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)

Nigeria faces mounting pressure to rescue girls abducted by Boko Haram 1,000 days ago

police disrupt Bring Back Our Girls rally in Nigeria

By Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani and Kieran Guilbert

CHIBOK, Nigeria/DAKAR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Nigeria is facing mounting pressure to find some 200 schoolgirls abducted 1,000 days ago in Boko Haram’s most infamous attack after the rescue of 24 girls raised hopes that they are alive.

For more than two years there was no sign of the girls who were kidnapped by the Islamist fighters from a school in Chibok in northeast Nigeria one night in April 2014, sparking global outrage and a celebrity-backed campaign #bringbackourgirls.

But the discovery of one of the girls with a baby last May fueled hopes for their safety, with a further two girls found in later months and a group of 21 released in October in a deal brokered by Switzerland and the International Red Cross..

For parents like Rebecca Joseph the return home of the group of 21 girls at Christmas was a bitter-sweet celebration.

Her daughter, Elizabeth, is one of an estimated 195 girls still held captive by the jihadist group, which has tried to force some of them to convert to Islam and to marry their captors.

“I am happy that some of the girls are returning home even though my own daughter is not among them,” Joseph told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in the town of Chibok in Borno state.

“My prayer is that my daughter and the rest of the girls will be rescued and returned to their families safe.”

With last weekend marking 1,000 days since the girls were abducted, President Muhammadu Buhari said he remained committed to ensuring the abducted schoolgirls are reunited with their families “as soon as practicable”.

“We are hopeful that many more will still return,” said Buhari, who came to power in 2015 and replaced a government criticized for not doing enough to find the missing girls.

“The tears never dry, the ache is in our hearts,” he said in a statement.

STRUGGLE FOR FREEDOM

The Nigerian government said last month that it was involved in negotiations aimed at securing the release of some of the girls as the army captured a key Boko Haram camp, the militant group’s last enclave in the vast Sambisa forest.

The exact number of Chibok girls still in captivity is believed to be 195 but it has been hard to pin down an exact number since the girls went missing.

Academics and security experts say it may be a huge challenge to obtain the girls’ freedom given the significance of the abduction for Boko Haram, which has killed about 15,000 people in its seven-year insurgency to set up an Islamic state.

“Outside Nigeria, the Chibok girls have come to symbolize the Boko Haram conflict,” said Sola Tayo, an associate fellow at the London-based think tank Chatham House.

“The global outrage generated by their captivity has added to their value to the insurgents,” she added, adding that they were also significant to Buhari because he made their release a key campaign pledge before his 2015 election.

The government said in October that it had not swapped Boko Haram fighters or paid a ransom for the release of the 21 girls but several security analysts said it was implausible that the Islamist group would have let the girls go for nothing.

“To secure the release of the remaining girls would require concessions by the Nigerian government, which could reverse significant gains it has made against Boko Haram,” said Ryan Cummings, director of risk management consultancy Signal Risk.

“In addition to detainees, Boko Haram may also demand supplies, weapons, vehicles and even money which they could use to recalibrate and invigorate their armed campaign against the Nigerian state.”

DEEP DIVISIONS

One of the major obstacles to securing the release of all of the Chibok girls who remain in captivity is the deep divisions emerging within Boko Haram, said Freedom Onuoha, a security analyst and lecturer at the University of Nigeria in Nsukka.

The militants split last year with one faction moving away from the group’s established figurehead Abubakar Shekau over his failure to adhere to guidance from Islamic State to which Boko Haram pledged allegiance in 2015.

It is unclear how many Chibok girls are held by the main faction led by Shekau, thought to be based in the Sambisa, and by the Islamic State-allied splinter group – headed by Abu Musab al-Barnawi and believed to operate in the Lake Chad area.

“It will be difficult to release most of the remaining girls as each faction will maintain a strong hold on them and would negotiate with state officials on their own terms,” said Onuoha.

While the deal to free the 21 girls was seen as a huge boost for the government’s assertions that it would soon bring home the others, a lack of progress since then has seen public hopes dwindle and frustrations arise, academics said.

Although Nigeria has driven Boko Haram out of most of the territory it held, its battle against the militants will not be considered over until the fate of all of the Chibok girls is made clear, said Nnamdi Obasi of the International Crisis Group.

“From various indications, it is most unlikely that all the remaining girls will come home alive, but the government owes their parents and the public the fundamental responsibility of accounting for every one of them,” the Nigeria analyst said.

