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)

Lebanese demand change after government quits over Beirut blast

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Angry Lebanese said the government’s resignation on Monday did not come close to addressing the tragedy of last week’s Beirut explosion and demanded the removal of what they see as a corrupt ruling class to blame for the country’s woes.

The blast at the Beirut port left a crater more than 100 metres across on dock nine, the French ambassador said on Twitter following a visit to the site by French forensic scientists supporting an investigation into the disaster.

A protest with the slogan “Bury the authorities first” was planned near the port, where highly explosive material stored for years detonated on Aug. 4, killing at least 171 people, injuring 6,000 and leaving hundreds of thousands homeless.

Prime Minister Hassan Diab, announcing his cabinet’s resignation, blamed endemic graft for the explosion, the biggest in Beirut’s history and which compounded a deep financial crisis that has collapsed the currency, paralyzed the banking system and sent prices soaring.

“I said before that corruption is rooted in every juncture of the state but I have discovered that corruption is greater than the state,” he said, blaming the political elite for blocking reforms.

Talks with the International Monetary Fund have stalled amid a row between the government, banks and politicians over the scale of vast financial losses.

“It does not end with the government’s resignation,” said the protest flyer circulating on social media. “There is still (President Michel) Aoun, (Parliament Speaker Nabih) Berri and the entire system.”

For many Lebanese, the explosion was the last straw in a protracted crisis over the collapse of the economy, corruption, waste and dysfunctional government.

SECTARIAN SYSTEM

The Beirut port mirrors the sectarian power system in which the same politicians have dominated the country since the 1975-90 civil war. Each faction has its quota of directors at the port, the nation’s main trade artery.

“It’s a good thing that the government resigned. But we need new blood or it won’t work,” silversmith Avedis Anserlian told Reuters in front of his demolished shop.

Diab formed his government in January with the backing of the powerful Iranian-backed Hezbollah group and its allies, more than two months after Saad Hariri, who had enjoyed the backing of the West and Gulf states, quit as premier amid anti-government protests against corruption and mismanagement.

Aoun is required to consult with parliamentary blocs on who should be the next prime minister, and is obliged to designate the candidate with the most support. The presidency has yet to say when official consultations will take place.

Forming a government amid factional rifts has been daunting in the past. Now, with growing public discontent and the crushing financial crisis, it could be difficult to find someone willing to be prime minister.

A week after the blast, residents of Beirut were picking up the pieces as search operations continued for 30 to 40 people still missing.

“Our house is destroyed and we are alone,” said Khalil Haddad. “We are trying to fix it the best we can at the moment. Let’s see, hopefully there will be aid and, the most important thing: hopefully the truth will be revealed.”

World Health Organisation spokesman Tarik Jarasevic said eight emergency international medical teams were on the ground to support overwhelmed health facilities, under strain even before the blast due to the financial crisis and a surge in COVID-19 infections.

Officials have said the blast could have caused losses of $15 billion, a bill Lebanon cannot pay.

Ihsan Mokdad, a contractor, surveyed a gutted building in Gemmayze, a district a few hundreds metres from the port.

“As the prime minister said, the corruption is bigger than the state. They’re all a bunch of crooks. I didn’t see one MP visit this area. MPs should have come here in large numbers to raise morale,” he said.

(Reporting by Beirut bureau; Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Lebanon government resigns amid outrage over Beirut blast

By Michael Georgy

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanon’s prime minister announced his government’s resignation on Monday, saying a huge explosion that devastated the capital and stirred public outrage was the result of endemic corruption.

The Aug. 4 detonation at a port warehouse of more than 2,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate killed at least 163 people, injured more than 6,000 and destroyed swathes of the Mediterranean capital, compounding months of political and economic meltdown.

In a televised address, Prime Minister Hassan Diab said he backed calls by ordinary Lebanese for those responsible for “this crime” to be put on trial.

Diab made the announcement after the cabinet, formed in January with the backing of the powerful Iranian-backed Hezbollah group and its allies, met on Monday, with many ministers wanting to resign, according to ministerial and political sources.

