstrations were “historic moments” of “emotions and patriotism.”

“Allah o Akbar, death to Talib terrorists & their backer,” he said in a tweet at a time when Afghan forces flushed out militants in the overnight operations.

Last week, residents in the western province of Herat braved the streets despite nearby fighting to protest against the Taliban. Other cities quickly organized to join from their homes in the evenings, as a message of support for embattled security forces.

After Tuesday’s bomb attack, acting Defense Minister Bismillah Mohammadi said no harm was caused to him and his family members but some of his security guards were injured.

A Kabul police spokesperson said at least 30 civilians had been rescued from the blast site. The city’s Emergency Hospital said in a tweet it had so far received 11 people wounded in the attack.

Afghan forces appealed to residents of the southern city of Lashkar Gah to leave their homes and stay away from areas where the Taliban were taking control, as they intend to launch operations against the group where its fighters were travelling freely.

The loss of Lashkar Gah would be a huge strategic defeat for the government, which has pledged to defend strategic centers after losing much of the rural parts to the Taliban in recent months.

The Taliban said their fighters killed a district governor of central Maidan Wardak province on Tuesday, the latest in a series of killings by the insurgent group aimed at eliminating senior government officials and social activists.

(Reporting by Kabul bureau, Editing by Nick Tattersall, William Maclean and Alistair Bell)

Blast in German industrial park kills one, four others missing

BERLIN (Reuters) -An explosion in a German industrial park on Tuesday killed at least one person and injured 31 others, setting off a fierce blaze that sent a pall of smoke over the western city of Leverkusen. Four people were still missing.

Emergency services took three hours to extinguish the fire at the Chempark site, home to chemicals companies Bayer and Lanxess, that flared up after the blast at 9:40 a.m. (0740 GMT), park operator Currenta said.

“We are deeply shaken by the tragic death of one colleague,” said Chempark chief Lars Friedrich, adding that a search was underway for the four missing people.

Police said five of the 31 injured people were affected seriously enough to need intensive care.

“This is a tragic moment for the city of Leverkusen,” said Uwe Richrath, mayor of the city, which lies north of Cologne.

The area and surrounding roads were sealed off for much of the day.

Police told residents living nearby to stay indoors and shut doors and windows in case there were toxic fumes. Currenta said locals should also turn off air conditioning systems while it measured the air around the site for possible toxic gases.

Chempark’s Friedrich said it was not clear what had caused the explosion, which led to a fire starting in a tank containing solvents.

“Solvents were burned during the incident, and we do not know precisely what substances were released,” Friedrich added. “We are examining this with authorities, taking samples.”

Sirens and emergency alerts on the German civil protection agency’s mobile phone app warned citizens of “extreme danger.”

Leverkusen is less than 50 km (30 miles) from a region hit last week by catastrophic floods that killed at least 180 people.

More than 30 companies operate at the Chempark site in Leverkusen, including Covestro, Bayer, Lanxess and Arlanxeo, according to its website.

Bayer and Lanxess in 2019 sold Chempark operator Currenta to Macquarie Infrastructure and Real Assets for an enterprise value of 3.5 billion euros ($4.12 billion).

($1 = 0.8492 euros)

(Reporting by Maria Sheahan, Madeline Chambers, Caroline Copley; Editing by William Maclean, Edmund Blair and Gareth Jones)

Taliban warn Turkey against ‘reprehensible’ plan to run Kabul airport

KABUL/ANKARA (Reuters) – The Taliban warned Turkey on Tuesday against plans to keep some troops in Afghanistan to run and guard Kabul’s main airport after the withdrawal of foreign soldiers, calling the strategy “reprehensible” and warning of “consequences”.

Ankara, which has offered to run and guard the airport in the capital after NATO withdraws, has been in talks with the United States on financial, political and logistical support.

Turkey has repeated that the airport must stay open to preserve diplomatic missions in Afghanistan, where a blast rocked Kabul on Tuesday and clashes have intensified across the country.

“The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan condemns this reprehensible decision,” the Taliban said in a statement, referring to Turkey’s plan.

“If Turkish officials fail to reconsider their decision and continue the occupation of our country, the Islamic Emirate… will take a stand against them.”

In that case, the militant group added, the responsibility for consequences would fall on the shoulders of those who interfere.

The Taliban, who ruled Afghanistan with an iron fist from 1996 to 2001, have been fighting for 20 years to topple the Western-backed government in Kabul and reimpose Islamic rule.

Emboldened by the departure of foreign forces by a September target, they are making a fresh push to surround cities and gain territory.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar told reporters after a cabinet meeting on Monday evening that Turkey agreed to some points with U.S. counterparts on running the airport and work towards a deal continues.

