Seven dead as coronavirus measures trigger prison riots across Italy

By Angelo Amante and Stephen Jewkes

ROME (Reuters) – Seven prisoners have died as riots spread through crowded jails across Italy over measures imposed to contain the coronavirus.

Inmates, many angered by restrictions on family visits, went on the rampage and started fires from Sunday into Monday, authorities said. In one prison, inmates took guards hostage and in another some escaped.

By Monday afternoon, violence that started at the heart of the coronavirus outbreak in northern Italy had spread south, hitting more than 25 penitentiaries nationwide.

Justice Minister Alfonso Bonafede said the government was open to discussing prison conditions but the rebellions had to stop.

In a sign of the political pressures piling onto his coalition government, the leader of the far-right opposition League, Matteo Salvini, called for an “iron fist” response.

Italy – the worst-hit country in Europe – has reported 463 deaths linked to the virus.

The biggest rebellion began on Sunday in a prison in the northern town of Modena.

Three prisoners died there, and another four in prisons where they were moved after the violence started, a prison administration official at the justice ministry, said.

Some died from overdoses of drugs they had stolen from prison clinics, a justice ministry source said, without giving details on what had caused the other fatalities.

Police and fire trucks massed outside the prison as black smoke swirled into the sky on Sunday. A justice ministry spokesman said the situation there was under control by Monday, and officials were assessing the damage.

Two guards were taken hostage in a prison in the northern town of Pavia on Sunday night, and then freed in a police raid hours later, the prison police group UILPA said.

Inmates revolted in Milan’s San Vittore prison, taking to the roof and unfurling a banner demanding a general pardon.

Further south, prisoners in the Tuscan city of Prato set fire to mattresses.

On Sicily, inmates rebelled at Palermo’s Ucciardone prison, which houses some Mafia convicts, but guards managed to regain control, officials said.

Italian media said about 50 inmates managed to escape from a jail in the southern city Foggia. The majority were rapidly captured, but by nightfall nine prisoners were still missing.

Italy’s prisons are among the most over-crowded in Europe. “The spread of the virus is a real concern,” said Andrea Oleandri of the Italian prison rights group Antigone.

(Reporting by Angelo Amante in Rome and Stephen Jewkes in Bologna, writing by Philip Pullella; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Crispian Balmer)

Taliban reject Afghan ceasefire, kidnap nearly 200 bus passengers

FILE PHOTO: Afghan President Ashraf Ghani speaks during a news conference in Kabul, Afghanistan July 15, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail/File Photo

By Abdul Qadir Sediqi, Rupam Jain and Jibran Ahmad

KABUL/PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) – The Taliban rejected on Monday an Afghan government offer of a ceasefire and said they would persist with their attacks, militant commanders said, while insurgents ambushed three buses and nearly 200 passengers traveling for a holiday.

Two Taliban commanders said their supreme leader rejected President Ashraf Ghani’s Sunday offer of a three-month ceasefire, beginning with this week’s Eid al-Adha Muslim holiday.

In June, the Taliban observed a government ceasefire over the three-day Eid al-Fitr festival, leading to unprecedented scenes of government soldiers and militants embracing on front lines, and raising hopes for talks.

But one of the Taliban commanders said the June ceasefire had helped U.S. forces, who the Taliban are trying to drive out of the country. Taliban leader Sheikh Haibatullah Akhunzada rejected the new offer on the grounds that it too would only help the American-led mission.

“Our leadership feels that they’ll prolong their stay in Afghanistan if we announced a ceasefire now,” a senior Taliban commander, who declined to be identified, said by telephone.

An official in Ghani’s office said the three-month-long ceasefire declared by the government was conditional, and if the Taliban did not respect it, the government would maintain military operations.

The Taliban have launched a wave of attacks in recent weeks, including on the city of Ghazni, southwest of Kabul. Hundreds of people have been killed in the fighting.

Government officials are trying to secure the release of at least 170 civilians and 20 members of the security forces who were taken hostage by Taliban from three buses in the northern province of Kunduz.

