Nigeria releases 25 children cleared of suspected ties with Boko Haram: UNICEF

Children who were released by the Nigerian Army, after being cleared of suspected ties with armed Islamist groups, are handed to authorities in Maiduguri, Nigeria October 3, 2019. REUTERS/Kolawole Adewale NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES

MAIDUGURI, Nigeria (Reuters) – The Nigerian army released 25 children on Thursday after clearing them of suspected ties with armed Islamist groups in the country’s restive northeast region, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said.

Nigeria has fought an insurgency by militant Islamist group Boko Haram in northeastern states that has killed more than 30,000 people over the past decade. It is not clear how many children in total have been drawn into armed groups, including Boko Haram, or how they have been recruited.

UNICEF said 23 boys and two girls were released by the army and handed to authorities in Borno, the state worst affected by the insurgency.

“These are children taken away from their families and communities, deprived of their childhood, education, health-care, and of the chance to grow up in a safe and enabling environment,” said UNICEF Nigeria Acting Representative Pernille Ironside.

The children would be given access to medical support, education and vocational training, the agency said.

The release comes against the backdrop of widely reported cases of young people being held captive in Nigeria in differing circumstances.

In May, a regional militia allied with government forces freed almost 900 children it had used in the war against Islamist insurgents.

Earlier this week police in Lagos, the commercial capital, said they had freed 19 women and girls who had mostly been abducted and made pregnant by captors planning to sell their babies.

Last week, around 400 boys and men – some as young as 5 and many in chains and scarred from beatings – were rescued from a building in the northern city of Kaduna that purported to be an Islamic school.

Ironside said UNICEF was working to ensure that all children affected by the conflict were reunited with their families.

A total of 2,499 people, including 1,627 children have been cleared of association with non-state armed groups in Nigeria since 2016, UNICEF said.

(Reporting by Maiduguri Newsroom; Writing by Alexis Akwagyiram; Editing by Frances Kerry)

Gazans bury dead after bloodiest day of Israel border protests

Palestinian demonstrators run for cover from Israeli fire and tear gas during a protest against U.S. embassy move to Jerusalem and ahead of the 70th anniversary of Nakba, at the Israel-Gaza border in the southern Gaza Strip May 14, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Dan Williams

GAZA-ISRAEL BORDER (Reuters) – Thousands of Gaza residents turned out on Tuesday for the funerals of Palestinians killed by Israeli troops a day earlier, while on the Gaza-Israel border, Israeli forces prepared to face the expected final day of a Palestinian protest campaign.

Monday’s violence on the border, which took place as the United States opened its new embassy in Jerusalem, was the bloodiest for Palestinians since the 2014 Gaza conflict.

The death toll rose to 60 overnight after an eight-month-old baby died from tear gas that her family said she inhaled at a protest camp on Monday. More than 2,200 Palestinians were also injured by gunfire or tear gas, Palestinian medics said.

Palestinian leaders have called Monday’s events a massacre, and the Israeli tactic of using live fire against the protesters has drawn worldwide concern and condemnation.

The United Nations Security Council was due to meet to discuss the situation.

Israel has said it is acting in self-defense to defend its borders and communities. Its main ally the United States has backed that stance, with both saying that Hamas, the Islamist group that rules the coastal enclave, instigated the violence.

On Tuesday morning, mourners marched through Gaza, waving Palestinian flags and calling for revenge.

“With souls and blood we redeem you martyrs,” they shouted.

There were fears of further bloodshed as a six-week protest campaign was due to reach its climax.

May 15 is traditionally the day Palestinians mark the “Nakba”, or Catastrophe, when hundreds of thousands fled or were driven from their homes in violence culminating in war between the newly created Jewish state and its Arab neighbors in 1948.

The protests, dubbed “The Great March of Return,” began on March 30 and revived calls for refugees to have the right of return to their former lands, which now lie inside Israel.

Israel rejects any right of return, fearing that it would deprive the state of its Jewish majority.

Palestinian medical officials say 105 Gazans have now been killed since the start of the protests and nearly 11,000 people wounded, about 3,500 of them hit by live fire. Israeli officials dispute those numbers. No Israeli casualties have been reported.

More than 2 million people are crammed into the narrow Gaza Strip, more than two thirds of them refugees. Citing security concerns, Israel and Egypt maintain tight restrictions on the enclave, deepening economic hardship and raising humanitarian concerns.

SHARPSHOOTERS

On the Israeli side of the border, Israeli sharpshooters took up positions to stop any attempted breach of the fence should demonstrations break out again. Tanks were also deployed.

