Sri Lanka imposes nationwide curfew after mosques attacked

A Muslim man stands inside the Abbraar Masjid mosque after a mob attack in Kiniyama, Sri Lanka May 13, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

By Alexandra Ulmer and Omar Rajarathnam

KINIYAMA, Sri Lanka (Reuters) – Sri Lankan police fired tear gas at mobs attacking mosques and shops owned by Muslims on Monday and imposed a nationwide curfew after the worst outbreak of sectarian violence since the Easter bombings by Islamist militants.

The militants targeted churches and hotels, most of them in Colombo, killing more than 250 people in an attack claimed by Islamic State and fuelling fears of a backlash against the island nation’s minority Muslims.

Residents in Muslim parts of North Western Province said mobs had attacked mosques and damaged shops and businesses owned by Muslims for a second day.

“There are hundreds of rioters, police and army are just watching. They have burnt our mosques and smashed many shops owned by Muslims,” a resident of Kottampitiya area told Reuters by telephone, asking not to be identified for fear of reprisals.

“When we try to come out of our house, police tell us to stay inside.”

Police imposed a nationwide curfew until from 9 p.m. (1530 GMT) to 4 a.m., spokesman Ruwan Gunasekera said.

Authorities also imposed a temporary ban on social media networks and messaging apps including WhatsApp after a clash in another part of the country was traced to a dispute on Facebook.

A police source said police had fired tear gas to disperse mobs in some places in North Western Province.

Muslims make up nearly 10 percent of Sri Lanka’s 22 million people who are predominantly Sinhalese Buddhists.

A Reuters reporter saw a mob of several dozen young Sinhalese men wielding sticks and rods in what appeared to be a standoff in the town of Madulla in North Western Province.

Many anxious Muslims were hunkering down at home but young men, some of them carrying rods, were still zipping around on motorbikes, despite regional curfews from 2 p.m. before the nationwide curfew was imposed.

Abbraar Masjid mosque is seen after a mob attack in Kiniyama, Sri Lanka May 13, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

Abbraar Masjid mosque is seen after a mob attack in Kiniyama, Sri Lanka May 13, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

MOSQUE RANSACKED

Glass was strewn across the Abrar mosque in the town of Kiniyama that was attacked overnight. All the windows and doors of the soft-pink building were smashed and copies of the Koran were thrown onto the floor.

A mosque official said the attacks were triggered when several people, including some Buddhist monks, demanded a search of the main building after soldiers had inspected a 105-acre (43-hectare) lake nearby.

Authorities suspect lakes and wells are being used as hiding places to conceal weapons.

A 34-year-old man who was at the mosque said about 150-200 came toward the mosque with rods and swords on Sunday but the Muslims who were in the mosque persuaded them to go away with the help of the police.

But they came back and this time there were about 1,300 people. The Muslims, huddled in the mosque, asked the police to fire in the air to disperse the mob, but the police said the people wanted to inspect the mosque for weapons.

Then the crowd surged into the mosque and ransacked it, the witness said.

“They destroyed and burned Korans, broke every glass window and door and urinated on the water storage which Muslims used to take ablution,” he said.

Police spokesman Gunasekera did not respond to a request for comment on the incident. But in an emailed statement he said there had been some damage to property in Hettipola area of Kurunegala district but no injuries reported.

The police source said police also fired in the air the Hettipola area.

Several dozen people threw stones at mosques and Muslim-owned stores and a man was beaten in the Christian-majority town of Chilaw on the west coast on Sunday in the dispute that started on Facebook, police sources and residents told Reuters.

Authorities said they arrested the author of a Facebook post, identified as 38-year-old Abdul Hameed Mohamed Hasmar, whose online comment “1 day u will cry” people said was interpreted as threatening violence.

“Social media blocked again as a temporary measure to maintain peace in the country,” Nalaka Kaluwewa, director general of the government information department, told Reuters on Monday.

