Aid struggles to reach remote areas of Haiti quake zone

By Laura Gottesdiener

MARCELINE, Haiti (Reuters) – Damaged or impassable roads were complicating efforts on Friday to deliver aid to more remote parts of Haiti devastated by an earthquake last weekend that killed more than 2,000 people.

On the main inland mountain road between the southwestern city of Les Cayes and Jeremie to its northwest, two of the hardest hit urban areas, landslides and cracks in the tarmac made it harder to dispatch aid to farming communities now grappling with food insecurity and access to potable water.

The route was littered with boulders and the occasional stranded truck, according to a Reuters reporter.

The poorest country in the Americas, Haiti is still recovering from a 2010 quake that killed over 200,000 people.

The country was pitched into deeper instability last month by the assassination of President Jovenel Moise, by what authorities say was a group of largely Colombian mercenaries.

A powerful storm that hit Haiti earlier in the week, triggering landslides, has also made it harder to find victims of last Saturday’s quake, which destroyed tens of thousands of homes and claimed the lives of at least 2,189 people.

It also injured 12,200 people and the casualty toll is expected to rise as rescue efforts continue, authorities say.

In the village of Marceline, 25 km (16 miles) north of Les Cayes, a dozen residents were digging out a vast pile of rubble of what was once a handful of houses. The air smelled of decomposing bodies, and residents said that at least one woman who lived in one of the buildings was still missing.

Many of the hospitals remained saturated in the worst-hit areas of Haiti. In Les Cayes’ airport, helicopters ferried the injured to the capital, Port-au-Prince.

The recent kidnapping of two doctors in the capital, including one of the few trained orthopedic surgeons in the country, has further impeded recovery efforts. Some hospitals decided to shut down temporarily in protest, demanding that the gangs free the doctors, local media reported.

“(The kidnapping) paralyzes the care that the hospital was beginning to provide to earthquake victims,” Radio RFM said, citing the large Bernard Mevs hospital, where the orthopedic surgeon worked.

(Reporting by Laura Gottesdiener; Additional reporting by Gessika Thomas in Port-au-Prince; Writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)

U.S to target migrant smugglers as Biden struggles with border crossings

By Mimi Dwyer

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – The United States is launching an operation to identify and target human smugglers, the Department of Homeland Security said on Tuesday, as the Biden administration struggles with record numbers of migrants arriving at the southern U.S. border.

DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a statement that Operation Sentinel would seek to block smugglers’ ability to engage in “travel, trade, and finance” in the United States.

The operation will aim to identify smugglers and target their activities by revoking travel documents, suspending trade entities, and freezing financial assets, DHS said.

DHS said smugglers “pose significant dangers to migrants,” noting that border patrol agents had found the bodies of 250 migrants who died en route to the United States in fiscal year 2020.

Migrants from Central America and elsewhere often use smugglers to travel to the border and are prone to extortion, kidnapping and other violence.

Roughly 168,000 people were picked up by U.S. Border Patrol agents at the U.S.-Mexico border in March, the highest monthly tally since March 2001.

(Reporting by Mimi Dwyer in Los Angeles, editing by Ross Colvin and Rosalba O’Brien)

‘Descent into hell’: Kidnapping explosion terrorizes Haiti

By Andre Paultre and Sarah Marsh

PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) – A wave of kidnappings is sweeping Haiti. But even in a country growing inured to horrific abductions, the case of five-year-old Olslina Janneus sparked outrage.

Olslina was snatched off the streets of the capital Port-au-Prince in late January as she was playing. The child’s corpse, bearing signs of strangulation, turned up a week later, according to her mother, Nadege Saint Hilaire, a peanut vendor who said she couldn’t pay the $4,000 ransom. Saint Hilaire’s cries filled the airwaves as she spoke to a few local radio stations seeking help raising funds to cover funeral costs.

Saint Hilaire is now in hiding after receiving death threats, she said, from the same gang that killed her daughter. “I wasn’t supposed to go to the radio to denounce what had happened,” she told Reuters.

Police in her impoverished and crime-ridden neighborhood, Martissant, told Reuters they were investigating the case.

Haiti’s epidemic of kidnappings is the latest crisis to befall this Caribbean island nation of around 11 million people, roiled by deepening political unrest and economic misery. Kidnappings last year tripled to 234 cases compared to 2019, according to official data compiled by the United Nations.