Diab said on Saturday he would request early parliamentary elections.

Demonstrations broke out again in central Beirut, with some protesters hurling rocks at security forces guarding an entrance leading to the parliament building, who responded with tear gas.

“The entire regime needs to change. It will make no difference if there is a new government,” Joe Haddad, a Beirut engineer, told Reuters. “We need quick elections.”

For many ordinary Lebanese, the explosion was the last straw in a protracted crisis over the collapse of the economy, corruption, waste and dysfunctional governance, and they have taken to the streets demanding root-and-branch change.

The information and environment ministers quit on Sunday as well as several lawmakers, and the justice minister followed them out the door on Monday. Finance Minister Ghazi Wazni, a key negotiator with the IMF over a rescue plan to help Lebanon exit a financial crisis, was set to resign, a source close to him said.

Lebanon’s president had previously said explosive material was stored unsafely for years at the port. He later said the investigation would consider whether the cause was external interference as well as negligence or an accident.

ACCOUNTABILITY

The Lebanese army said on Monday that another five bodies were pulled from the rubble, raising the death toll to 163. Search and rescue operations continued.

The cabinet decided to refer the investigation of the blast to the judicial council, the highest legal authority whose rulings cannot be appealed, a ministerial source and state news agency NNA said. The council usually handles top security cases.

Anti-government protests in the past two days have been the biggest since October, when angry demonstrations spread over an economic crisis rooted in pervasive graft, mismanagement and high-level un-accountability.

An international donor conference on Sunday raised pledges worth nearly 253 million euros ($298 million) for immediate humanitarian relief, but foreign countries are demanding transparency over how the aid is used.

Some Lebanese doubt change is possible in a country where sectarian politicians have dominated since the 1975-90 conflict.

“It won’t work, it’s just the same people. It’s a mafia,” said Antoinette Baaklini, an employee of an electricity company that was demolished in the blast.

(Additional reporting by Laila Bassam and Samia Nakhoul in Beirut, Michelle Nichols in New York; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Mark Heinrich, William Maclean and Angus MacSwan)

Gas explosion destroys Baltimore homes, one dead and children trapped

By Daniel Trotta

(Reuters) – A gas explosion ripped through a Baltimore neighborhood on Monday, killing at least one person, injuring four and trapping children as the blast destroyed at least three homes, firefighters said.

Fire officials described it as a natural gas explosion but said the exact cause was under investigation.

The blast destroyed three brick row homes and ripped open the wall of another, spreading debris throughout the neighborhood. Rescuers picked through the rubble, searching for victims with their hands and hand tools, Baltimore City Fire Department spokeswoman Blair Adams told reporters at the scene.

One woman was killed, four people were hospitalized in serious condition, and firefighters were trying to rescue a sixth person, fire officials said.

At one point at least five people were trapped, some of them children, the Baltimore Firefighters IAFF Local 734 said on Twitter.

Neighbors responding to the blast dug through rubble and called out for victims.

One neighbor told the Baltimore Sun he could hear shouts from trapped children.

“Come get us! We’re stuck!” came the cries, Kevin Matthews told the Sun.

Matthews found one person buried from the neck down and another sheltering in a closet, the Sun said.

“You knew it was something catastrophic,” Dean Jones told WBFF television about hearing the blast. “I didn’t think. I didn’t grab shoes. I took off running. I followed the smoke. I started yelling to come help.”

Jones and several other neighbors freed at least one woman from the scene.

“Once they said a kid was in there, I lost it. I said I had to get in there now,” Jones told WBAL television.

But he also wanted no special accolades, saying, “I am not a hero, I’m a human.”

Neighbors said their windows were blown out and doors blasted off the hinges, the Sun reported.

(Reporting by Daniel Trotta and Brendan O’Brien; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Beirut blast a wake-up call on dangers of ammonium nitrate, experts warn

By Maayan Lubell, Rami Ayyub and Katharine Houreld

(Reuters) – The devastating explosion in Beirut should be a wake-up call for countries on the dangers of ammonium nitrate, which caused the blast, experts say.