On Twitter, Sri Lanka’s leading mobile phone operator, Dialog Axiata Plc, said it had also received instructions to block the apps Viber, IMO, Snapchat, Instagram and YouTube until further notice.

(Additional reporting by Shihar Aneez, Ranga Sirilal; Writing by Sanjeev Miglani; Editing by Alison Williams)

Scale, sophistication of Sri Lanka attack point to foreign links: U.S. ambassador

Friends and relatives carry the coffins of eight-month-old Mathew and his grandmother Agnes Vnikpridha, 69, who died during a string of suicide bomb attacks on churches and luxury hotels on Easter Sunday, at their funeral in Negombo, Sri Lanka April 24, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

By Sanjeev Miglani and Joe Brock

COLOMBO (Reuters) – The scale and sophistication of the Easter Sunday attacks on churches and hotels in Sri Lanka suggested the involvement of an external group such as Islamic State, the U.S. ambassador said on Wednesday, as the death toll from the bombings rose to 359.

The Islamic State militant group claimed responsibility for the coordinated attacks on three churches and four hotels, and details have begun to emerge of a band of nine, well-educated suicide bombers, including a woman, from well-to-do families.

Sri Lankan officials have blamed two domestic Islamist groups with suspected ties to Islamic State.

“If you look at the scale of the attacks, the level of coordination, the sophistication of them, it’s not implausible to think there are foreign linkages,” the U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka, Alaina Teplitz, told reporters in Colombo.

“Exploring potential linkages is going to be part of (investigations),” she said.

The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation and military were supporting the investigation, she said. Britain was also sending a team to help, Sri Lanka said.

Teplitz’s comments came as Sri Lanka’s junior defense minister, Ruwan Wijewardene, conceded that there had been a significant intelligence failure before the attacks, with reports of warnings of strikes not acted on and feuds at the highest levels of government.

“It is a major lapse in the sharing of intelligence information,” Wijewardene told a separate news conference. “We have to take responsibility.”

President Maithripala Sirisena had asked the police chief and defense secretary to quit, two sources close to the president said.

MISSED WARNINGS

Lakshman Kiriella, the leader of parliament, said senior officials had deliberately withheld intelligence about possible attacks.

“Some top intelligence officials hid the intelligence information purposefully … the top brass security officials did not take appropriate actions,” Kiriella, who is also minister of public enterprise, told parliament.

He said information about possible suicide attacks was received from Indian intelligence on April 4 and a Security Council meeting was chaired by President Maithripala Sirisena three days later, but it was not shared more widely.

Police said the death toll had risen overnight to 359 from 321, making it the deadliest such attack in South Asian history. About 500 people were wounded.

Islamic State also released a video late on Tuesday through its AMAQ news agency, showing eight men, all but one with their faces covered, standing under a black Islamic State flag, declaring loyalty to its leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi.

The one man in the video with his face uncovered was Mohamed Zahran, a Sri Lankan preacher known for militant views.

If the Islamic State connection is confirmed, it would be the deadliest ever such overseas attack linked to the group.

LAW DEGREE

The early Sunday bombings shattered the relative calm that has existed in Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka since a civil war against mostly Hindu, ethnic Tamil separatists ended 10 years ago, and raised fears of a return to sectarian violence.

Sri Lanka’s 22 million people include minority Christians, Muslims and Hindus. Until now, Christians had largely managed to avoid the worst of the island’s conflict and communal tensions.

While the Islamic State video showed eight men, Wijewardene said there were nine suicide bombers. Eight had been identified and one of them was a woman, he said.

“Most of the bombers are well-educated, come from economically strong families. Some of them went abroad for studies,” Wijewardene said.

“One of them we know went to the UK, then went to Australia for a law degree. Foreign partners, including the UK, are helping us with those investigations.”

Wijewardene told parliament on Tuesday that two Sri Lankan Islamist groups – the National Thawheed Jama’ut and Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim – were responsible for the blasts. He said on Wednesday the leader of one of those groups blew himself up in the attack on the luxury Shangri-La Hotel in Colombo.

