Reuters report on Myanmar massacre brings calls for independent probe

Ten Rohingya Muslim men with their hands bound kneel as members of the Myanmar security forces stand guard in Inn Din village September 2, 2017.

(Reuters) – A Reuters investigation into the killing of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar prompted a demand from Washington for a credible probe into the bloodshed there and calls for the release of two journalists who were arrested while working on the report.

The special report, published overnight, lays out events leading up to the killing of 10 Rohingya men from Inn Din village in Rakhine state who were buried in a mass grave after being hacked to death or shot by Buddhist neighbors and soldiers.

“As with other, previous reports of mass graves, this report highlights the ongoing and urgent need for Burmese authorities to cooperate with an independent, credible investigation into allegations of atrocities in northern Rakhine,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said.

“Such an investigation would help provide a more comprehensive picture of what happened, clarify the identities of the victims, identify those responsible for human rights abuses and violations, and advance efforts for justice and accountability,” she said.

The Reuters report drew on interviews with Buddhists who confessed to torching Rohingya homes, burying bodies and killing Muslims in what they said was a frenzy of violence triggered when Rohingya insurgents attacked security posts last August.

The account marked the first time soldiers and paramilitary police have been implicated by testimony from security personnel in arson and killings in the north of Rakhine state that the United Nations has said may amount to genocide.

In the story, Myanmar said its “clearance operation” is a legitimate response to attacks by insurgents.

Asked about the evidence Reuters had uncovered about the massacre, Myanmar government spokesman Zaw Htay said on Thursday, before publication of the report: “We are not denying the allegations about violations of human rights. And we are not giving blanket denials.”

If there was “strong and reliable primary evidence” of abuses, the government would investigate, he said.

There was no comment from the government following the publication of the report.

“A TURNING POINT”

Nearly 690,000 Rohingya have fled their villages and crossed the border of western Myanmar into Bangladesh since August.

British Labour Party lawmaker Rosena Allin-Khan told BBC’s Newsnight that the Reuters report was consistent with accounts she had heard while working as a doctor at Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh last year.

“We’ve been bystanders to a genocide,” she said. “This evidence marks a turning point because, for the first time since this all started to unfold in August, we have heard from the perpetrators themselves.”

She said that, as well as an international probe, there needed to be a referral to the International Criminal Court.

Human Rights Watch said Myanmar’s military leaders should be held accountable in an international court for alleged crimes against the Rohingya population.

“As more evidence comes out about the pre-planning and intent of the Myanmar armed forces to wipe out Rohingya villages and their inhabitants, the international community … needs to focus on how to hold the country’s military leaders accountable,” said HRW’s deputy Asia director Phil Robertson.

Campaign group Fortify Rights also called for an independent investigation.

“The international community needs to stop stalling and do what’s necessary to hold accountable those who are responsible before evidence is tainted or lost, memories fade, and more people suffer,” said the group’s chief executive Matthew Smith.

United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye, said in a tweet: “During the reporting of this article, two Reuters journalists were arrested by Myanmar police. They remain held & must absolutely be released.”

Yanghee Lee, the U.N. human rights investigator for Myanmar who has been barred from visiting the Rohingya areas, echoed that call and added in a tweet: “Independent & credible investigation needed to get to the bottom of the Inn Din massacre.”

Police arrested two Reuters reporters, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, on Dec. 12 for allegedly obtaining confidential documents relating to Rakhine and have accused them of violating Myanmar’s Official Secrets Act. They are in prison while a court decides if they should be charged under the colonial-era act.

(Writing by John Chalmers; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Alex Richardson)

Nigeria holds mass burial for 73 people killed in communal violence

People cry as a truck carries the coffins of people killed by the Fulani herdsmen, in Makurdi, Nigeria January 11, 2018.

By Alexis Akwagyiram

MAKURDI, Nigeria (Reuters) – Seventy-three people killed since the start of the year in communal violence between semi-nomadic herdsmen and farmers were buried in Nigeria on Thursday highlighting a bloody conflict over fertile land that is taking on political significance.

The mass burial took place in Makurdi, in the central state of Benue, where thousands of mourners took to the streets to watch the funeral procession. The killings occurred in remote parts of Benue, the state worst hit by clashes that have killed at least 83 people since Dec. 31.

Thousands of herdsmen mainly from the Fulani ethnic group have moved southwards in the last few years to flee spreading desertification in the north, putting pressure on dwindling fertile land amid rapid population growth.

The spike in violence has become increasingly political ahead of elections in February 2019 with critics of President Muhammadu Buhari, who is Fulani, accusing him of failing to get tough with the herdsmen.

Feelings ran high on the streets of Makurdi where thousands of people, many clad in black, waved wreaths as coffins on lorries passed by carrying the dead who were mainly from rural communities of Benue.

Some mourners held banners featuring pictures of victims and the words: “President act now: your people are killing us”.

“Something that is disturbing that I have heard about is linking those developments to the fact that a Fulani man is president and so, he is brooking such kind of evil acts,” said the president’s spokesman, Femi Adesina, this week, adding that such violence predated Buhari’s administration.