“In the long run, that’s the only way to bring closure to this sad episode.”

(Reporting by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani and Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)

Four charged with hate crimes over Chicago beating shown on Facebook

By Timothy Mclaughlin

CHICAGO (Reuters) – Four African-Americans accused of attacking an 18-year-old man with special needs while making anti-white racial taunts and broadcasting the assault on Facebook were charged with hate crimes in Illinois on Thursday.

Jordan Hill, Tesfaye Cooper, and sisters Brittany and Tanishia Covington were each charged with aggravated kidnapping, hate crime, aggravated unlawful restraint, and aggravated battery with a deadly weapon. Tanisha Covington was the eldest at 24, while her sister and the two men were 18 years old.

“This should never happen,” David Boyd, the victim’s brother-in-law, said at a news conference Thursday. He said the family was overwhelmed by support expressed on social media.

The incident, part of which was streamed on the service Facebook Live on Tuesday, drew the attention of U.S. President Barack Obama, who called it “terrible” in an interview with Chicago’s ABC-TV affiliate.

“Part of what technology allows us to see now is the terrible toll that racism and discrimination and hate takes on families and communities,” Obama said Thursday.

The victim, who is white, has “mental health challenges,” Chicago police said. He was not identified.

Police said the victim knew at least one of his alleged torturers, meeting Hill at a McDonald’s restaurant in a northwestern suburb of Chicago late last week.

When he did not return home the next day, the victim’s parents reported him missing. He was found by Chicago police days later, on Tuesday.

Police said Hill picked the victim up at the McDonald’s in a stolen van. While the victim’s parents reported him missing, their son and Hill spent the next two days together, visiting friends and sleeping in the van.

On Tuesday, a “play fight” between the two in the Covington sisters’ apartment escalated, Chicago Police Commander Kevin Duffin said at the news conference.

The victim was tied up for four or five hours, gagged and beaten. His scalp was cut and he was forced to drink toilet water, Duffin said.

In the video, the attackers could be heard making comments about “white people” as the victim cowered in a corner, his mouth taped shut.

At least one of the attackers could also be heard saying obscenities about President-elect Donald Trump. Police said they did not know whether the victim was a Trump supporter.

Police officers located the victim on Tuesday after neighbors complained about noise coming from the apartment. He was outside in freezing weather wearing only a tank top, shorts and sandals, police said.

He was taken to a hospital and later released. Members of the public alerted investigators to the Facebook Live video.

The four suspects are due to appear in a Chicago court on Friday.

(Additional reporting by Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento, Calif.; Editing by Alan Crosby and Matthew Lewis & Simon Cameron-Moore)

Nigerian soldiers find Chibok girl kidnapped by Boko Haram in 2014

Bring Back Our Girls campaigners

MAIDUGURI, Nigeria (Reuters) – Nigerian soldiers have found a schoolgirl who was one of more than 200 pupils kidnapped by Islamist militant group Boko Haram from their school in the northeastern town of Chibok in April 2014, an army spokesman said on Thursday.

The troops had found Rakiya Abubkar wandering around near Algarno, a former Boko Haram stronghold, the spokesman said. She had a six-month-old baby with her.

A total of 276 schoolgirls were abducted by Boko Haram from Chibok in 2014 in one of the most infamous actions of their insurgency. More than 20 were released in October in a deal brokered by the International Red Cross. Others have escaped or been rescued but about 200 are believed to be still in captivity.

Boko Haram has killed 15,000 people and displaced more than two million during a seven-year-old insurgency aimed at creating an Islamic caliphate in northeast Nigeria.

The group controlled an area about the size of Belgium in early 2015 but has been pushed out of most of that territory over the last year by Nigeria’s army and troops from neighbouring countries.

Last month, the army said it had seized a key Boko Haram camp in its last enclave in Nigeria in the vast Sambisa forest. The jihadists still stage suicide bombings in northeastern areas and in neighbouring Niger and Cameroon.

(Reporting by Lanre Ola, Alexis Akwagyiram and Ulf Laessing; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Dominic Evans)

Trauma of Islamic State rule follows Iraqi women out of Mosul

displaced woman rescued from ISIS

By Stephen Kalin

KHAZIR, Iraq (Reuters) – One wrong word to an Islamic State fighter in Mosul last year was all it took to set in motion a harrowing chain of events for an Iraqi woman who became so traumatized that she trembled in fear even after escaping the group’s control.