Esmatullah Muradi, a spokesman for the governor of Kunduz, said the kidnapping happened when the buses were traveling through Kunduz from Takhar province.

“The buses were stopped by the Taliban fighters, passengers were forced to step down and they have been taken to an undisclosed location,” Muradi said.

A Taliban commander in neighboring Pakistan said civilian hostages were being divided into small groups to be sent back home. However, members of Afghan security forces had been shifted to the Taliban’s secret jail. “Most probably we would exchange them for our prisoners later,” said the commander.

‘TRAVELING FOR HOLIDAY’

The Taliban confirmed they had captured “three buses packed with passengers”.

“We decided to seize the buses after our intelligence inputs revealed that many men working with Afghan security forces were traveling to Kabul,” Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban, said by telephone.

“We are now identifying members of the security forces,” he said, adding that civilians would be released.

Kunduz provincial council member Sayed Assadullah Sadat said people on the buses were traveling to be with family in Kabul for the holiday.

A senior interior ministry official in Kabul said officials in the area were talking to Taliban leaders in Kunduz to get the estimated 190 hostages released. “We’re are trying our level best to secure freedom for all passengers,” the official said.

Separately, Mujahid said the Taliban would release at least 500 prisoners, including members of the security forces, on Monday, a day before Eid celebrations begin.

Sporadic clashes between Taliban fighters and Afghan forces erupted on the outskirts of Ghazni on Monday as aid workers tried to get help into the city, aid agency officials said.

The government has said its forces had secured the city after the Taliban laid siege to it for five days this month.

At least 150 soldiers and 95 civilians were killed and hundreds were injured. Aid agencies officials said their teams had entered the city but clashes in the outskirts prevented them from launching large-scale operations.

(Editing by Paul Tait, Robert Birsel and editing by David Stamp)

Islamic State kills 215 in southwest Syria attacks: state media

Remains of a suicide bomb are seen in Sweida, Syria July 25, 2018. Sana/Handout via REUTERS

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Islamic State militants killed more than 200 people in a coordinated assault on a government-held area of southwestern Syria on Wednesday, local officials and a war monitor said, in the group’s deadliest attack in the country for years.

Jihadist fighters stormed several villages and staged suicide blasts in the provincial capital Sweida, near one of the few remote pockets still held by Islamic State after it was driven from most of its territory last year.

The head of the Sweida provincial health authority told the pro-Damascus Sham FM that 215 people were killed and 180 injured in the attack, as well as 75 Islamic State fighters.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor said the attackers had killed more than 200 people including many civilians. Islamic State said in an earlier statement that it had killed more than 100 people in the attacks.

The jihadists launched simultaneous attacks on several villages northeast of Sweida city, where they clashed with government forces, state media and the Observatory said.

In the city itself, at least two attackers blew themselves up, one near a marketplace and the second in another district, state television said. State news agency SANA said two other militants were killed before they could detonate their bombs.

The Observatory said jihadists seized hostages from the villages they had attacked.

Photographs distributed on social media, which Reuters could not independently verify but which the Observatory said were genuine, purported to show the bodies of Islamic State fighters hanged from street signs by angry residents.

Sweida Governor Amer al-Eshi said authorities also arrested another attacker. “The city of Sweida is secure and calm now,” he told state-run Ikhbariyah TV.

Islamic State lost nearly all the territory it once held in Syria last year in separate offensives by the Russian-backed army and a U.S.-backed militia alliance.

Since then, President Bashar al-Assad has gone on to crush the last remaining rebel enclaves near the cities of Damascus and Homs and swept rebels from the southwest.

After losing its strongholds in eastern Syria last year, Islamic State launched insurgency operations from pockets of territory in desert areas.

The Observatory said government forces had forced the jihadists from all the villages they had stormed from their pocket northeast of the city.

Government troops and allied forces hold all of Sweida province except for that enclave.