The herdsmen are mostly Muslim and the settled farmers are often Christian.

Despite the recent outbreaks of violence, Nigerians, split roughly equally between Christians and Muslims from around 250 different ethnic groups, mostly live peacefully together.

Clashes in the last few months have occurred in parts of the northwest and southeast, but the middle belt – where differing religious, ancestral and cultural differences frequently ignite conflict – has been worst hit in the latest flashpoints.

Peter Zion,31, a member of a state government task force set up to defend farms, was recuperating in hospital after being shot and cut across his face and torso by herdsmen wielding guns and cutlasses on Jan. 2 in the state’s Guma district.

“They killed some of my colleagues and the neighbors that were there all died,” said the father-of-two whose face had been cut and whose hands and legs were heavily bandaged. He described attackers going door-to-door shooting people.

The executive secretary of the Benue emergency agency, Emmanuel Shior, on Thursday said around 80,000 people who had fled herdsmen attacks were living in four camps located across the state.

Herdsmen traditionally roam freely across West Africa, entering and leaving Nigeria through porous borders with Benin, Niger and Cameroon. They have also accused Nigerian farmers of violent attacks in the last few years.

Improving security was a key promise in Buhari’s successful 2015 presidential election campaign. The 75-year-old has not yet said whether he will seek re-election next year.

“Security of life and property continues to be top of our agenda, in line with our election pledge and promises,” said Buhari in a tweet on Thursday, which linked to a list of ways in which the government has responded to the killings.

He bolstered the police presence in Benue on Monday and ordered the head of police to relocate to the state.

The violence is likely to further stretch security forces already contending with Boko Haram’s Islamist insurgency in the northeast and the threat of attacks on oil facilities in the southern Niger Delta of the type that in 2016 helped to push Africa’s largest economy into recession.

(Additional reoporting by Anamesere Igboeroteonwu in Onitsha and Felix Onuah in Abuja; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

Turkish PM calls Rohingya killings in Myanmar ‘genocide’

Rohingya refugee children play at the Shamlapur refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh December 20, 2017. REUTERS/Marko Djurica

COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh (Reuters) – Turkey’s prime minister on Wednesday dubbed the killing of minority Muslim Rohingyas in Myanmar by its security forces “genocide” and urged the international community to ensure their safety back home.

Binali Yildirim met several Rohingyas in two refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar in neighboring Bangladesh.

Almost 870,000 Rohingya fled there, about 660,000 of whom arrived after Aug. 25, when Rohingya militants attacked security posts and the Myanmar army launched a counter-offensive.

“The Myanmar military has been trying to uproot Rohingya Muslim community from their homeland and for that they persecuted them, set fire to their homes, villages, raped and abused women and killed them,” Yildirim told reporters from Cox’s Bazar, before flying back to Turkey.

“It’s one kind of a genocide,” he said.

“The international community should also work together to ensure their safe and dignified return to their homeland,” Yildirim, who was accompanied by Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister Abul Hassan Mahmood Ali, said.

Surveys of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh by aid agency Medecins Sans Frontieres have shown at least 6,700 Rohingya were killed in Rakhine state in the month after violence flared up on Aug. 25, MSF said last week.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein has called the violence “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing” and said he would not be surprised if a court eventually ruled that genocide had taken place.

Yildirim inaugurated a medical camp at Balukhali, sponsored by Turkey, and handed over two ambulances to Cox’s Bazar district administration. He also distributed food to Rohingya refugees at Kutupalong makeshift camp.

He urged the international community to enhance support for Rohingyas in Bangladesh and help find a political solution to this humanitarian crisis.

U.N. investigators have heard Rohingya testimony of a “consistent, methodical pattern of killings, torture, rape and arson”.

The United Nations defines genocide as acts meant to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group in whole or in part. Such a designation is rare under international law, but has been used in contexts including Bosnia, Sudan and an Islamic State campaign against the Yazidi communities in Iraq and Syria.

Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s less than two-year old civilian government has faced heavy international criticism for its response to the crisis, though it has no control over the generals it has to share power with under Myanmar’s transition after decades of military rule.

Yildirim’s trip follows Turkish first lady Emine Erdogan’s visit in September to the Rohingya camp, when she said the crack down in Myanmar’s Rakhine state was “tantamount to genocide” and a solution to the Rohingya crisis lies in Myanmar alone.

(Reporting by Mohammad Nurul Islam; Editing by Malini Menon and Richard Balmforth)

Mass killer, cult leader Charles Manson dies at 83

Charles Manson during a 1989 interview.

By Diane Bartz and Steve Gorman

(Reuters) – Charles Manson, the wild-eyed cult leader who orchestrated a string of gruesome killings in Southern California by his “family” of young followers, shattering the peace-and-love ethos of the late 1960s, died on Sunday, prison officials said. He was 83.

Manson died of natural causes Sunday evening at a Kern County hospital, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said in a statement. It gave no further details of the circumstances surrounding his death.