The widowed mother was being vetted to receive a pension from the ultra-hardline Islamists a few months after they seized the northern city in 2014 and turned it into the Iraqi capital of their self-styled caliphate.

“I made the mistake of telling them my husband had been a victim of terrorism,” she said in an interview on Tuesday at a government-run camp in Khazir, east of Mosul. “One of them hit me and broke my teeth. Then they took me to a house and held me for three days.”

The jihadists locked her up in a filthy room with rats and bugs. She was blindfolded and her arms and legs were bound by chains as one of the men – or perhaps several, she couldn’t tell – raped her over and over again, she said.

Islamic State, which is putting up fierce resistance to a U.S.-backed offensive to retake Mosul, the group’s last major stronghold in Iraq, has been accused of massacre, enslavement and rape since it swept across large swathes of the country’s north and west in 2014.

There was no way of verifying her story, but it reflected others’ experiences coming to light as civilians from the most populous city ever controlled by the jihadists emerge from their grip and grapple with 2-1/2 years of suffering.

A 13-year-old girl who also spoke to Reuters on the condition of anonymity said her father had married her to a neighbor four years her senior who turned out to be with Islamic State.

The slender adolescent now clutching a pink sequined purse said he had threatened to kill her and permitted his brothers to sexually assault her.

After escaping Mosul a few weeks ago, she learned he had made it to a nearby camp and informed the authorities. They detained him, but the pair remain married.

The 37-year-old widow fled last month to Khazir camp, where she receives counseling from UNFPA, a United Nations agency focused on gender-based violence. She asked that her name be withheld for fear of retribution and donned a face veil that revealed only her eyes.

When Islamic State released her after the assault, the diminutive, round-faced woman returned home thinking her nightmare was over.

She sent her two younger children – now 9 and 11 – to stay with relatives in the nearby Kurdish city of Erbil and planned to join them as soon as she could save enough money to smuggle herself and her eldest son.

But a few weeks later she discovered she was pregnant with the child of one of her Islamic State tormentors. In addition to the trauma of being raped, she feared the stigma in Iraq’s conservative society of an unmarried woman giving birth. Within two months she had rushed into marriage with a man who had agreed to adopt the child as his own.

“DIE OF HUNGER OR GET MARRIED”

“They were forcing widows to get married. This was one of their rules: either die of hunger or get married,” said the woman, who occasionally wept and fidgeted with her hands underneath a loose-fitting garment.

Her new husband, though, also had a troubled past. An engineering student in his last year of university, he had been sentenced to death in connection with a crime of honor before Islamic State seized Mosul. In jail, he befriended jihadists who helped him escape when the group routed government forces in 2014.

Soon after the pair married, Islamic State gave the man an ultimatum: fight with us or we kill you. He yielded, and his new wife found herself back in the militants’ clutches.

When her family living outside Mosul learned that she was now married to an Islamic State member, they severed all connections with her. Her late husband’s brother took custody of her two young children and moved them to Baghdad, vowing never to let her see them again.

When Iraqi forces reached her neighborhood last month, she said, they detained her new husband to investigate his jihadist ties.

She took her eldest son with her to the camp but left the baby, now just over a year old, with her new husband’s second wife who remains in Mosul. His fate and that of hundreds or perhaps thousands of other children born to the jihadists remains unclear as the group loses much of its territory and its bid for statehood.

“They think this is the son of their father, they don’t know the truth,” the mother said of the second wife’s family. “The boy doesn’t look like me.”

She has resolved never to return to Mosul, even if Islamic State is eliminated. “I want to go somewhere far away where nobody knows me.”

Baby traffickers thriving in Nigeria as recession bites

baby grasps hand

By Anamesere Igboeroteonwu and Tom Esslemont

ENUGU, Nigeria/LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – As 16-year-old Maria strained under the anguish of labor in southeastern Nigeria, a midwife repeatedly slapped her across the face – but the real ordeal began minutes after birth.

“The nurse took my child away to be washed. She never brought her back,” the teenager said, gazing down at her feet.

Maria said she learned her newborn daughter had been given up for adoption for which she received 20,000 naira ($65.79) – the same price as a 50 kilogram bag of rice.

And Maria is far from alone.

A Thomson Reuters Foundation investigative team spoke to more than 10 Nigerian women duped into giving up their newborns to strangers in houses known as “baby factories” in the past two years or offered babies whose origins were unknown.