“The airport needs to remain open, be operated. All countries say this. If the airport does not operate, the countries will have to withdraw their diplomatic missions there,” he said.

Talks now involving ministries should be complete by the time U.S. forces leave, a senior Turkish official told Reuters. “We still think there will be an agreement on the airport. We want to side with the Afghan people,” the official said.

Police said a blast rocked a busy area of Kabul on Tuesday, killing four people and wounding five. It was not clear who was behind the explosion or the target.

Clashes were continuing in the southern province of Kandahar, said Attaullah Atta, a provincial council member, with the Taliban being pushed back after a bid to break into a city prison.

Hundreds of families had fled the violence, he added.

Mohammad Daoud Farhad, director of Kandahar’s provincial hospital, said it had received eight dead and more than 30 people, mostly civilians, wounded in clashes in the past 24 hours.

Early on Tuesday, Afghan security forces had retreated from the district of Alingar in the eastern province of Laghman, a local government official said on condition of anonymity.

A ceasefire pact with the Taliban in the district fell through in May.

On Monday, the Taliban circled the central city of Ghazni and made attacks overnight in their latest offensive on a provincial capital, a local security official said, only to be pushed back by Afghan forces.

(Reporting by Afghanistan bureau, and Orhan Coskun and Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Daren Butler and Nick Macfie)

Manhattan subway bomber sentenced to life in prison

By Jonathan Stempel

NEW YORK (Reuters) -A Bangladeshi man convicted of setting off a pipe bomb during rush hour in New York City’s busiest subway station, Times Square, was sentenced on Thursday to life plus 30 years in prison.

Akayed Ullah, 31, of Brooklyn, had claimed he wanted to kill only himself and was not acting on behalf of Islamic State when he detonated his homemade bomb on Dec. 11, 2017.

No one died and four people were injured in the explosion, which led to the temporary closure of the station and the adjacent Port Authority Bus Terminal during the morning rush. Ullah was burned in what prosecutors called a “lone wolf” attack.

U.S. Circuit Judge Richard Sullivan, who imposed the sentence, told Ullah he had committed a “truly barbaric and heinous crime” without regard for the humanity of those in his way.

“They were just people on the way to work, or school,” Sullivan said. “People who maybe had finished the night shift. … To you, these people were expendable.”

Ullah, who is married and has a 3-year-old son, had faced a mandatory minimum 35-year term.

He told Sullivan he did not condone violence, and apologized to New York City, law enforcement and the United States.

“What I did on December 11, it was wrong,” Ullah said. “I can tell you from the bottom of my heart, I’m deeply sorry.”

Prosecutors said Ullah was angry with then-President Donald Trump and with U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, and that Islamic State propaganda inspired him to kill, maim and terrorize as many commuters as possible.

“Akayed Ullah’s message of hatred clearly backfired,” U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss said in a statement.

At the time of the attack, Ullah had a green card, allowing him to live in the United States.

He lived with his mother, sister and two brothers in Brooklyn, while his wife and then-infant son lived in Bangladesh.

Ullah’s lawyer Amy Gallicchio, a federal public defender, called him a “deeply troubled soul” who had been attracted on the internet to the “distorted and radical messages” of extremism.

“He is not an evil man,” Gallicchio said, a sentiment the judge also expressed. “He is not a monster.”

But federal prosecutor Rebekah Donaleski questioned why Ullah chose Times Square to set off the bomb if suicide was his goal.

The bomb materials had come from a nearby construction site where Ullah worked as an electrician.

“It is important to send a message that when you attack New York City, there will be no leniency,” Donaleski said.

Ullah was convicted in November 2018. Sullivan presided over Ullah’s case when he was a federal district judge.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Derailed BNSF fuel train fire in Texas nearly extinguished

(Reuters) – A BNSF Railway Company train carrying products including coal and gasoline to Houston in Texas was still burning on Wednesday, a day after it collided with a truck near Cameron, causing an explosion in gasoline-carrying carriages.

BNSF, owned by Berkshire Hathaway Inc and one of the largest railroad operators in North America, had said on Tuesday that 13 of the train’s 110 carriages were derailed, with five of those carrying gasoline.

Five other carriages carrying non-hazardous loads were also on fire, the company added, forcing an evacuation of the surrounding area.

“Local first responders and BNSF personnel are still on site, working to completely extinguish the flames,” BNSF, one of the largest railroad operators in North America, said in a statement.

The train crew and truck driver were not injured, BNSF said, adding it would assess the damage and plan a clean-up once the fire was fully doused.