The air force pounded militant hideouts northeast of the city after soldiers thwarted an attempt by Islamic State fighters to infiltrate Douma, Tima and al-Matouna villages, state media said.

With the help of Russian air power, the Syrian army has been hitting Islamic State in a separate pocket further west, near the frontier with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

The Yarmouk Basin in southwest Syria remains in jihadist hands, after an army offensive defeated rebel factions in other parts of the southwest. The operation has focused on Deraa and Quneitra provinces.

(Reporting by Ellen Francis and Tom Perry in Beirut, Hesham Hajali in Cairo, and Kinda Makieh in Damascus; editing by Stephen Powell and David Stamp)

Police name murder suspect in Los Angeles store hostage standoff

Police respond to a hostage situation at a Trader Joe's store in Los Angeles, California, Saturday July 21, 2018. REUTERS/Andrew Cullen

(Reuters) – Los Angeles police named a 28-year-old man on Sunday as the suspect who took hostages and barricaded himself for three hours inside a Trader Joe’s grocery store in which he fatally shot a woman.

Gene Atkins is being held on a $2-million bail on suspicion of murder for Saturday’s attacks, said Los Angeles Police Department spokesman Drake Madison.

A Trader Joe's employee waits in a parking lot near a Trader Joe's store where a hostage situation unfolded in Los Angeles, California, July 21, 2018. REUTERS/Andrew Cullen

A Trader Joe’s employee waits in a parking lot near a Trader Joe’s store where a hostage situation unfolded in Los Angeles, California, July 21, 2018. REUTERS/Andrew Cullen

Atkins is likely to appear in court to be formally charged early this coming week, Madison added.

Atkins is suspected of repeatedly having shot his grandmother and another woman in a separate part of the city before being chased by police and crashing his car outside the Trader Joe’s, according to the police account. He exchanged gunfire with police and entered the crowded store, police said.

Some people managed to escape the store by climbing through a window down a rope ladder, according to video footage. The stand-off came to an end after the gunman, who at one point was shot in the arm, talked with police over the phone to negotiate a surrender before emerging.

The woman killed at the store was identified as Melyda Corado by relatives, who said she worked there as a manager.

Trader Joe’s called the attack the “saddest day in Trader Joe’s history” in a statement on its website, saying the store would remain closed indefinitely.

“Our thoughts are with her family, and our Crew Members and customers who experienced this terrifying and unimaginable ordeal,” the statement said.

Atkin’s grandmother was left in critical condition in the earlier attack on Saturday, police said. There was no update on her condition on Sunday, they said.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York; Editing by Sandra Maler)

Insurgents start leaving south Damascus pocket, release hostages

A soldier loyal to Syria's President Bashar al Assad forces talks to a woman in a bus after they were released by militants from Idlib, Syria May 1, 2018. SANA/Handout via REUTERS

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Dozens of hostages held by militants in northern Syria reached army lines on Tuesday, launching a deal for insurgents to quit an enclave south of Damascus, state media and a monitor said.

State news agency SANA said 42 people were freed in the first step of the agreement, arriving in government territory at a crossing near Aleppo city.

Soldiers loyal to Syria's President Bashar al Assad are seen near a bus carrying rebels from Yarmouk Palestinian camp in Damascus, Syria April 30, 2018. SANA/ via REUTERS

Soldiers loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al Assad are seen near a bus carrying rebels from Yarmouk Palestinian camp in Damascus, Syria April 30, 2018. SANA/ via REUTERS

Women, children, and men including some soldiers wept and hugged on the bus, live on state TV. Islamist rebels had kidnapped the people in a village in rural Idlib as they swept into the province three years ago.

South of Damascus, buses shuttled 200 fighters and relatives out of the Yarmouk enclave under the swap between the government and insurgents, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The fleet arrived at the same crossing near Aleppo in the early hours, the UK-based war monitoring group said. The fighters from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, formerly linked to al-Qaeda, would go to Idlib in the northwest near the Turkish border.