He had been serving a life sentence at the nearby Corcoran State Prison for ordering the murders of nine people, including actress Sharon Tate.

Long after Manson had largely faded from headlines, he loomed large as a symbol of the terror he unleashed in the summer of 1969.

“The very name Manson has become a metaphor for evil,” the late Vincent Bugliosi, who prosecuted Manson, told the Los Angeles Times in 1994.

A recent photograph showed the gray-bearded killer’s face still bearing the scar of a swastika he carved into his forehead decades earlier.

Manson became one of the 20th century’s most notorious criminals when he directed his mostly young, female followers to murder seven people in what prosecutors said was part of a plan to incite a race war.

 

GRAFFITI WITH VICTIMS’ BLOOD

Tate, aged 26 and eight months pregnant, was stabbed 16 times in the early morning hours of Aug. 9, 1969, by members of Manson’s cult at the rented hillside house she shared with her husband, filmmaker Roman Polanski, in the Benedict Canyon area of Los Angeles.

Four friends of the celebrity couple, including coffee heiress Abigail Folger and hairstylist Jay Sebring, were also stabbed or shot to death that night by Manson followers, who scrawled the word “Pig” in blood on the home’s front door before leaving. Polanski was away in Europe at the time.

The following night, members of Manson’s group stabbed grocery owner Leno LaBianca and his wife Rosemary to death, using their blood to write, “Death to Pigs” and “Healter Skelter” – a misspelled reference to the Beatles song “Helter Skelter” – on the walls and refrigerator door.

Although Manson did not personally kill any of the seven victims, he was found guilty of ordering their murders.

He was later convicted of ordering the murders of music teacher Gary Hinman, stabbed to death in July 1969, and stuntman Donald “Shorty” Shea, stabbed and bludgeoned that August.

Manson was sentenced to death for the Tate-LaBianca murders, but his sentence was commuted to life in prison after the California Supreme Court abolished capital punishment in the state in 1972.

Born Charles Milles Maddox on Nov. 12, 1934, in Cincinnati to a 16-year-old girl, Manson spent much of his youth shuttled between relatives and juvenile detention halls. By age 13, he had been convicted of armed robbery.

Newly paroled from prison in 1967, he began attracting members of his “family” in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, which had become a haven for the hippie youth culture.

The group moved with his followers to the Los Angeles area, eventually settling at Spahn Ranch, site of an outdoor movie location used for Western films and TV shows. Communal sex and drug use were a way of life as Manson became a messiah to the runaways, outcasts and criminals drawn by his charisma, intimidation and twisted spiritualism.

One follower told authorities she had seen Manson bring a bird back to life by breathing on it. Another said he could see and hear everything she did and said.

Manson aspired to be a rock star, and through one of his followers befriended Dennis Wilson, drummer of the Beach Boys, who would go on base their 1969 song “Never Learn Not to Love” on a Manson composition.

Wilson introduced Manson to music producer Terry Melcher, who later snubbed him. Melcher, along with his then-girlfriend, actress Candice Bergen, had previously rented the Benedict Canyon house.

The brutality of the killings stunned the nation.

“There was a lot of fear,” Bugliosi, author of the chilling book about the murders, “Helter Skelter,” told the Times in 1994. “The words printed in blood made it especially frightening for the Hollywood crowd.”

 

SENSATIONAL TRIAL

Denied his request to represent himself during his 9-1/2 month trial, Manson showed up in court with an “X” carved into his forehead, and would later alter it into a swastika.

Co-defendants Susan Atkins, Leslie Van Houten and Patricia Krenwinkel cut “X”s in their foreheads, shaved their scalps, sang Manson-written songs and giggled through chilling testimony.

At one point, Manson tried to leap over the defense table at the judge, snarling: “In the name of Christian justice, someone should cut your head off.” The judge began carrying a gun afterward.

Manson ultimately was brought down by his followers. Atkins told two inmates about the Tate-LaBianca murders while she was jailed in an unrelated killing, then testified to a grand jury before recanting. Prosecutors then persuaded another follower, Linda Kasabian, to testify against the rest of the group in exchange for immunity.

Convicted along with Manson, his three co-defendants, Atkins, Van Houten and Krenwinkel, also had their death sentences reduced to life terms.

Manson long maintained his innocence, telling Rolling Stone magazine that follower Charles “Tex” Watson was responsible for the Tate-LaBianca killings. Watson was tried separately and is serving a life term for his role in those killings.

Still, Manson seemed resigned to a life of incarceration, ceasing to even attend his parole review hearings after 1997.

“What would I want out for?” he said in a telephone interview with the Los Angeles Times. “This beats an old folks home.”

In April 2012, Manson was quoted by parole officials as having told a prison psychologist the previous fall: “I have put five people in the grave. I’ve been in prison most of my life. I’m a very dangerous man.”