The real figures are likely much higher because many Haitians don’t report abductions, fearing retribution from criminal gangs, according to attorney Gedeon Jean, director of the nonprofit Center for Human Rights Analysis and Research in Port-au-Prince. He said the research center recorded 796 kidnappings last year.

Haiti’s national police force did not respond to a request for comment. President Jovenel Moise has said repeatedly that his government is doing all it can, and has put more resources into anti-kidnapping efforts. Still, he publicly acknowledged on April 14 that “kidnappings have become generalized” and that efforts to combat persistent insecurity have been “ineffective.”

Human rights activists and a new report from Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic allege that Moise’s government has allied itself with violent criminal gangs to maintain its grip on power and to suppress dissent. Opposition groups have called for Moise to resign and hand power to a transitional government that would delay presidential and legislative elections slated for September until the nation is stable enough to ensure a free and fair contest.

Haiti’s acting Prime Minister Claude Joseph denied those allegations and the report’s findings. He said anti-democratic forces are whipping up violence to destabilize Moise’s administration in an election year. “They are fomenting the gangs to stop there being elections,” Joseph told Reuters.

Criminals have targeted some poor people, like Saint Hilaire, for modest sums. Many more victims come from the ranks of the Haitian middle class – teachers, priests, civil servants, small business owners. Such targets aren’t rich enough to afford bodyguards but have enough assets or connections to scrape up a ransom.

In one of the most high-profile recent cases, five Catholic priests, two nuns and three laymen were kidnapped on April 11 in the commune of Croix-des-Bouquets, northeast of the capital. Four members of the group were subsequently released and six are still missing, according to an April 25 statement by the Society of Priests of St. Jacques, a French missionary society linked to four of the kidnapped priests. An official with that group declined to comment on whether a ransom was paid.

“For some time now, we have been witnessing the descent into hell of Haitian society,” the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Port-au-Prince said in a statement earlier this month.

‘KILLING THE ECONOMY’

Haiti last experienced a major surge in kidnappings and gang violence after a rebellion toppled then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004, prompting the United Nations to send in a peacekeeping force.

The departure of that force in October 2019 was followed by a resurgence in gang crime, according to human-rights activists, who say kidnapping has proven lucrative at a time when Haiti’s economy is teetering.

Rights activists say politics also play a role. They allege Moise’s government has harnessed criminal groups to terrorize neighborhoods known as opposition strongholds and to quell public dissent amid street protests that have rocked the country the past three years.

The report released April 22 by the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School alleges “high-level government involvement in the planning, execution and cover-up” of three gang-led attacks on poor neighborhoods between 2018 and 2020 that left at least 240 civilians dead. The report relied on investigations of the attacks by Haitian and international human rights experts. It alleges the government provided gangs with money, weapons and vehicles and shielded them from prosecution.

The U.S. Department of the Treasury in December sanctioned reputed Haitian gang leader Jimmy Cherizier and two former Moise administration officials – Fednel Monchery and Joseph Pierre Richard Duplan – for helping orchestrate one of the attacks. All three have denied wrongdoing.

Kidnapping is an outgrowth of impunity for criminal organizations, according to Rosy Auguste Ducena, program manager of the Port-au-Prince-based National Network for the Defense of Human Rights.

“We are talking about a regime that has allied itself with armed gangs,” Ducena said.

Justice Minister Rockefeller Vincent denied any government alliance with gangs. He told Reuters in December that the wave of kidnappings was the work of political enemies seeking to undermine Moise “by creating a sense of chaos.”

The rise in kidnappings has petrified many Haitians. The heads of seven private business associations this month issued a joint statement saying they had reached “a saturation point” with soaring crime. They endorsed a nationwide work stoppage that occurred on April 15 to protest Haiti’s security crisis.

“Kidnapping is killing the economy,” said Haitian economist Etzer Emile. He said the tourism and entertainment sectors have withered.

Moise’s administration says it is working hard to end the terror. Two years ago it revived a commission aimed at disarming gang members and reintegrating them into society. Over the past year, the government has increased the police budget and solicited advice from Colombia, which once battled its own kidnapping epidemic. In March, Haiti created an anti-kidnapping task force to attack the problem with tactics such as tracing laundered ransom money.