Five women did not want to be interviewed, despite the guarantee of anonymity, fearing for their own safety with criminal gangs involved in the baby trade, while two men spoke of being paid to act as “studs” to get women pregnant.

Although statistics are hard to come by, campaigners say the sale of newborns is widespread – and they fear the illegal trade is becoming more prevalent with Nigeria heading into recession this year amid ongoing political turbulence.

“The government is too overstretched by other issues to focus on baby trafficking,” said Arinze Orakwue, head of public enlightenment at the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP).

Record numbers of baby factories were raided or closed down in the southeastern states of Abia, Anambra, Ebonyi, Enugu and Imo this year, NAPTIP said.

A total of 14 were discovered in the first nine months of 2016, up from six in 2015 and 10 in 2014, the data showed.

But despite the growing number of raids, the scam exploiting couples desperate for a baby and young, pregnant, single women continues with newborns sold for up to $5,000 in Africa’s most populous nation where most people live on less than $2 a day.

Cultural barriers are also a factor in the West African nation, with teenage girls fearing they will be publicly shamed by strict fathers or partners over unwanted pregnancies if they do not give up their children, experts say.

“In southeastern Nigeria a woman is deemed a failure if she fails to conceive. But it is also taboo for a teenager to fall pregnant out of wedlock,” said Orakwue.

Maria said in the home in Imo state where she gave birth pregnant teenagers were welcomed by a maternal nurse who liked to be called “mama” but went on to sell the babies they delivered.

“(After I gave birth) somebody told me that mama collected big money from people before giving them other people’s babies,” Maria told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in the grounds of a school compound in her village.

“I do not know where my baby is now,” said Maria, using a false name for her own protection.

A lot of the trade is carried out in Nigeria but authorities suspect babies are also sold to people from Europe and the United States because many foreigners continue to seek infants there despite the controversy around Nigerian adoptions.

HIDDEN PROBLEM

The U.S. Department of State alerted prospective adoptive parents to the issue of child buying from Nigeria in June 2014 after Nigerian media warned that people were posing as owners of orphanages or homes for unwed mothers to make money.

“The State Department is aware of a growing number of adoption scams,” an alert on its website read.

Over 1,600 children have been adopted from Nigeria by U.S. citizens since 1999, according to the State Department website, about a third of them aged between one and two years old.

A U.S. official said the State Department facilitates contact between foreign officials and U.S. authorities when foreign governments raise any concerns regarding the welfare of an adopted child.

“To date, we are not aware of any concerns regarding the welfare of a child adopted from Nigeria,” a State Department official told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a statement.

In Britain a couple was found by the High Court to have “fallen under the spell” of an elaborate fraud after paying 4,500 pounds ($5,600) for herbal treatment in Nigeria that caused the woman’s stomach to swell, media reported in 2014.

The couple only realized they had been duped nine months later when presented with a baby in Nigeria that actually was not theirs, the Daily Mail newspaper reported.

Babies, whose biological parents or backgrounds are unknown, are offered to women who have not been able to conceive naturally, according to NAPTIP and interviews with three women.

The British government said it was committed to stamping out what it calls the “miracle babies” phenomenon.

“Specially-trained teams are working at the UK border to identify and safeguard babies and children who may be at risk of trafficking,” said a spokesman for the Home Office (UK interior ministry) in a statement.

Denmark suspended adoptions from Nigeria in 2014 citing concerns over forgery, corruption and lack of control by the authorities.

Apart from the illicit trade in babies, Nigeria also faces the problem of domestic and international trafficking in women and children.

Human trafficking, including selling children, is illegal in Nigeria, but almost 10 years ago a UNESCO report identified the industry as the country’s third most common crime after financial fraud and drug trafficking – and the situation appears to be getting worse, according to campaigners.

The Nigerian government has not ratified an internationally recognized set of rules known as the Hague Adoption Convention which meant the laws governing adoptions remain murky and complicated, campaigners said.

“There is corruption in the adoption process and that is the individual (Nigerian) states’ responsibility,” said NAPTIP’s Orakwue in a phone interview

“But central government should step up its funding to NAPTIP so we can increase support to victims,” Orakwue said.

HERBAL TREATMENT

Sophie, who was not able to conceive, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation she started to develop the symptoms of pregnancy after visiting a herbalist in Enugu state in 2014.