 

(Writing by Diane Bartz, Bill Trott and Steve Gorman; Editing by Jonathan Oatis, Diane Craft and Nick Macfie)

 

U.N. seeks rapid increase in Rohingya aid; Myanmar finds more bodies

People wait to receive aid in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, September 25, 2017.

By Rahul Bhatia

DHAKA (Reuters) – Muslim refugees seeking shelter in Bangladesh from “unimaginable horrors” in Myanmar face enormous hardship and risk a dramatic deterioration in circumstances unless aid is stepped up, the head of the U.N. refugee agency said on Monday.

The warning came as Myanmar government forces found the bodies of 17 more Hindu villagers, taking to 45 the number found since Sunday, who authorities suspect were killed by Muslim insurgents last month, at the beginning of a wave of violence that has sent 436,000 Muslim Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh.

The violence in western Myanmar’s Rakhine State and the refugee exodus is the biggest crisis the government of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has faced since it came to power last year in a transition from nearly 50 years of military rule.

It has also threatened to drive a wedge in the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), with Muslim-majority Malaysia disavowing a statement on the Myanmar situation from the bloc’s chairman, the Philippines, as misrepresenting “the reality”.

A Rohingya refugee girl reacts as people scuffle while waiting to receive aid in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, September 25, 2017.

A Rohingya refugee girl reacts as people scuffle while waiting to receive aid in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, September 25, 2017. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton

U.N. High Commissioner of Refugees Filippo Grandi told a news conference in Bangladesh that “solutions to this crisis lie with Myanmar”.

But until then, the world had to help the “deeply traumatized” refugees facing enormous hardship, whom he had met on a weekend visit to camps in southeast Bangladesh.

“They had seen villages burned down, families shot or hacked to death, women and girls brutalized,” Grandi said.

He called for aid to be “rapidly stepped up” and thanked Bangladesh for keeping its border open.

Buddhist-majority Myanmar regards the Rohingya Muslims as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Fighting between Muslim insurgents and government forces has flared periodically for decades.

The latest violence began on Aug. 25 when militants from a little-known group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), attacked about 30 police posts and an army camp.

The United Nations has described a sweeping military response as ethnic cleansing, with refugees and rights groups accusing Myanmar forces and Buddhist vigilantes of violence and arson aimed at driving Rohingya out.

The United States has said the Myanmar action was disproportionate and has called for an end to the violence.

Myanmar rejects accusations of ethnic cleansing, saying it is fighting terrorists. It has said more than 400 people have been killed, most of them insurgents.

 

HINDUS KILLED

Members of Myanmar’s small Hindu minority appear to have been caught in the middle.

Some have fled to Bangladesh, complaining of violence against them by soldiers or Buddhist vigilantes. Others have complained of being attacked by the insurgents on suspicion of being government spies.

Authorities have found the bodies of 45 Hindus buried outside a village in the north of Rakhine State, a government spokesman said, and they were looking for more.

Rohingya refugees walk through a camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, September 25, 2017. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton

Rohingya refugees walk through a camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, September 25, 2017. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton

A search was mounted after a refugee in Bangladesh contacted a Hindu community leader in Myanmar to say about 300 ARSA militants had marched about 100 people out of the village on Aug. 25 and killed them, the government said.

Access to the area by journalists as well as human rights workers and aid workers is largely restricted and Reuters could not independently verify the report.

An ARSA spokesman dismissed the accusation that the group had killed the Hindus, saying Buddhist nationalists were trying to divide Hindus and Muslims.

“ARSA has internationally pledged not to target civilians and that remains unchanged, no matter what,” the spokesman, who is based in a neighboring country and identified himself only as Abdullah, told Reuters through a messaging service.

The government spokesman, Zaw Htay, said Myanmar had asked Bangladesh to send Hindu refugees home. Suu Kyi has said any refugee verified as coming from Myanmar can return under a 1993 pact with Bangladesh.

A Reuters reporter in Bangladesh said Rohingya refugees were still arriving there, with about 50 seen on Monday.

In a public display of discord within ASEAN, of which Myanmar is a member, Malaysia disassociated itself from a statement issued by group chair the Philippines as it misrepresented the situation and did not identify the Rohingya as one of the affected communities.

Myanmar objects to the term Rohingya, saying the Muslims of Rakhine State are not a distinct ethnic group.

This month, Malaysia summoned Myanmar’s ambassador to express displeasure over the violence, as well as grave concern over atrocities.

 

(Additional reporting by Wa Lone, Shoon Naing in YANGON, Andrew Marshall in BANGKOK, Joseph Sipalan in KUALA LUMPUR, Tommy Wilkes in COX’S BAZAR; Writing by Robert Birsel; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

 

U.N. team to collect evidence of Islamic State crimes in Iraq

The United Nations Security Council meets to discuss adopting a resolution to help preserve evidence of Islamic State crimes in Iraq, during the 72nd United Nations General Assembly at U.N. Headquarters in New York, U.S., September 21, 2017.

By Michelle Nichols

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – The United Nations Security Council on Thursday approved the creation of a U.N. investigative team to collect, preserve and store evidence in Iraq of acts by Islamic State that may be war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide.