Still, four policemen died last month in a gun battle with alleged criminals in a slum where kidnapping victims are often held. The government declared a month-long state of emergency in gang-controlled neighborhoods. Yet abductions continue to mount.

Moise, who has opted not to seek re-election this September, has defied the opposition’s calls for him to step down early. On April 14 he issued a statement saying he aimed to form a government of national unity to better tackle the “pressing problem of insecurity.”

HOODS, GUNS AND TORTURE

Many Haitians remain skeptical – and on edge.

One victim was a 29-year-old doctor. He was kidnapped in his own vehicle last November after leaving the Port-au-Prince hospital where he had just finished an overnight shift. He told Reuters his story on condition of anonymity.

At dawn, four armed assailants hustled him into the back seat, threw a hood over his head and held him at gunpoint as they drove, he said. His captors eventually tossed him into a room with three other abductees – a man and two women – who had been snatched earlier.

The physician said his kidnappers ordered him to phone his family to request $500,000 for his release. The first two people he tried said they couldn’t pay. The kidnappers slapped him and delivered a threat.

“They said that if I called a third person that didn’t give me a satisfying response, they would kill me,” he said.

The doctor’s girlfriend said she and three friends negotiated with the gang. She wouldn’t say how much they paid, fearful of becoming targets for other criminals.

The doctor said he reported his abduction to Haiti’s national anti-kidnapping police unit. That unit did not respond to requests for comment.

The physician does not know the fate of his fellow abductees. He said the kidnappers poured melted Styrofoam on their skin because their families had yet to pay up.

Saint Hilaire, the mother of the young girl who was kidnapped and murdered, said she continues to watch her back after speaking publicly about the abduction.

The kidnappers “told me to make sure I never ran into them, because they would kill me,” she said.

(Reporting by Andre Paultre in Port-au-Prince and Sarah Marsh in Havana; editing by Marla Dickerson)

U.S. travel warning puts virus-battered Mexico on par with war-torn nations

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – The U.S. State Department urged citizens on Thursday not to travel to Mexico, despite easing a global travel ban, and warned of the rapid spread of coronavirus in the neighboring nation, in addition to rampant crime and kidnapping.

The United States and Mexico have close commercial ties and share the world’s busiest land border, crossed by many of their citizens for work, travel or family visits.

Mexico’s health ministry reported 6,590 new infections and 819 more deaths, taking its virus tally to 462,690 confirmed cases and 50,517 fatalities.

On Twitter, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Christopher Landau, said his country had issued a “Level 4: Do not travel,” warning for all nations at the beginning of the pandemic in March.

But the stringent advisory, usually reserved for countries at war, was not lifted for Mexico, because of the spread of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus.

“Its own government recognizes that contagion rates are still high,” Landau added.

The state department said, “Travelers to Mexico may experience border closures, airport closures, travel prohibitions, stay at home orders, business closures, and other emergency conditions within Mexico due to COVID-19.”

Reiterating earlier concerns about crime, its website said the Level 4 warning covered Mexico and many other countries.

Also citing the spread of COVID-19, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control  and Prevention  (CDC)  issued a separate “Level 3 Travel Health Notice.”

(Reporting by Stefanie Eschenbacher; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

Migrants raped and trafficked as U.S. and Mexico tighten borders, charity says

By Christine Murray

MEXICO CITY (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Central American migrants are being kidnapped, raped and trafficked in Mexico as they seek to enter the United States amid a migration crackdown, a medical charity said on Tuesday.

In Mexico’s Nuevo Laredo city – separated from the United States by the Rio Grande – almost 80% of migrants treated by Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) in the first nine months of 2019 said they had been victims of violence, including kidnapping.

“They’re treated as if they aren’t really people,” Sergio Martin, Mexico coordinator for MSF, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “They’ve suffered violence … and what they find on their journey is more violence.”

Mexico has ramped up efforts to stop Central American migrants, often fleeing violent crime and poverty, reaching the U.S. border under pressure from President Donald Trump who threatened to put import tariffs on its goods.

It has deployed the National Guard to stop migrants crossing northwards and increased detentions and deportations.

Mexico’s immigration authority and interior ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment. President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has said he wants to apply immigration laws while respecting migrants’ human rights.