President Bashar al-Assad’s military and its allies have pushed to crush the last insurgent footholds around the capital Damascus through a string of offensives and withdrawal deals.

The pocket south of Damascus includes zones held by Islamic State and others by rebel factions, which have fought each other. It has been the focus of intense fighting since the Syrian army recaptured eastern Ghouta last month with Russian and Iranian help.

Bombing has left parts of the once-teeming Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in ruins, and the United Nations raised warnings over the fate of civilians still stuck there.

The evacuation deal for Tahrir al-Sham to surrender also includes allowing people to leave two pro-government Shi’ite villages, which the insurgents have encircled in Idlib.

State media said ambulances carried some critically ill patients out of the villages, al-Foua and Kefraya, on Tuesday morning in the first step of the agreement.

(Reporting by Ellen Francis, Editing by William Maclean)

Hostages in Philippines siege forced to fight, loot, become sex slaves: army

An explosion is seen after a Philippines army aircraft released a bomb during an airstrike as government troops continue their assault against insurgents from the Maute group in Marawi city June 27, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

By Kanupriya Kapoor

MARAWI CITY, Philippines (Reuters) – Civilians held hostage by Islamist militants occupying a southern Philippine city have been forced by their captors to loot homes, take up arms against government troops and serve as sex slaves for rebel fighters, the army said on Tuesday.Citing accounts of seven residents of Marawi City who either escaped or were rescued, the military said some hostages were forced to convert to Islam, carry wounded fighters to mosques, and marry militants of the Maute group loyal to Islamic State.

“So they are being forced to be sex slaves, forced to destroy the dignity of these women,” military spokesman Jo-Ar Herrera told a news conference.

“So this is what is happening inside, this is very evident … these are evil personalities.”

Their accounts, which could not be immediately verified, are the latest harrowing stories to come out of a conflict zone that the military has been unable to penetrate for five weeks, as well-armed and organized rebels fight off soldiers with sniper rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.

Some escapees say bodies of residents have been left in the streets, some for weeks, and civilians are distressed by government air strikes and artillery bombardments that have reduced parts of Marawi to rubble.

The protracted seizure has worried the region about the extent the Islamic State’s agenda may have gained traction in the southern Philippines, which is more used to banditry, piracy and separatism than radical Islam.

The rebels’ combat capability, access to heavy weapons and use of foreign fighters has raised fears in the mainly Catholic country that the Marawi battle could just be the start of a wider campaign, and be presented by Maute as a triumph to aid their recruitment efforts.

Heavy clashes broke out on Tuesday as the battle entered its sixth week, with intense bombings by planes on a shrinking rebel zone.

NO NEGOTIATIONS

The government ruled out negotiations after reports that Abdullah Maute, one of two brothers who formed the militant group carrying their name, wanted to trade a Catholic priest hostage for his parents arrested earlier this month.

The military said on Saturday Abdullah Maute had fled.

Taking advantage of a short truce to mark the Eid al-Fitr Islamic holiday, eight Muslim leaders met briefly on Sunday with Maute. The Philippine Daily Inquirer said he had asked for his father, Cayamora Maute, and influential businesswoman mother, Farhana Maute, to be freed, in a swap for Father Teresito “Chito” Soganub.

But presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella said deals with militants were against government policy, and anyone trying to bargain had no authority to do so.

“The local religious leader-led talks with terrorists last Sunday was one not sanctioned,” Abella told reporters.

“Any demands made inside, therefore, hold no basis. Let us remind the public, the gravity of the terrorists and their supporters’ offences is immense.”

The military’s public relations machine has been insisting that the rebel leadership was crumbling, saying top commanders had escaped or were killed in action, and the group was fraught with infighting, even executing their own men for wanting to surrender.

Military officers, however, accept they lack solid proof of such developments and were working to verify intelligence reports.

The army said there were reported sightings of the departure from the battle of Isnilon Hapilon, Islamic State’s anointed Southeast Asian “emir”, which Abella said showed he was not committed to his cause.