The fire is expected to be extinguished on Wednesday, the Cameron fire department said.

“It’s not completely out, we’re still putting water on it,” said fire department chief Henry Horelica.

The accident is the second incident since 10 BNSF Railway carriages carrying crude oil derailed, with three catching fire, in Custer, Washington, in late December.

The Texas-based company did not respond to a request for further comment and it was not immediately clear what companies would be affected by the delay in shipments.

BNSF is one of the largest U.S. coal carriers.

The region is already contending with an unprecedented power crisis caused by brutal cold weather and any fuel delays could further pressure the state’s electricity grid operator, which uses natural gas, coal and other fuels to power generators.

(Reporting by Asha Sistla and Swati Verma in Bengaluru; Editing by David Goodman)

China rescuers prepare escape route for trapped gold miners

SHANGHAI (Reuters) – Rescue teams on Wednesday drilled new holes down a gold mine in China’s Shandong province, searching for more survivors after an explosion 10 days ago and preparing an escape passage for a group known to still be alive, state media reported.

A total of 22 workers were trapped underground in the Hushan gold mine on the outskirts of Yantai, on China’s eastern coast, following the Jan. 10. blast. Rescuers have managed to deliver supplies to 11 workers, one of whom is in a coma after sustaining a head injury during the explosion.

Another eight of the 11 are in good health, while two are unwell, Shandong’s official Qilu Daily newspaper said, citing the rescue headquarters. One more worker who survived is in another section of the mine and believed to be injured, while the whereabouts of the remaining 10 are unclear, it added.

China has deployed 16 professional rescue teams and dozens of medical personnel to try to save the miners.

Song Xicheng, the medical rescue team leader, told reporters that more than 80 medical personnel were on standby, including nutritionists, neurosurgeons, trauma specialists and psychologists.

The operation involves drilling 10 channels, with one 711 millimeter-(2.33-foot)-wide hole – intended to serve as an escape route – wide enough to lift out the miners, the People’s Daily said. Rescuers could not say when this hole would be finished but admitted they were in a race against time.

An air ventilation shaft that rescuers also want to use to pull the miners to safety has been cleared to a depth of 350 meters (1,148 feet), the report said. The miners were working at a depth of more than 600 meters at the time of the explosion.

A channel previously used to send down supplies has been replaced because water inside was posing a threat to those underground, while another hole is being drilled to search for more signs of life, Beijing Evening News reported.

(Reporting by David Stanway; additional reporting by Tom Daly and Colin Qian; Editing by Stephen Coates and Mark Heinrich)

At least two dead after blast wrecks building in central Madrid

By Nathan Allen and Michael Gore

MADRID (Reuters) – At least two people died and eight were injured on Wednesday when a building in central Madrid belonging to the Catholic Church was blown apart by an explosion, local authorities said.

One of the injured was in serious condition and transferred to hospital.

A Church official said one church volunteer was missing.

Initial investigations suggested that the blast in Calle Toledo, a street leading out from the city center, had been caused by a gas leak, Mayor Jose Luis Martinez-Almeida said.

Smoke billowed out of the partly collapsed building and rescue workers evacuated elderly people from a nearby nursing home.

The top five floors were totally destroyed, with walls blown out, while the bottom two floors were still mostly intact, but charred in places from the flames.

The building was a complex that provided residential training for priests and also gave meals to homeless people, a neighbor said.

(Reporting by Nathan Allen, Inti Landauro, Belen Carreno, Jesus Aguado, Emma Pinedo, Andrei Khalip; Writing by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Baltimore building explosion injures 23, traps window washers

(Reuters) -An explosion shook a mostly empty downtown Baltimore office building on Wednesday, injuring 23 people, at least nine of them critically, and leaving two window washers dangling from a scaffold outside the structure, authorities said.

Of the 23 people rescued from the Baltimore Gas and Electric Co building after the explosion and partial collapse of its roof, 21 were taken to area hospitals, and two declined additional treatment, the Baltimore City Fire Department said.

Nine of the injured were in critical condition and one was in serious condition, the fire department said in a statement.

The window washers were rescued after dangling several stories high when their scaffold partially gave way, the local firefighters’ union said.

Firefighters quickly extinguished a blaze on the 16th floor where evidence suggested the explosion occurred, Local 734 of the International Association of Fire Fighters said in a statement.

The fire department said it was investigating the cause of the blast and fire, but Baltimore Gas and Electric said construction work being done on the building’s air handling and boiler system “likely caused the incident.”

“The building was largely empty due to the upcoming holidays and the pandemic,” said the company, which is owned by Exelon Corp.