The United States has sent 57,000 non-Mexican migrants back to Mexico to await their U.S. asylum hearings, restricted asylum criteria and limited the number of claims it receives daily at each port of entry.

In September, 18 of 41 patients in Nuevo Laredo who had been sent back to Mexico to wait for U.S. asylum processing told MSF they had recently been kidnapped.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“We think that as a direct result of many of these policies there are people who are suffering more violence,” said Martin.

“It’s easier for them to fall into human trafficking networks or into extortion networks, and no one look for them.”

MSF found 78% of almost 3,700 patients in Mexico who sought mental health care in 2018 and 2019 showed signs of exposure to violence, including assault, sexual violence and torture.

Some patients said they had been kidnapped in Mexico for long periods for forced labour, sexual exploitation or recruitment to work for criminal groups.

Almost one in four female migrants told MSF they had experienced sexual violence on their journeys.

The MSF data was based on some 26,000 health consultations with migrants in 2018 and 2019, testimonials and a survey.

(Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Pompeo ‘deplored’ the death toll at protests in phone call with Iraqi PM: State Dept

Pompeo ‘deplored’ the death toll at protests in phone call with Iraqi PM: State Dept
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a phone call with Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi “deplored the death toll” among protesters due to the crackdown of the Iraqi government and urged him to take immediate steps to address demonstrators’ demands, State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said on Tuesday.

Iraqi security forces on Monday shot dead two protesters in the city of Nassiriya, bringing to 300 the number of people killed since protests against political corruption, unemployment and poor public services erupted in Baghdad on Oct. 1 and spread to the southern Shi’ite heartlands.

“The Secretary deplored the death toll among the protesters as a result of the Government of Iraq’s crackdown and use of lethal force, as well as the reports of kidnapped protesters,” Ortagus said in a statement.

The government has failed to find an answer to the unrest among mostly unemployed young people who see no improvement in their lives even in peacetime after decades of war and sanctions.

“Secretary Pompeo emphasized that peaceful public demonstrations are a fundamental element of all democracies,” Ortagus said and added that Pompeo urged Mahdi to address the protesters’ grievances by enacting reforms and tackling corruption.

The unrest is the biggest and most complex challenge to the Iraqi political order since the government declared victory over Islamic State two years ago.

(Reporting by Lisa Lambert and Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Chris Reese and Lisa Shumaker)

European Court says Russia not facing up to domestic abuse problem

FILE PHOTO: The building of the European Court of Human Rights is seen in Strasbourg, France March 26, 2019. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler/File Photo

By Tom Balmforth

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia failed to protect a woman from repeated acts of violence by her former partner, the European Court of Human Rights ruled on Tuesday, saying her case showed that Moscow was not facing up to its domestic abuse problem.

Valeriya Volodina, who now uses a different name for security reasons, was assaulted, kidnapped and stalked by her former partner after she left him in 2015 and moved out of their shared home in the Russian city of Ulyanovsk, the court said.

The police never opened a criminal investigation into violence and threats that she reported to them from January 2016 to March 2018, it said in its statement.

In one such episode, she was forced to have an abortion after he punched her in the face and stomach when she was pregnant. In other incidents, the partner, whom she met in 2014, cut her car’s brake hose and stole her identity papers, it said.

After she moved to Moscow, Volodina discovered a GPS tracker planted in her bag and the former partner, identified only as S., subsequently started stalking her outside her home and attempted to drag her from a taxi.

The court in Strasbourg said Russia’s police had interviewed the partner and carried out pre-investigation inquiries but not opened formal proceedings against him as it deemed that “no publicly prosecutable offense had been committed”.

Russian legislation does not define or mention domestic violence as a separate offense or aggravating element in other offenses and there is no mechanism for imposing restraining or protection orders, the court said.

“Those failings clearly demonstrated that the authorities were reluctant to acknowledge the gravity of the problem of domestic violence in Russia and its discriminatory effect on women,” the court said in a statement.

Each year, about 14,000 women die in Russia at the hands of husbands or other relatives, according to a 2010 United Nations report.

Police finally opened a criminal investigation only in March 2018 when the partner circulated photographs of her on social networks without her consent, the court said.

The court said Russia’s response had been “manifestly inadequate” and ruled unanimously there had been two violations of the European Convention on human rights, one on the prohibition of discrimination and the other on the prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment.