“It would be a clear sign of his cowardice,” Abella said of Hapilon.

“It may only be a matter of time before they disintegrate.”

Fighting has raged in the town since an operation to arrest Hapilon went wrong on May 23, leading to the government losing not just Hapilon, but control of Marawi.

Official figures show 70 servicemen, 27 civilians and 290 militants have since been killed and 246,000 people displaced.

(Additional reporting by Martin Petty and Karen Lema in MANILA; Editing by Nick Macfie)

Rainbows, angels mark a year since Florida nightclub shooting

Guests visit the memorial outside the Pulse Nightclub on the one year anniversary of the shooting, in Orlando, Florida.

By Christopher Boyd

ORLANDO, Fla. (Reuters) – The names of the 49 people killed at a Florida gay nightclub where a gunman turned a dance party into a massacre last year were read aloud on Monday at ceremonies marked by rainbow-hued memorials and guarded by supporters dressed as angels.

On the first anniversary of the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history, officials asked Americans to join in acts of “love and kindness” to honor victims of the three-hour June 12, 2016 rampage at the now-shuttered Pulse club, including survivors still reeling from emotional and physical wounds.

Vigils and rallies were planned across the United States in a show of solidarity with victims of the attack, which authorities called a hateful act against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.

“People have asked me what has changed in my life. I tell them everything,” Pulse owner Barbara Poma told several hundred people gathered for a midday ceremony outside the club. “We are all changed.”

Choking back sobs, Poma said she missed everything about Pulse, whose site will become a permanent memorial.

Forty-nine pale yellow wreaths emblazoned with the victims’ names adorned a wall at the nightclub on Monday, and many people at the ceremony wore T-shirts bearing messages such as “we will not let hate win.”

Two women, one with a rainbow flag in her hair, embraced as the names of the victims were read aloud.

“We just had to come here today,” said Joe Moy, 56, of Orlando, who has two gay children and attended the event with his wife. “It was a tremendous outpouring of love.”

Survivors and victims had gathered privately at Pulse at 2:02 a.m. ET (0602 GMT) to mark the exact moment that gunman Omar Mateen, 29, opened fire during the club’s popular Latin night. He shot patrons on the dance floor and sprayed bullets at others cowering in bathroom stalls.

Holding hostages during his standoff with police, Mateen claimed allegiance to a leader of the Islamic State militant group before he was killed in an exchange of gunfire with authorities.

His widow, Noor Salman, is charged in federal court with aiding and abetting Mateen’s attack and lying to authorities. She was not present for the shooting and has pleaded not guilty.

With the massacre, more LGBT people were killed in the United States in 2016 than any of the 20 years since such record-keeping began, according to a report by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs.

(Writing by Letitia Stein; Additional reporting by Chris Michaud in New York; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Richard Chang)

Cyber extortion demands surge as victims keep paying: Symantec

A man walks past a display of hexadecimal code in a file photo. REUTERS/Nigel Treblin

By Alastair Sharp

TORONTO (Reuters) – Hackers are demanding increasingly hefty ransoms to free computers paralyzed with viruses, as cyber criminals seek to maximize profits from large numbers of victims willing to pay up, according to cyber security firm Symantec Corp.

The average demand embedded in such malicious software, which is known as ransomware, more than tripled last year to $1,077 from $294, and the pricing has continued to rise in 2017, according to Symantec.

“The bad guys haven’t found the top end of what people will pay,” Symantec Director of Security Response Kevin Haley said in a telephone interview.

Symantec said 69 percent of ransomware infections in 2016 hit consumer computers, with the remainder targeting businesses and other organizations.

More than a third of consumer ransomware victims around the globe pay cyber criminals to regain access to their data, according to Symantec. In the United States, where such attacks are most prevalent, 64 percent pay.

“If six out of ten people will pay your ransom when it’s three hundred bucks, you’re thinking ‘What if I raise it to four hundred? What if I raise to five hundred?'” Haley said.