(Reporting by Peter Szekely in New York; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Howard Goller)

Hundreds of disillusioned doctors leave Lebanon, in blow to healthcare

By Samia Nakhoul and Issam Abdallah

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Fouad Boulos returned to Beirut in 2007 from the United States having trained there in pathology and laboratory medicine. He was so confident that Lebanon was the right place to be that he gave up his American residence green card.

Fourteen years later he is leaving his homeland with his wife and five children and returning to the United States to try his luck starting from scratch.

In the past year, Lebanon has been through a popular uprising against its political leaders, the bankruptcy of the state and banking system, a COVID-19 pandemic and, in August, a huge explosion at the port that destroyed swathes of Beirut.

Some of those who can leave the country have done so, and an increasing number of them are doctors and surgeons, many at the top of their profession. With them goes Beirut’s proud reputation as the medical capital of the Middle East.

“This is a mass exodus,” said Boulos, Associate Professor of Clinical Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at the American University of Beirut (AUB).

“It will keep on going,” he told Reuters. “If I had hope I would have stayed but I have no hope – not in the near nor in the intermediate future – for Lebanon.”

As he spoke at his mountain residence in Beit Mery, a forested area with sweeping views over Beirut, his wife helped pack up their last possessions, ready to return to the United States.

Suitcases lined the hallway, and one of his daughters was online saying final farewells to school friends and her teacher.

“It breaks my heart. It was the hardest decision I ever had to make, leaving everything behind,” Boulos added.

Many highly qualified physicians, who were in demand across the United States and Europe before they returned to Lebanon after the 1975-90 civil war, are throwing in the towel, having lost hope in its future.

They are not only seeing wages fall, but also face shortages of equipment, staff and even some basic supplies in their hospitals as Lebanon runs out of hard currency to pay for imports.

BLEEDING TALENT

Sharaf Abou Sharaf, head of the doctors’ syndicate, said the departure of 400 doctors so far this year creates a major problem, especially for university hospitals where they both practice and teach.

“This bleeding of talent does not bode well, especially if the situation lasts long and there are others who are preparing to leave,” he said.

Caretaker Health Minister Hamad Hassan agreed.

“Their expertise was built over many years and is very hard to lose overnight. We will need many years to return the medical sector to its former glory,” he told Reuters.

Protests that erupted last year and brought down the government had raised hopes that politicians, selected by a system in which leaders of Christian and Muslim sects shared the top jobs, could be pushed aside.

Then came the Aug. 4 blast, when large amounts of poorly stored ammonium nitrate exploded, killing 200 people, injuring 6,000, making 300,000 people homeless and destroying large parts of the capital Beirut including several hospitals.

“The explosion was the final nail in the coffin,” Boulos said.

“It crystallized all the fears, all the pain and all the difficulties that we were living through,” added the medic, who trained at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.

‘CORRUPT TO THE CORE’

Boulos said he had lost faith in the country’s leadership, after years of instability caused by political bickering.

“Lebanon is corrupt to the core,” he said, echoing the chants of thousands of protesters who packed city streets during the last year.

The country has also had to deal with the influx of more than a million Syrians fleeing civil war, an economy that has buckled under the weight of debt, mass unemployment, poverty, and, more recently, the coronavirus pandemic.

On Tuesday, Lebanon ordered a nationwide lockdown for around two weeks to stem the spread of the virus, as intensive care units reached critical capacity.

Hassan, the caretaker health minister, has said an agreement was reached with the central bank to allocate funds for private hospitals to set up COVID-19 wings and that the state would pay hospital dues for the first six months of 2020.

The government had for years owed hospitals arrears and their unpaid bills are mounting.

Ghazi Zaatari, Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs and Chair of the Department of Pathology & Laboratory Medicine at AUB, said he feared the exodus would accelerate.

“For the past 10 years we put a lot of effort into recruiting around 220 faculty members, and now it is very disheartening to see that many of those we hired are leaving again.”

Doctors in Lebanon, although relatively well paid, generally earn less than they did abroad.

Over the past year they have seen real incomes drop due to the 80% devaluation in the currency.

The caretaker health minister said the state was seeking international help to prop up depreciated salaries of doctors to slow the exodus.

But both Boulos and Zaatari said money was not the main problem.

“Money is an issue, but this lack of trust and confidence in the political leadership (for) a safe, secure and successful future is a huge factor,” Zaatari said.

“I am one of those who came back in the mid-90s believing that there was a promise of a better future and a reconstruction plan, only to find that 20 years later everything is collapsing and the promises were false promises. We were robbed big time.”

(Additional reporting by Laila Bassam, Imad Creidi and Nancy Mahfouz; Editing by Mike Collett-White)