However the traditional doctor told Sophie her swollen stomach contained gas resulting from the herbal treatment rather than a fetus – but she could arrange to buy a baby.

“(The herbalist) said that she would bring me a newborn baby, girl or boy, depending on which one I wanted,” she said in the grimy sitting room of her apartment in southeastern Nigeria.

The woman said a girl would cost 380,000 naira ($1,250) while a boy would cost 500,000 naira ($1,645), said Sophie who opted for a girl.

But a sense of obligation to the woman who brought her a child prevented her from reporting the crime, she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“I considered everything and thought to myself ‘why should I report (the herbalist) to the police?’ She had helped me,” she said.

NAPTIP does not have data on the number of domestic adoptions that have taken place, a figure it says is not held by central government.

“In the southeastern states, the sale of babies is unarguably very prevalent as recorded by the agency,” said Cordelia Ebiringa, NAPTIP’s commander in Enugu state.

DEADLY GAME

Men are also involved in the process of illicit baby trafficking, with sperm donors impregnating surrogate mothers who then sell their babies, according to two Nigerian men.

Surrogacy is illegal in Nigeria.

Jonathan, 33, said he was paid 25,000 naira ($82) by his boss or “madam” every time he helped a client to become pregnant.

“I don’t see it as somebody exploiting me. The madams pay me for my work,” said Jonathan, who withheld his full name.

Jonathan said he did not know whether the women gave their babies away or went on to sell them although he was concerned what he was doing could be illegal.

“I often think ‘what if the police catch me?'”

Nigeria’s anti-human trafficking agency said it did not have data or information on the role of sperm donors, but many women they spoke to did not want to reveal how they fell pregnant.

“NAPTIP has no records of studs that impregnate the women at the baby factories as most of the pregnant women rescued and interviewed in such cases claimed unplanned pregnancies,” said Ebiringa.

Little information was made available by the Nigerian police or authorities in southeastern states about the number or identity of the people who run the “baby factories”.

No data was provided on the number of arrests by police in southern states of Enugu and Abia on baby trafficking offences despite repeated requests by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

But the dangers involved, both from the law and from trafficking gangs, are palpable, according to Jonathan, who estimates he has fathered about 15 children as a “stud”.

“These (baby traffickers) can be dangerous,” said Jonathan, who was once threatened by a group of thugs who found out what he was doing. “They are ready to kill anybody if you stand in their way.”

($1 = 304.00 naira)($1 = 0.8042 pounds)

(Reporting By Tom Esslemont and Anamesere Igboeroteonwu, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)

Philippine General urges martial law to rein in southern militants

Hostages Canadian national Robert Hall and Norwegian national Kjartan Sekkingstad are seen in this undated picture released to local media, in Jolo

MANILA (Reuters) – A senior Philippine army general on Wednesday resumed a push for martial law to be imposed on a troubled southern island where Islamist militants beheaded a Canadian captive, despite a recent decision by President Benigno Aquino not to adopt such curbs.

On Monday, militants of Abu Sayyaf, a small but brutal group linked to al Qaeda, executed Robert Hall on the remote island of Jolo, the second Canadian captive to be killed following John Ridsdel, after their ransom demand went unheeded.

“Declare martial law, that is a right move,” said a senior Philippine army general, who declined to be identified as he was not authorized to speak to the media.

“If you want to immediately solve the problem, there should be a total control by the military in the area.”

Emergency powers were needed because the Abu Sayyaf was using its ransom proceeds to buy the loyalties of the surrounding community, he added.

Aquino said he considered declaring martial law on Jolo three weeks ago but decided against it because there was no guarantee it would work.

“You would need a large force to implement martial law and there is no guarantee it will produce positive results,” he told reporters on a visit to Jolo to inspect troops pursuing Abu Sayyaf militants.

“It might generate more sympathy for the Abu Sayyaf.”

Aquino said he spoke with the prime ministers of Canada and Norway by telephone, thanking them for their understanding and support of his government’s no-ransom policy.

He said he apologized to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for the death of Robert Hall and John Ridsdel, who was executed in April.

Trudeau has condemned Hall’s execution, but said Canada cannot, and will not, pay ransom in such cases because it could encourage additional kidnappings.

Abu Sayyaf had initially demanded one billion pesos ($21.7 million) for each of the detainees, but cut that to 300 million early this year.

Hall’s family backed the Canadian government’s policy.

“Our family, even in our darkest hour, agrees wholeheartedly with Canada’s policy of not paying ransom,” it said in a statement.