Lebanese authorities said 2,750 tonnes of the industrial chemical had been stored for six years at Beirut port without safety measures. That stockpile exploded on Tuesday, killing more than 150 people, injuring thousands and leaving about a quarter of a million people homeless.

Commonly used in fertilizers and as an industrial explosive, ammonium nitrate is considered relatively safe if handled properly, but it has proved lethal.

In one of the world’s deadliest industrial accidents, 567 people were killed in Texas in 1947 when 2,300 tonnes of ammonium nitrate detonated aboard a ship.

“Beirut, like Texas, is a wake-up call. We should learn from these catastrophes and make sure they don’t happen again,” said Stewart Walker, of the school of Forensic, Environmental and Analytical Chemistry at Flinders University in Adelaide.

Some countries have banned ammonium nitrate as a fertilizer because it has been used by militant bomb-makers and since Tuesday’s blast, some governments have been urged to relocate stockpiles.

Chris Owen, a U.N. explosives adviser, said few countries make ammonium nitrate but many use it, often importing it by sea. Since many ports have had cities develop around them, large quantities are moving through cities on a regular basis. “If it’s managed properly, it’s no risk,” Owen said.

In terms of safety, experts say, quantity, ventilation and proximity to flammables are critical, as is distance from population centers.

Anger has been mounting in Lebanon at the authorities for allowing huge quantities of the chemical to be stored near a residential area for years in unsafe conditions.

The United Nations has issued guidelines on safe storage and transportation but regulations vary from country to country, experts said.

Global variation on regulation is a concern, said Julia Meehan, the managing editor of ICIS Fertilizers, a trade publication. “There’s no global body that looks across it, it’s country to country or regional,” said Meehan. “It can even differ from port to port.”

One expert, who asked not to be identified, said political instability was a major factor in enforcement. He cited Lebanon, Syria, Afghanistan and South American countries. “If the country is at war, or struggling with an insurgency or other problems, they have other issues to deal with,” he said.

Global data on storage is spotty, said Hans Reuvers, a German-based expert on ammonium nitrate and fertilizer technology and executive committee member at the Ammonium Nitrate/Nitric Acid Producers Study Group (ANNA).

Germany only allows 25 tonnes of pure ammonium nitrate to be stored in one place, Reuvers said. France toughened its regulations after a 2001 explosion in Toulouse killed 31 people.

“You have to store it in non-flammable bins, keep them far away from flammable materials. There are similar regulations across Europe as well as in East Asia,” Reuvers said.

GLOBAL TRADE

Worldwide trade in ammonium nitrate in 2018 was worth $2.14 billion, with Russia the leading exporter, according to the Observatory of Economic Complexity, and Brazil the largest importer.

The United States and Europe are the leading consumers of ammonium nitrates, according to London-based IHS Markit, accounting for just over half of global consumption in 2019.

Countries with large stockpiles tend to have large mining or industrial agriculture industries, said Roger Read, of the School of Chemistry at the University of New South Wales.

“Those would tend to be most large, industrialized countries – Britain, the U.S., Russia, China – as well as India and other smaller countries in Europe,” Read said.

The United States in 2019 eased chemical-safety regulations implemented after a deadly ammonium nitrate blast in 2013. The move cut costly regulations but still kept safety measures, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Rick Engler, a former member of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, said the EPA should add ammonium nitrate to a list of regulated chemicals needing increased oversight, calling present U.S. regulations “thoroughly inadequate.”

The United States does not maintain a public database on the locations of ammonium nitrate, meaning people do not know if they live near one, said Elena Craft, of the Environmental Defense Fund advocacy group.

“There are a lot of unknowns about how much of this material exists and where,” Craft said. “You don’t know the magnitude of that risk because of the lack of information that’s available.”

(Additional reporting by Caroline Stauffer, Tangi Salaun, Jonathan Saul, Gus Trompiz, Polina Devitt, Guy Faulconbridge, Josephine Mason, Stephen Farrell, Tom Polansek and Sudarshan Varadhan; Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Stephen Farrell and Giles Elgood)