The surge in cyber extortion has been fueled partly by the sale of ransomware kits, which sell for $10 to $1,800 on underground markets and make it easy for wannabe cyber crooks to get in the business, according to Symantec.

One kit, known as Shark, lets users name their demand, which its creators collect from victims and pass on to attackers, minus a 20 percent commission.

Ransomware attacks have increased sharply over the past year, with criminals targeting hospitals, police departments and other providers of critical services in the United States and Europe.

In some cases, the attacks have interrupted critical public services.

U.S. and European hospitals have been forced to divert patients to other facilities when ransomware paralyzed computer systems.

Local police have been forced to manually dispatch calls, and San Francisco’s public transit system was unable to collect fares for a weekend during the busy Christmas shopping season.

(Reporting by Alastair Sharp; Editing by Steve Orlofsky; Editing by Jim Finkle and Steve Orlofsky)

Man claiming to be Boko Haram leader denies 5,000 hostages freed

By Ardo Abdullahi

BAUCHI, Nigeria (Reuters) – A man purporting to be the leader of Nigerian Islamist militant group Boko Haram denied in a video posted on Friday that 5,000 people held by the group had been freed by West African forces earlier in the week.

On Wednesday, Cameroon said regional forces had rescued the hostages, who were held in villages by the jihadist group, in an operation along the Nigeria-Cameroon border.

“You are telling lies that you killed 60 of our men and rescued 20 children, and that you rescued 5,000 of your people, Paul Biya,” said the man claiming to be Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau, referring to Cameroon’s president.

He also claimed responsibility for attacks earlier this week which included suicide bombings in the city of Maiduguri and a raid on the town of Magumeri, both of which are in the northeast Nigerian state of Borno.

Nigeria’s military has said on multiple occasions in the last few years that it has killed or wounded Shekau.

Such statements have often been followed by video denials by someone who says he is Shekau, but poor footage makes it difficult to confirm if the person is the same man as in previous footage.

Boko Haram has killed around 15,000 people and forced more than 2 million people to flee their homes since 2009 in an insurgency aimed at creating a state adhering to strict Islamic laws in the northeast of Africa’s most populous nation.

The jihadist group, whose attacks have increased since the end of the rainy season in late 2016, also carries out cross-border attacks in neighboring Cameroon, Chad and Niger.

(Additional reporting by Ahmed Kingimi; writing by Alexis Akwagyiram; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)

Afghan Taliban releases video of U.S., Australian hostages

KABUL (Reuters) – The Afghan Taliban released a video on Wednesday showing an Australian and an American hostage pleading with the U.S. government to negotiate with their captors and saying that unless a prisoner exchange was agreed they would be killed.

Timothy Weeks, an Australian teacher at the American University in Kabul and his American colleague Kevin King were seized near the campus in August.

The video, which Weeks said was made on Jan. 1, showed the two men, both bearded, asking their families to put pressure on the U.S. government to help secure their release.

Addressing President-elect Donald Trump, who is due to take office on Jan. 20, Weeks said the Taliban had asked for prisoners held at Bagram air field and at Pul-e-Charkhi prison on the outskirts of Kabul to be exchanged for them.

“They are being held there illegally and the Taliban has asked for them to be released in our exchange. If they are not exchanged for us then we will be killed,” he said.

“Donald Trump sir, please, I ask you, please, this is in your hands, I ask you please to negotiate with the Taliban. If you do not negotiate with them, we will be killed.”

In September, the Pentagon said U.S. forces mounted a raid to try to rescue two civilian hostages but the men were not at the location targeted.

Kidnapping has been a major problem in Afghanistan for many years. Most victims are Afghans and many kidnappers are criminal gangs seeking ransom money but a number of foreigners have also been abducted for political ends.

Last year, the Taliban released a video showing a U.S. hostage and her Canadian husband abducted in 2012 asking their governments to pressure the Kabul government not to execute Taliban prisoners.

(Reporting by James Mackenzie; Editing by Louise Ireland)