Abu Sayyaf, based in the south of the mainly Roman Catholic Philippines, is known for kidnapping, beheadings and extortion.

Security is precarious in the southern Philippines despite a 2014 peace pact between the government and the largest Muslim rebel group that ended 45 years of conflict.

In 2009, the Philippines imposed martial law on the southern Muslim-dominated province of Maguindanao after 58 people were murdered in political violence there.

(Reporting by Manuel Mogato; Editing by clarence Fernandez)

Italy breaks up people-smuggling ring that imprisoned migrants

Migrants are seen aboard the British vessel HMS Enterprise before disembarking in the Sicilian

ROME (Reuters) – Italian police arrested seven people on Wednesday for running a people-smuggling ring in which Somali boat migrants who reached Italy by boat were held prisoner until their families paid their passage further north, a statement said.

A court in Catania in eastern Sicily ordered that 13 people be detained for running the smuggling operation, but only seven were picked up. The others were thought to be living abroad.

The investigation, dubbed “Somalia Express”, raided nine apartments in and around Catania used by the group to hold migrants in lieu of payment. Thirty-seven Somalis were freed from the apartments when the arrests were made, including three minors, the police statement said.

Families used pre-paid credit cards, or hawala, an informal payment system based on personal relationships, to pay off the smugglers, who would pick them up from migrant shelters in Sicily and neighboring Calabria, at the southern end of the Italian peninsula.

The money was then used to buy bus or train tickets for the migrants to send them to their final destination further north in Europe or within Italy, and for fake documents that allowed them to move freely, police said.

“These organized networks could continue to grow. We’re not optimistic,” Catania police chief Marcello Cardona told reporters after the arrests. Catania investigators broke up a similar group focused on Eritrean migrants in 2014.

As of May 10, 31,250 migrants had reached Italy by boat this year, a 14 percent decline from the same period last year, according to the Interior Ministry. This year, about 2,500 Somalis have reached Italy, compared with 12,176 last year.

Italy is one of the front-line countries in Europe’s worst migration crisis since World War Two. More than 320,000 came to Italy by boat in 2014-15, fleeing poverty and persecution at home and seeking a better life in Europe.

(Reporting by Steve Scherer; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Managing mental health for refugees in Greece. ‘People need time to mourn’

A migrant waits for transport at a transit camp in Gevgelija, Macedonia, after entering the country by crossing the border with Greece, November 4, 2015

DAKAR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Sam* is a Syrian mental health and psychosocial support trainer for the International Medical Corps in Greece.

“There is no such thing as an average day in my role as a psychosocial support trainer in the ever-changing and chaotic environment that Greece has become.

But my story begins like that of many others – fleeing my home in Syria to seek a better future in Europe.

Already having been detained and tortured twice for humanitarian work in Syria and fearing for my safety, I fled to Turkey in hope of being able to continue helping others.

Unfortunately I found that having fled from Syria and having a degree in international relations and vast experience of working with various NGOs does not guarantee asylum.

Stateless, I eventually left Turkey to cross the Mediterranean to Greece – a crossing that has already taken more than 400 lives this year alone.

For me, the worst part was hiding. Like every other Syrian refugee, I was only looking for safety – and yet I spent two months hiding, jumping at the sight of small animals, terrified of meeting another person.

We made it to Serbia, but things only got worse from there. Somebody overheard me and my companion speaking Arabic at a bus stop in Belgrade, and at 2am the next day we were kidnapped.

For a day these people, who I was convinced were under the influence of drugs, tortured us in every way they could imagine.

When the effects wore off they realized what they were doing and fled, abandoning us to find our way to the nearest hospital.

I did make it to Austria eventually, and then to the Netherlands where I was finally granted asylum.

However my journey was far from over.

BATTLEGROUND

“I have always felt the need to help people, and as Syrians continued risking their lives trying to find sanctuary in Europe, I knew exactly where I belonged.

As soon as I got my documents I applied for jobs with NGOs helping Syrian refugees, and left the Netherlands for Greece.

I go from island to island, training people in psychological first aid and supporting those providing psychosocial services.

It’s chaotic. Things change every day and it is difficult to predict what lies in store for these people.

Military hotspots have been popping up all over the country, making it ever more difficult for NGOs to access those who need our help the most. Many of these hotspots lack sanitation facilities and drinking water.

There is no war in Greece, but to me it is a battleground all the same.