The 15-member council unanimously adopted a British-drafted resolution, after months of negotiations with Iraq, that asks Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to establish a team “to support domestic efforts” to hold the militants accountable.

Use of the evidence collected by the team in other venues, such as international courts, would “be determined in agreement with the Government of Iraq on a case by case basis.”

U.N. experts said in June last year that Islamic State was committing genocide against the Yazidis in Syria and Iraq to destroy the minority religious community through killings, sexual slavery and other crimes.

International human rights lawyer Amal Clooney and Nadia Murad, a young Yazidi woman who was enslaved and raped by Islamic State fighters in Mosul, have long pushed Iraq to allow U.N. investigators to help.

Activist Amal Clooney (R) attends a United Nations Security Council meeting set to adopt a resolution to help preserve evidence of Islamic State crimes in Iraq, during the 72nd United Nations General Assembly at U.N. Headquarters in New York, U.S., September 21, 2017. REUTERS/Brendan

Activist Amal Clooney (R) attends a United Nations Security Council meeting set to adopt a resolution to help preserve evidence of Islamic State crimes in Iraq, during the 72nd United Nations General Assembly at U.N. Headquarters in New York, U.S., September 21, 2017. REUTERS/Brendan Mcdermid

The Security Council met during the annual gathering of world leaders for the U.N. General Assembly.

Iraq’s foreign minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari officially requested international help in a letter to the Security Council last month. The council could have established an inquiry without Iraq’s consent, but Britain wanted Iraq’s approval.

Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate effectively collapsed in July, when U.S.-backed Iraqi forces completed the recapture of Mosul, the militants’ capital in northern Iraq, after a nine-month campaign.

 

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; editing by Grant McCool)

 

Exclusive: ‘We will kill you all’ – Rohingya villagers in Myanmar beg for safe passage

A Rohingya refugee girl collects rain water at a makeshift camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, September 17, 2017. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

By Wa Lone and Andrew R.C. Marshall

SITTWE, Myanmar (Reuters) – Thousands of Rohingya Muslims in violence-racked northwest Myanmar are pleading with authorities for safe passage from two remote villages that are cut off by hostile Buddhists and running short of food.

“We’re terrified,” Maung Maung, a Rohingya official at Ah Nauk Pyin village, told Reuters by telephone. “We’ll starve soon and they’re threatening to burn down our houses.”

Another Rohingya contacted by Reuters, who asked not to be named, said ethnic Rakhine Buddhists came to the same village and shouted, “Leave, or we will kill you all.”

Fragile relations between Ah Nauk Pyin and its Rakhine neighbors were shattered on Aug. 25, when deadly attacks by Rohingya militants in Rakhine State prompted a ferocious response from Myanmar’s security forces.

At least 430,000 Rohingya have since fled into neighboring Bangladesh to evade what the United Nations has called a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.

About a million Rohingya lived in Rakhine State until the recent violence. Most face draconian travel restrictions and are denied citizenship in a country where many Buddhists regard them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

Tin Maung Swe, secretary of the Rakhine State government, told Reuters he was working closely with the Rathedaung authorities, and had received no information about the Rohingya villagers’ plea for safe passage.

“There is nothing to be concerned about,” he said when asked about local tensions. “Southern Rathedaung is completely safe.”

National police spokesman Myo Thu Soe said he also had no information about the Rohingya villages but that he would look into the matter.

Asked to comment, a spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department’s East Asia Bureau made no reference to the situation in the villages, but said the United States was calling “urgently” for Myanmar’s security forces “to act in accordance with the rule of law and to stop the violence and displacement suffered by individuals from all communities.”

“Tens of thousands of people reportedly lack adequate food, water, and shelter in northern Rakhine State,” spokeswoman Katina Adams said. “The government should act immediately to assist them.”

Adams said Patrick Murphy, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asia, would reiterate grave U.S. concern about the situation in Rakhine when he meets senior officials in Myanmar this week.

Britain is to host a ministerial meeting on Monday on the sidelines of the annual U.N. General Assembly in New York to discuss the situation in Rakhine.

 

NO BOATS

Ah Nauk Pyin sits on a mangrove-fringed peninsula in Rathedaung, one of three townships in northern Rakhine State. The villagers say they have no boats.

Until three weeks ago, there were 21 Muslim villages in Rathedaung, along with three camps for Muslims displaced by previous bouts of religious violence. Sixteen of those villages and all three camps have since been emptied and in many cases burnt, forcing an estimated 28,000 Rohingya to flee.

Rathedaung’s five surviving Rohingya villages and their 8,000 or so inhabitants are encircled by Rakhine Buddhists and acutely vulnerable, say human rights monitors.

The situation is particularly dire in Ah Nauk Pyin and nearby Naung Pin Gyi, where any escape route to Bangladesh is long, arduous, and sometimes blocked by hostile Rakhine neighbors.

Maung Maung, the Rohingya official, said the villagers were resigned to leaving but the authorities had not responded to their requests for security. At night, he said, villagers had heard distant gunfire.