A senior Israeli commander said that of the 60 Gazans killed on Monday, 14 were carrying out attacks and 14 others were militants.

He also said Palestinians protesters were using hundreds of pipe bombs, grenades and fire-bombs. Militants had opened fire on Israeli troops and tried to set off bombs by the fence.

Many casualties were caused by Palestinians carrying out devices that went off prematurely,” he said.

“We approve every round fired before it is fired. Every target is spotted in advance. We know where the bullet lands and where it is aimed,” said the commander, who spoke on condition that he not be named, in accordance with Israeli regulations.

“However reality on the ground is such that unintended damage is caused,” he said.

In Geneva, the U.N. human rights office condemned what it called the “appalling deadly violence” by Israeli forces.

U.N. human rights spokesman Rupert Colville said Israel had a right to defend its borders according to international law, but lethal force must only be used a last resort, and was not justified by Palestinians approaching the Gaza fence.

The U.N. rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories, Michael Lynk, said Israel’s use of force may amount to a war crime.

YOUNG VICTIM

In Gaza City, hundreds marched in the funeral of eight-month-old Leila al-Ghandour, whose body was wrapped in a Palestinian flag.

“Let her stay with me, It is too early for her to go,” her mother cried, pressing the baby’s body to her chest.

Speaking earlier, her grandmother said the child was at one of the tented protest camps and had inhaled tear gas.

“When we got back home, the baby stopped crying and I thought she was asleep. I took her to the children’s hospital and the doctor told me she was martyred (dead),” Heyam Omar said.

Many shops in East Jerusalem were shut throughout the day following a call by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for a general strike across the Palestinian Territories. A 70-second siren was sounded in the occupied West Bank in commemoration of the Nakba.

HOLY CITY

Most Gaza protesters stay around tent camps but groups have ventured closer to the border fence, rolling burning tyres and throwing stones. Some have flown kites carrying containers of petrol that spread fires on the Israeli side.

Monday’s protests were fueled by the opening ceremony for the new U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem following its relocation from Tel Aviv. The move fulfilled a pledge by U.S. President Donald Trump, who in December recognized the contested city as the Israeli capital.

Palestinians envision East Jerusalem as the capital of a state they hope to establish in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Israel regards all of Jerusalem, including the eastern sector it captured in the 1967 Middle East war and later annexed, as its “eternal and indivisible capital”.

Most countries say the status of Jerusalem – a sacred city to Jews, Muslims and Christians – should be determined in a final peace settlement and that moving their embassies now would prejudge any such deal.

Netanyahu praised Trump’s decisions but Palestinians have said the United States can no longer serve as an honest broker in any peace process. Talks aimed a finding a two-state solution to the conflict have been frozen since 2014.

Trump said on Monday he remained committed to peace between Israel and the Palestinians. His administration says it has nearly completed a new Israeli-Palestinian peace plan but is undecided on how and when to roll it out.

Netanyahu blamed Hamas for the Gaza violence. Hamas denied instigating it but the White House backed Netanyahu, saying Hamas “intentionally and cynically provoking this response”.

The United States on Monday blocked a Kuwait-drafted U.N. Security Council statement that would have expressed “outrage and sorrow at the killing of Palestinian civilians” and called for an independent investigation, U.N. diplomats said.

In the British parliament, junior foreign office minister Alistair Burt said the United States needed to show more understanding about the causes of Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Hamas’ role in the violence must be investigated, he added.

(Additional reporting by Stephen Farrell, Writing by Maayan Lubell, Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Israel says it destroyed Gaza attack tunnel under Egyptian border

Palestinian security forces loyal to Hamas stand guard near the border between Egypt and Gaza, in the southern Gaza Strip January 14, 2018.

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Maayan Lubell

GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel said on Sunday it had destroyed a cross-border attack tunnel that ran from Gaza into Israel and Egypt dug by Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the Palestinian enclave, and that it would destroy all attack tunnels by the year’s end.

Residents in Gaza said Israeli jets bombed an area east of the southern town of Rafah, by the Egyptian and Israeli borders, late on Saturday night. Israel confirmed the attack immediately after, but gave no details until Sunday.

There was no immediate comment from Hamas or Egypt, or any reports of casualties.

Israel says it has developed new means which it has declined to disclose, to find tunnels. Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman lauded the breakthrough in an interview on commercial television news, saying they would all be destroyed by the end of the year.

“By the end of 2018, we will eliminate all the Hamas attack tunnels … we may even manage to do this sooner, but the task is to destroy them all by the end of the year,” Lieberman said.