TIME TO MOURN

“Everybody wants to help, but they don’t know that good intentions sometimes do more harm than good when it comes to mental health.

That’s what I am here for – to make sure that the mental health programs are adapted to fit the cultural context.

In Europe, it is acceptable to help somebody get over their grief by distracting them or trying to cheer them up.

But in my culture ignoring grief is considered shameful – we need time to mourn. The people getting off the boats in Greece – traumatized by the journey, homesick and often separated from their friends and families – are rarely given that time.

Being both a Syrian refugee and a mental health worker, I understand why people might fear refugees coming into Europe.

It’s the same fear I experienced on my own journey all that time ago – the fear of the unknown. Even if one single person stops being afraid, I will know I have done my job.”

*Sam asked to omit his surname for safety reasons.

This aid worker profile is one of five commissioned by the Thomson Reuters Foundation ahead of the first ever World Humanitarian Summit on the biggest issues affecting the humanitarian response to disasters and conflict.

For more on the World Humanitarian Summit, please visit: http://news.trust.org/spotlight/reshape-aid

(Editing by Kieran Guilbert and Katie Nguyen; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)

Activists put pressure on Nigerian government for kidnapped schoolgirls

Bring Back Our Girls" campaigner Christabell Ibrahim, 8, speaks during the media conference marking two years from the abduction of the Chibok girls, in Abuja

By Ulf Laessing and Alexis Akwagyiram

LAGOS/ABUJA (Reuters) – A video showing 15 of the 219 schoolgirls held by the jihadist group Boko Haram has added pressure on the Nigerian government to secure their release, after activists accused authorities of mishandling the case in the two years since their mass kidnap.

Weeping parents identified the girls captured by Boko Haram fighters, who want to establish an Islamist state in northeast Nigeria and have waged a seven-year campaign of violence, killing thousands of people and displacing two million.

President Muhammadu Buhari, elected a year ago on a promise to end endemic graft and crush the group, said in December the government could talk to Boko Haram if credible representatives emerged.

In January he said the government was launching a new investigation into the kidnapping, vowing to return the girls captured at a school in the town of Chibok while taking exams. But little has emerged since then.

In the video, apparently taken in December and given to government officials by Boko Haram as proof of life for the negotiations, a person asks the 15 girls to say their names as they stand quietly in two rows, wearing headscarves.

“I saw all the girls and they are Chibok girls,” Esther Yakubu, a parent of one of the abducted girls who saw the video broadcast by CNN said. “I recognize some of them because we are in the same area with them.”

Yakubu was marching with some 30 other parents and activists to the presidential villa in the capital Abuja to demand the government do more to return the girls. Police stopped them at the road leading to the villa.

Witnesses to the kidnapping, Nigerian military and security officials, Western diplomats and counter-terrorism experts blame a series of failings by politicians and the military in dealing with the militants, including a lack of co-ordination.

Information Minister Lai Mohammed told CNN the government was still reviewing the video. When asked about efforts to get the girls released he only said: “There are ongoing talks.”

A top government official who declined to be named said an official reaction would only be made once the military had established the video’s authenticity.

INFORMATION “LOST”

Activists said Buhari’s government is not doing enough, urging the state to use the video for clues to find the girls and speak to girls who had managed to flee Boko Haram captivity.

“The incredible wealth of information that victims of terrorists can offer our security forces is being lost in the current undefined and ineffective approach,” Aisha Yesufu of the #BringBackOurGirls group said in a statement.

Buhari has blamed his predecessor Goodluck Jonathan who was slow to react to the abduction.

Under Buhari’s command, Nigerian troops backed up by Chad, Niger and Cameroon have recaptured most of territory held by Boko Haram, which pledged allegiance to Islamic State last year.

However, Boko Haram has no unified leadership which makes it difficult for the government to find someone to negotiate with, analysts say.

Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau appeared in a video circulated last month in which he seemed to suggest he was ailing and Boko Haram was losing its effectiveness. But another video emerged last week saying there would be no surrender.

Fulan Nasrullah, a security analyst, said there was little chance of a breakthrough in the talks between the government and the militants after the failure of previous efforts.

“The government is angry about the leak, as are the insurgents,” he said. “The insurgents are not currently willing to negotiate for the girls following the government’s alleged bad faith in previous negotiations,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Felix Onuoha, Writing by Ulf Laessing; Editing by James Macharia and Dominic Evans)