“It’s better they go somewhere else,” said Thein Aung, a Rathedaung official, who dismissed Rohingya allegations that Rakhines were threatening them.

Only two of the Aug. 25 attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) took place in Rathedaung. But the township was already a tinderbox of religious tension, with ARSA citing the mistreatment of Rohingya there as one justification for its offensive.

In late July, Rakhine residents of a large, mixed village in northern Rathedaung corraled hundreds of Rohingya inside their neighborhood, blocking access to food and water.

A similar pattern is repeating itself in southern Rathedaung, with local Rakhine citing possible ARSA infiltration as a reason for ejecting the last remaining Rohingya.

 

‘ANOTHER PLACE’

Maung Maung said he had called the police at least 30 times to report threats against his village.

On Sept. 13, he said, he got a call from a Rakhine villager he knew. “Leave tomorrow or we’ll come and burn down all your houses,” said the man, according to a recording Maung Maung gave to Reuters.

When Maung Maung protested that they had no means to escape, the man replied: “That’s not our problem.”

On Aug. 31, the police convened a roadside meeting between two villages, attended by seven Rohingya from Ah Nauk Pyin and 14 Rakhine officials from the surrounding villages.

Instead of addressing the Rohingya complaints, said Maung Maung and two other Rohingya who attended the meeting, the Rakhine officials delivered an ultimatum.

“They said they didn’t want any Muslims in the region and we should leave immediately,” said the Rohingya resident of Ah Nauk Pyin who requested anonymity.

The Rohingya agreed, said Maung Maung, but only if the authorities provided security.

He showed Reuters a letter that the village elders had sent to the Rathedaung authorities on Sept. 7, asking to be moved to “another place”. They had yet to receive a response, he said.

People reach out during the distribution of bananas in a Rohingya refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, September 17, 2017.

People reach out during the distribution of bananas in a Rohingya refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, September 17, 2017. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton

VIOLENT HISTORY

Relations between the two communities deteriorated in 2012, when religious unrest in Rakhine State killed nearly 200 people and made 140,000 homeless, most of them Rohingya. Scores of houses in Ah Nauk Pyin were torched.

Since then, said villagers, Rohingya have been too scared to leave the village or till their land, surviving mainly on monthly deliveries from the World Food Programme (WFP). The recent violence halted those deliveries.

The WFP pulled out most staff and suspended operations in the region after Aug. 25.

Residents in the area’s two Rohingya villages said they could no longer venture out to fish or buy food from Rakhine traders, and were running low on food and medicines.

Maung Maung said the local police told the Rohingya to stay in their villages and not to worry because “nothing would happen,” he said.

But the nearest police station had only half a dozen or so officers, he said, and could not do much if Ah Nauk Pyin was attacked.

A few minutes’ walk away, at the Rakhine village of Shwe Long Tin, residents were also on edge, said its leader, Khin Tun Aye.

They had also heard gunfire at night, he said, and were guarding the village around the clock with machetes and slingshots in case the Rohingya attacked with ARSA’s help.

“We’re also terrified,” he said.

He said he told his fellow Rakhine to stay calm, but the situation remained so tense that he feared for the safety of his Rohingya neighbors.

“If there is violence, all of them will be killed,” he said.

 

(Reporting by Wa Lone and Andrew R.C. Marshall; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Washington; Editing by Ian Geoghegan and Peter Cooney)

 

Deadly protests mar Venezuela ballot as voters snub Maduro assembly

Flames erupt as clashes break out near security forces members (R) while the Constituent Assembly election is being carried out in Caracas, Venezuela,

By Alexandra Ulmer and Anggy Polanco

CARACAS/SAN CRISTOBAL, Venezuela, (Reuters) – Deadly protests rocked Venezuela on Sunday as voters broadly boycotted an election for a constitutional super-body that unpopular leftist President Nicolas Maduro vowed would begin a “new era of combat” in the crisis-stricken nation.

Anti-Maduro activists wearing hoods or masks erected barricades on roads, and scuffles broke out with security forces who moved in quickly to disperse demonstrators who denounced the election as a naked power grab by the president.

Authorities said 10 people were killed in the confrontations, which made Sunday one of the deadliest days since massive protests started in early April.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro show his ballot as casts his vote at a polling station during the Constituent Assembly election in Caracas, Venezuela July 30, 2017.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro show his ballot as casts his vote at a polling station during the Constituent Assembly election in Caracas, Venezuela July 30, 2017. Miraflores Palace/Handout via REUTERS

Maduro, widely disliked for overseeing an unraveling of Venezuela’s economy, has promised the assembly will bring peace by way of a new constitution after four months of opposition protests in which more than 120 people have been killed.

Opposition parties sat out the election, saying it was rigged to increase Maduro’s powers, a view shared by countries including Spain, Canada, Colombia and the United States.

The Trump administration is considering imposing U.S. sanctions on Venezuela’s vital oil sector in response to Sunday’s election, U.S. officials said.