Tensions have risen since President Donald Trump reversed decades of U.S. policy on Dec. 6 by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Gaza militants have launched 18 cross-border rockets or mortar bombs, causing no fatalities or serious injuries in Israel, and 15 protesters and two gunmen have been killed by Israeli fire.

The attacks from Gaza, which Israel has blamed on groups not affiliated with Hamas, have drawn Israeli air strikes, usually on targets that have been evacuated.

“There are those who say the Israeli military attacks sand dunes – that is incorrect,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, addressing criticism from lawmakers who have called for a stronger armed response, told reporters after the tunnel was targeted.

Netanyahu cautioned Hamas that Israel “will respond with even greater force” if rocket strikes continue. Israel has said Hamas, as the dominant force in Gaza, bears overall responsibility for any attacks from the enclave.

But Yoav Galant, a member of Netanyahu’s security cabinet, said on Army Radio that Israel is “not looking for confrontation with Hamas”. Nonetheless, he said Israel “could not abide by a situation in which Israelis are harmed by fire (from Gaza)”.

Colonel Jonathan Conricus, an Israeli military spokesman, described the target hit on Saturday as 1.5 km (one mile)-lone “terror tunnel” running the Kerem Shalom border crossing into Israel, and into Egypt.

“It could also have served to transfer terrorists from the Gaza Strip into Egypt in order to attack Israeli targets from Egypt,” he said.

Kerem Shalom, the main passage point for goods entering Gaza, was shut down on Saturday before the Israeli attack.

Underground tunnels are used to smuggle in all manner of commercial goods to Gaza, and to bring in weapons for militants from Hamas and other groups. They have also been used by Hamas to launch attacks inside Israel.

During the last Gaza war, in 2014, Hamas fighters used dozens of tunnels to blindside Israel’s superior forces.

The Israeli military said it has destroyed three tunnels in the past two months.

Israel has been constructing a sensor-equipped underground wall along the 60-km (36-mile) Gaza border, aiming to complete the $1.1 billion project by mid-2019.

(Additional reporting by Ori Lewis, Editing by Jeffrey Heller, Raissa Kasolowsky and David Evans)

Hamas executes three Palestinians over killing says ordered by Israel

Members of Palestinian security forces loyal to Hamas ride a truck outside a Hamas-run military court where alleged collaborators with Israel are prosecuted, in Gaza City May 21, 2017. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) – Gaza’s ruling Hamas movement executed three Palestinians on Thursday convicted of killing a commander in the Islamist group’s armed wing while acting on Israel’s orders.

Hamas’ military prosecutor said the three men admitted to receiving orders from Israeli intelligence officers to track and kill Mazen Fuqaha on March 24 in Gaza City.

A military court convicted one of carrying out the shooting and the two others of providing Israel with information about Fuqaha’s whereabouts.

Two of the men, aged 44 and 38, were hanged while the third, 38, a former security officer, was shot by firing squad, the Hamas-run interior ministry said.

The executions took place in an open yard of Gaza’s main police headquarters, witnessed by leaders from Hamas and other Palestinian factions, as well as heads of Gaza clans.

Israel has established a network of contacts in the Palestinian territories, using a combination of pressure and sweeteners to entice Palestinians to divulge intelligence.

The Shin Bet security service, which carries out covert operations against Palestinian militants, did not respond to a request by Reuters for comment.

Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, in an interview with Israel’s Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper soon after Fuqaha’s killing, said his death was part of an internal power dispute within Hamas.

Israel jailed Fuqaha in 2003 for planning attacks against Israelis, sentencing him to nine life terms. He was released in 2011 in a group of more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners who Israel freed in exchange for a captured soldier.

Israeli media said that after Fuqaha’s release and exile to Gaza he continued to plan attacks by Palestinian militants in the occupied West Bank.

Palestinian and International human rights groups have repeatedly urged Hamas and the Palestinian Authority to suspend use of the death penalty.

Palestinian law says President Mahmoud Abbas, who has no actual control over Gaza, has the final word on whether executions can be carried out.

Hamas has sentenced 109 people to death and executed at least 25 since 2007, when the group seized power in Gaza from Abbas in a brief civil war.

Human Rights Watch’s executive director of the Middle East division, Sara Leah Whitson, denounced what she called Hamas’ “reliance on confessions, in a system where coercion, torture and deprivation of detainees’ rights are prevalent.”

(Writing by Nidal Almughrabi; editing by John Stonestreet)