Russia’s Justice Ministry said it had three months to decide whether to appeal against the ruling, but that it would study the findings of the court, Interfax news agency reported.

(Editing by Alison Williams)

Soldiers held hostage, villagers killed: the untold story of Venezuelan aid violence

FILE PHOTO: A crashed car is seen at the scene where Venezuelan soldiers opened fire on indigenous people near the border with Brazil on Friday, according to community members, in Kumarakapay, Venezuela, February 22, 2019. REUTERS/William Urdaneta/File Photo NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES

By Maria Ramirez

KUMARAKAPAY, Venezuela (Reuters) – At dawn on February 22, as Venezuela’s opposition was preparing to bring humanitarian aid into the country, a convoy of military vehicles drove into the indigenous village of Kumarakapay on its way to the Brazilian border.

Members of the Pemon community, a tribe whose territory includes the road to Brazil, wanted to keep the border open to ensure the aid got through despite President Nicolas Maduro commanding the military to block it.

Before dawn, the villagers had ordered military vehicles headed toward the border to turn around, citing the tribe’s constitutionally guaranteed autonomy over their territory.

But the army convoy that arrived at dawn was moving quickly and the tribesman were only able to stop the last of the four vehicles – a Jeep carrying four National Guard officials, who told the villagers they were working on a mining project.

Believing the officers were on their way to block the aid, several villagers pulled them from the vehicle, seized their weapons and detained them, according to interviews with 15 villagers.

Some of the other soldiers, who had stopped several hundred meters ahead, got out of their vehicles with weapons in hand and approached. Shouting broke out and one of the soldiers fired a shot downward onto the road, according to the villagers and a cellphone video seen by Reuters that was filmed by a resident.

The remaining soldiers began firing repeatedly in the direction of the village as they ran back toward their vehicles, according to witnesses and the video.

The shooting would leave dozens of villagers wounded and three villagers dead, an unusually bloody confrontation between Venezuelan troops and indigenous people.

The incident itself was widely reported on the day it took place but has drawn little scrutiny until Reuters examined it.

The repercussions included the arrest of 23 Pemon tribesmen, some of whom say they were beaten in custody. Pemon villagers also held more than 40 members of the military hostage, some of whom suffered severe bites after being left half-naked atop ant nests in retribution for the killings, according to interviews with Pemon tribe members.

The incidents are a stark illustration of how Venezuela’s economic and political crises have undermined the once-close relationship between impoverished indigenous communities and a socialist movement launched two decades ago by Maduro’s predecessor, president Hugo Chavez, which had promised to help them.

“We couldn’t understand the attitude of Maduro’s regime of using arms against indigenous people,” said Guillermo Rodriguez, brother of Zoraida Rodriguez, one of the people killed in Kumarakapay.

Rodriguez now lives in the Brazilian border town of Pacaraima after fleeing the violence in late February. He is one of nearly 1,000 members of the Pemon tribe who crossed into Brazil, many on foot, according to the Brazil office of the International Organization for Migration.

They now live in wooden huts they built themselves or camped under canvas donated by the United Nations refugee commission.

The incident followed recent tensions in southern Venezuela between military officers and Pemon tribesmen involved in informal gold mining operations. The Pemon complain of extortion and shakedowns by troops.

The National Guard, the information ministry – which handles media enquiries for the Venezuelan government – and the defense ministry did not respond to requests for this story.

However, Maduro’s government has in the past denied mistreatment of the Pemon. It says the Pemon, who live in southern Venezuela and northern Brazil and number about 30,000 in total, have benefited from state resources and increased autonomy.

The government has not commented on the extortion accusations, but Maduro in recent years has said that opposition leaders are involved in gold “mafias.”

Bolivar state governor Justo Noguera of the ruling Socialist Party in a March interview with Reuters blamed the violence on armed members of the Pemon tribe, without presenting evidence. He added that the incident is under investigation.

“Unfortunately, there were terrorist acts. They attacked a unit of our Bolivarian Army that was only carrying communications equipment,” said Noguera. “There were elements within the peaceful community of Kumarakapay that were armed, and the community rejects that.”

U.S.-BACKED AID CONVOYS

Opposition leader Juan Guaido, who invoked the constitution in January to assume an interim presidency, led the attempt to bring U.S.-backed aid convoys across Venezuela’s borders in an effort to shame Maduro for refusing to accept foreign aid despite shortages of food and basic goods.