Potential U.S. sanctions on sales of light crude to Venezuela’s oil company PDVSA would hamper its already weak refining network.

Caracas was largely shut down, streets were deserted and polling stations were mostly empty, dealing a blow to the legitimacy of the vote. A bomb exploded in the capital and wounded seven police officers in what could be the spread of more aggressive tactics.

Critics say the assembly will allow Maduro to dissolve the opposition-run Congress, delay future elections and rewrite electoral rules to prevent the socialists from being voted out of power. The opposition vowed to hold protests again on Monday and to keep pressuring Maduro’s cash-strapped government until he’s forced from office.

“Even if they win today, this won’t last long,” said opposition supporter Berta Hernandez, a 60-year-old doctor in a wealthier Caracas district. “I’ll continue on the streets because, not long from now, this will come to an end.”

Maduro, a former bus driver and union leader narrowly elected in 2013, dismisses criticism of the assembly as right-wing propaganda aimed at sabotaging the brand of socialism created by his mentor and predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez.

“The ’emperor’ Donald Trump wanted to halt the Venezuelan people’s right to vote,” said Maduro as he rapidly voted at 6 a.m. in a low-income area of Caracas that has turned on the government.

“A new era of combat will begin. We’re going all out with this constituent assembly,” he said.

But with polls showing some 70 percent of Venezuelans oppose the vote, the country’s 2.8 million state employees are under huge pressure to participate – with some two dozen sources telling Reuters they were being threatened with dismissal. Workers were being blasted with text messages and phone calls asking them to vote and report back after doing so.

The opposition estimated participation was at around a paltry 12 percent, but warned the government was gearing up to announce some 8.5 million people had voted.

 

‘SLAP MADURO’

Fueling anger against Maduro is an unprecedented economic meltdown in the country of some 30 million people, which was once a magnet for European migrants thanks to an oil boom that was the envy of Latin America.

However, nearly two decades of heavy currency and price controls have asphyxiated business. Venezuelans have seen their purchasing power shredded by the world’s highest inflation rate.

Millions of Venezuelans now struggle to eat three times a day due to shortages of products as basic as rice and flour.

“Sometimes I take bread from my mouth and give it to my two kids,” said pharmacy employee Trina Sanchez, 28, as she waited for a bus to work. “This is a farce. I want to slap Maduro.”

To show the massive scale of public anger, the opposition organized an unofficial referendum over Maduro’s plan earlier this month.

More than 7 million voters overwhelmingly rejected the constituent assembly and voted in favor of early elections.

The opposition’s bid last year to hold a recall referendum against Maduro was rejected, regional elections have been postponed and the president has repeatedly ignored Congress.

 

BOMB BLAST

In Sunday’s gravest incident, a bomb went off as a group of police officers on motorbikes sped past Caracas’ Altamira Plaza, an opposition stronghold. The state prosecutor’s office said seven officers were wounded and four motorbikes incinerated.

Clashes were also reported in the volatile Andean state of Tachira, whose capital is San Cristobal, where witnesses told Reuters an unidentified group of men had showed up at two separate street protests and shot at demonstrators.

Fatalities over the weekend included two teenagers and a candidate to the assembly killed during a robbery in the jungle state of Bolivar. The state’s Socialist Party governor, Francisco Rangel, said the death was a “political hit job” and blamed it on the opposition.

Supporters of “Chavismo,” the movement founded by Chavez, Maduro’s more charismatic predecessor who enjoyed high oil prices for much of his mandate, said they wanted to halt the unrest.

“The (opposition) wants deaths and roadblocks and the government wants peace,” said Olga Blanco, 50, voting for candidates to the assembly at a school in Caracas.

The assembly is due to sit within 72 hours of results being certified, with government loyalists such as powerful Socialist Party No. 2 Diosdado Cabello and Maduro’s wife and son expected to win seats.

 

(Additional reporting by Andreina Aponte, Girish Gupta, Corina Pons, Jaczo Gomez, Hugh Bronstein and Carlos Garcia in Caracas, Maria Ramirez in Puerto Ordaz, Mircely Guanipa in Punto Fijo, Francisco Aguilar in Barinas, Matt Spetalnick and Marianna Parraga in Houston; Writing by Brian Ellsworth, Girish Gupta and Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Daniel Flynn, Sandra Maler and Paul Tait)

 

U.S. says Syrians built crematorium at prison to dispose of bodies

A satellite view of Sednaya prison complex near Damascus,

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States has evidence Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government has built a crematorium at a large military prison outside the capital Damascus, a State Department official said on Monday.

Stuart Jones, acting assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, said U.S. officials believe the crematorium could be used to dispose of bodies at a prison where they believe Assad’s government authorized the mass hangings of thousands of inmates during Syria’s six-year-old civil war.

“Credible sources have believed that many of the bodies have been disposed in mass graves,” Jones told reporters. During the briefing, he showed aerial images of what he said was a crematorium.

“We now believe that the Syrian regime has installed a crematorium in the Sednaya prison complex which could dispose of detainees’ remains with little evidence.”