Maduro said the aid effort was a disguised invasion by Washington. He said the Trump administration should have lifted economic and oil industry sanctions if it really wanted to help Venezuelans.

The tribal leaders of Kumarakapay were the first of the main Pemon communities in the area to openly support the aid plan.

When residents learned of the killings in Kumarakapay on February 22, a group of them beat the four members of the National Guard held hostage that morning, according to two villagers who witnessed the events.

That same day, a group of around 10 Pemon tribesmen from the village of Maurak detained 42 members of the National Guard at a small airport in the town of Santa Elena, about 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) from the border with Brazil and 75 kilometers (47 miles) south of Kumarakapay, according to one Pemon tribal leader.

They drove the troops to a small farm at the edge of the jungle and ordered them to sit on top of fire ant hills, said a second tribal leader, who also asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak on behalf of the tribe.

Bites by fire ants can be painful and are known to cause blisters severe enough to warrant hospital attention.

Some of the troops were tied up and beaten, one of the leaders said, noting that some Pemon members had objected to their detention and to the violence against them.

“Everything was out of control,” he said.

A second leader, who also asked not to be identified, said that during the detention villagers put hot peppers in the troops’ mouths and on their genitals.

The Pemon chieftain’s council did not respond to requests for comment.

The following day, on February 23, residents of Kumarakapay sought to block another group of military vehicles from reaching the border. Four village residents brought in General Jose Montoya, the National Guard commander for Bolivar state, to help convince the military convoys not to go to the border.

However, National Guard troops handcuffed the four Pemon, covered their faces with masks and pushed them into police vehicles, according to resident Aldemaro Perez. Montoya was detained at the same time and all five were taken to an army base called Escamoto.

“So you Pemon tribesmen think you’re tough? You’re going to die here,” Perez recalls one police officer shouting.

FILE PHOTO: The covered body of a dead person is seen after Venezuelan soldiers opened fire on indigenous people near the border with Brazil on Friday, according to community members, in Kumarakapay, Venezuela, February 22, 2019. REUTERS/William Urdaneta/File Photo NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES

FILE PHOTO: The covered body of a dead person is seen after Venezuelan soldiers opened fire on indigenous people near the border with Brazil on Friday, according to community members, in Kumarakapay, Venezuela, February 22, 2019. REUTERS/William Urdaneta/File Photo NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES

Perez, 35, a community leader in Kumarakapay, did not identify any specific policemen or soldiers involved in his detention. Details of his account were confirmed to Reuters by three other detained Pemon tribesmen and a representative of civil rights group Penal Forum, who also said they were unable to identify the specific individuals or military units involved.

Noguera, the Bolivar state governor, denied the detained men were beaten in custody.

Reuters was unable to determine why the National Guard used police vehicles to transport detainees to the army base, nor why they detained Montoya – who was stripped of his post in a resolution published days later in the Official Gazette. The resolution did not say the reasons for his dismissal.

Reuters was unable to obtain comment from Montoya or determine his whereabouts.

A regional military command center operating in Bolivar state and the interior ministry, which oversees the National Police, did not respond to requests for comment.

(Additional reporting by Anthony Boadle in Pacaraima, Brazil; Writing by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Edward Tobin)

‘Jayme is the hero’ sheriff says of Wisconsin girl who escaped captor

A U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) missing person poster shows Jayme Closs, a 13-year-old Wisconsin girl, missing since her parents were discovered fatally shot three months ago, has been located in Gordon, Wisconsin, U.S. as seen in this poster provided January 11, 2019. FBI/Handout via Reuters

By Gabriella Borter and Joseph Ax

(Reuters) – A 13-year-old girl’s escape from a rural home where she was held captive for three months by a Wisconsin man charged with murdering her parents helped break the case and she should be treated as a hero, the local sheriff said on Friday.

Jayme Closs is with her aunt after her rescue on Thursday and has been reunited with the rest of her family and her dog, Barron County Sheriff Chris Fitzgerald told reporters.

Thousands of volunteers and hundreds of law enforcement officers had searched the small town of Barron after Closs’ parents were found shot dead in their home in October, their front door blown open with a shotgun, their daughter gone.