Amnesty International reported in February that an average of 20 to 50 people were hanged each week at the Sednaya military prison north of Damascus. Between 5,000 and 13,000 people were executed at Sednaya in the four years since a popular uprising descended into war, it said.

Jones also said he was not optimistic about a Russia-brokered deal to set up “de-escalation zones” inside Syria. The deal was reached with support from Iran and Turkey during ceasefire talks in the Kazakh capital of Astana earlier this month. Jones attended the talks.

“In light of the failures of the past ceasefire agreements, we have reason to be skeptical,” Jones said.

Jones said Assad’s government had carried out air strikes, chemical attacks, extrajudicial killings, starvation, and other measures to target civilians and its opponents. He criticized Russia and Iran for maintaining their support for Assad despite those tactics.

“These atrocities have been carried out seemingly with the unconditional support from Russia and Iran,” Jones said. “The (Assad) regime must stop all attacks on civilian and opposition forces. And Russia must bear responsibility to ensure regime compliance.”

He did not say what measures the United States might take if Russia does not change its stance.

Tensions between the United States and Russia heightened after President Donald Trump ordered a cruise missile strike in April against a Syrian air base that the United States said had been used to launch a poison gas attack on civilians.

Jones said he had not yet presented the evidence to Russian officials. He said he hoped Russia would help pressure the Assad government.

(Reporting by Yeganeh Torbati and Doina Chiacu; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Bernadette Baum and David Gregorio)

Manila residents speak out about Duterte’s war on drugs

By Ezra Acayan

MANILA (Reuters) – Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte completes six months in charge on Friday, with the rising death toll from his war on drugs showing no sign of easing.

More than 6,000 people have been killed in the anti-narcotics drive since he took power, about a third in police operations with the rest still being investigated. Many are believed to be vigilante murders, which Duterte has refused to condemn.

The former crime-busting mayor of the southern city of Davao had said that the war on drugs would be over within six months but has since pushed back the deadline. Last month he said that he will continue “until the last pusher drops dead”.

His hardline measures have been criticized by many, including the United States and the United Nations, but Duterte retains a “very good” opinion poll rating at home, the Philippine Social Weather Stations survey group said this month.

On the streets of Manila, residents from a variety of professions gave their thoughts.

Felicidad Magdayao, 59, owner of a fast-food restaurant.

“Our business has really suffered. People are afraid to go out. At dawn we only have few customers. At least, there are fewer drug addicts and drug pushers.”

Ronaldo David, 49, police officer.

“My load in filing cases in the office has been reduced. I am now more focused on educating people and in prevention.”

Cristine Angelie Garcia, 24, call centre agent.

“Maybe there is another way where people do not need to die,” she said, adding she felt safer walking the streets at night.

“I’m on Duterte’s side. Maybe he’s just misunderstood because he grew up on the streets.”

Rosalina Perez, 41, from Tondo district. Perez is the sister of Benjamin Visda, who was killed by police during a drug investigation.

“At first, we liked what he (Duterte) was doing. But as it went on I started to question what he was doing. Everyone who wants to change are just killed. They are not even given a chance to explain themselves to the authorities.”

Weng Ruda, 36, mother of three. Lives in a slum at the foot of Payatas dumpsite in Quezon city.

“I like that he is very tough. There are no children loitering around now. They also avoid picking up bad habits.”

Zainab Omar, 41, teacher, from Taguig city.

“The children are safer now. Parents used to accompany their children to school before Duterte sat as president. Now they let their children go to school by themselves.”

Graciano De Leon, 19, parking attendant, from Paranaque city.

“What he is doing is good. He gave jobs to many people and many are happy with him. I just don’t know about the families (of those killed) if that is good for them.”

Marianito Navarra, 54, village watchman in Pasay city.

“I pity the families of those who are killed, especially those who really had nothing to do with crime. There have been a lot of people who were killed that weren’t really involved with drugs. They should just arrest them.”

Bobby Dela Cruz, 54, Catholic priest and former drug addict.

“These people (drug addicts) are fighting for their lives. They need our help. We must help these people.”

Jose Cecilia Jr., 51, owns a trucking company, from Santa Rosa town in Laguna province.

“I give one hundred percent for Duterte. He’s the only president who is fighting the drug lords and other syndicates in our country.”

Kimee Enciso, 21, student, from Quezon city.

“When it comes to him being too tough, I think it is just right. He’s our leader and he’s only doing it for our sake.”

Orly Fernandez, 64, operational manager at Eusebio Funeral Services in Navotas city. Fernandez lives in the funeral parlor.

“Before maybe we pick up one body per day, now we get around two or three bodies a day.”

Sandro Gabriel Jr, 34, grave digger at Pasay Public Cemetery.

“A lot of people who have been shot have been buried here. More than 40 people have recently been buried here,” he said.

“…I am not saying Duterte should keep killing people. But for us, we will keep working as long as there is work.”

(Editing by Patrick Johnston and Nick Macfie)