Closs was targeted by suspected kidnapper Jake Patterson, 21, who carefully planned her parents’ murder, even shaving his head to avoid leaving forensic evidence at the crime scene, Fitzgerald told reporters.

“Jayme was the target,” said Fitzgerald. “The suspect had specific intentions to kidnap Jayme and went to great lengths to prepare to take her.”

Relying on what Fitzgerald called “the will of a kid to survive,” a disheveled Closs escaped the house in the tiny town of Gordon where she had been held captive, about 60 miles (100 km) north of her home in Barron. Her captor was not at home when she managed to flee, Fitzgerald said. She was found by a woman walking her dog on Thursday afternoon.

“Jayme is the hero in this case. She’s the one who helped us break this case,” Fitzgerald told reporters.

Closs spoke to investigators on Friday after spending a night in the hospital for evaluation. Authorities did not offer any details about the conditions of her captivity or how she had managed to escape.

‘LOOKING FOR HER’

Less than 15 minutes after Closs’ rescue, Patterson was taken into custody after police pulled him over, based on Closs’ description of his vehicle.

“The suspect was out looking for her when law enforcement made contact with him,” Fitzgerald told a news conference, adding police were not seeking any other suspects in the case at this time.

Police are now trying to work out why Patterson targeted Closs.

“We don’t believe there was a social media connection and are determining how he became aware of Jayme,” Fitzgerald said. “Nothing, in this case, shows the suspect knew anyone at the Closs home, or at any time had contact with anyone in the Closs family.”

Patterson, an unemployed resident of Gordon, was charged on Friday with kidnapping and with murdering James and Denise Closs with a shotgun. Their bodies were discovered on Oct. 15.

He was being held in the Barron County jail, and it was not yet clear whether he had a lawyer. He faces an initial court hearing on Monday.

Authorities have released few details about Patterson, who has no previous criminal record in Wisconsin.

Fitzgerald, the Barron County Sheriff, said Patterson grew up in Gordon and attended high school in the area.

The president of the Jennie-O Turkey store in Barron, where James and Denise Closs had worked for decades, said Patterson had been an employee there for a single day three years ago. He quit the next day, saying he was moving, Steve Lykken said.

“We are still mourning the loss of longtime Jennie-O family members Jim and Denise, but our entire team is celebrating with the community, and the world, that Jayme has been found,” Lykken said.

The superintendent of the local school district, Jean Serum, described Patterson as a nice kid and member of his high school’s quiz bowl team. He graduated in 2015.

INNER STRENGTH

About 350 people under the age of 21 are kidnapped by strangers in the United States each year, according to FBI data.

Those that survive months in captivity need inner strength and a great deal of luck, according to survivors and experts who have worked with such victims.

Elizabeth Smart, who was held captive for nine months as a teenager after her 2002 abduction in Utah, posted a photo of Closs on Instagram, praising the “miracle” that she had been found.

“No matter what may unfold in her story let’s all try to remember that this young woman has SURVIVED and whatever other details may surface the most important will still remain that she is alive,” Smart wrote.

(Reporting by Joseph Ax and Gabriella Borter in New York; Additional reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta and Andrew Hay in New Mexico; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Sandra Maler)

Putin says Islamic State has seized 700 hostages in Syria

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a signing ceremony following a meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia October 17, 2018. Pavel Golovkin/Pool via REUTERS

SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) – President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday that Islamic State (IS) militants had seized nearly 700 hostages in part of Syria controlled by U.S.-backed forces and had executed some of them and promised to kill more.

Speaking in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi, Putin said the hostages included several U.S. and European nationals, adding that Islamic State was expanding its control in territory on the left bank of the River Euphrates controlled by U.S. and U.S.-backed forces.

Putin did not specify what the militants’ demands were.

“They have issued ultimatums, specific demands and warned that if these ultimatums are not met they will execute 10 people every day. The day before yesterday they executed 10 people,” Putin told the Valdai discussion forum in Sochi.

The TASS news agency reported on Wednesday that IS militants had taken around 700 hostages in Syria’s Deir-al Zor province after attacking a refugee camp in an area controlled by U.S.-backed forces on Oct.13.

TASS said the militants had kidnapped around 130 families and taken them to the city of Hajin.

(Reporting by Gleb Stolyarov in Sochi; Additional reporting by Polina Devitt in Moscow; Writing by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Andrew Osborn)