A total of 60 people had been detained for questioning across Colombo since Sunday, Wijewardene said. That total includes a Syrian, according to security sources.

Police searched more homes overnight, leading to the detention of 18 more people.

The overnight raids included areas near the Gothic-style St Sebastian church in Negombo, north of the capital, where scores were killed on Sunday, a police spokesman said.

An unspecified number of people were detained in western Sri Lanka, the scene of anti-Muslim riots in 2014.

“Search operations are going on everywhere, there is tight checking of Muslim areas,” a security source said.

Most of those killed and wounded were Sri Lankans, although officials said 38 foreigners were also killed. That included British, U.S., Australian, Turkish, Indian, Chinese, Danish, Dutch and Portuguese nationals. Forty-five children were among the dead.

The government has imposed emergency rule and an overnight curfew. It said it has also blocked online messaging services to stop the spread of inflammatory rumours that it feared could incite communal clashes.

(GRAPHIC: Sri Lanka bombings – https://tmsnrt.rs/2Xy02BA)

(GRAPHIC: A decade of peace shattered – https://tmsnrt.rs/2W4wZoU)

(Reporting by Sanjeev Miglani; Editing by Paul Tait, Robert Birsel and Alex Richardson)

U.S. soldiers killed in Afghanistan, Afghan contractor listed as killed in blast is alive

An Afghan military convoy drives past the site of a car bomb attack where U.S soldiers were killed near Bagram air base, Afghanistan April 9, 2019. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – An Afghan contractor who was believed to have been killed in a car bomb near Kabul is alive, the U.S. military said on Tuesday.

Colonel David Butler, a spokesman for U.S. Forces- Afghanistan, told Reuters the Afghan contractor was initially believed to have been killed along with three other U.S. service members in the blast near Bagram air base close to Kabul.

It was only later that they found out the contractor was alive.

The blast, which the Taliban claimed responsibility for, also wounded three U.S. service members.

Violence has been relentless in Afghanistan even though Taliban militants have held several rounds of talks with U.S. officials about a peace settlement. The talks began late last year, raising hopes for an end to the conflict.

Monday’s attack was one of the deadliest against U.S. personnel in recent months. In November, a roadside bomb blast killed three U.S. service members near the central Afghan city of Ghazni.

The war has taken a much larger toll on Afghan security forces and civilians.

President Ashraf Ghani, speaking at the World Economic Forum in January, said about 45,000 members of Afghanistan’s security forces have been killed since he took office in September 2014, which works out to an average of 849 per month.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Paul Simao)

Special Report: Egypt kills hundreds of suspected militants in disputed gun battles

The gravestone of Mohamed Abu Amer is seen near his family home in Al-Khanka, Egypt, August 6, 2018. REUTERS/Staff

By Reuters staff

CAIRO (Reuters) – Mohamed Abu Amer, a landscape gardener from Egypt was working in downtown Cairo when national security agents took him away on Feb. 6, 2018, his family said.

For almost six months Amer’s family waited for news of the 37-year-old father of two. Their messages to the Public Prosecutor and the Interior Ministry, which oversees the police and the national security agency, went unanswered.

Then on July 31, the ministry announced on its Facebook page that Amer was among five terrorists killed in a shootout earlier that day when police approached their hideout 40 km north of Cairo. Amer was wanted for the murder of a national security agent, the statement said.

It’s a version of events his family doesn’t buy. Amer was no terrorist and he died in the custody of the state, not in a gun battle, his relatives insist. “I know that what they are saying is untrue,” said a relative. “He was with them for six months.”

Amer was one of 465 men killed in what the Interior Ministry said were shootouts with its forces over a period of three and a half years, a Reuters analysis of Interior Ministry statements has found. The announcements reviewed by Reuters appeared on the ministry’s social media or were published by the state news agency.

The killings began in the summer of 2015. In June that year, Islamist militants had assassinated Egypt’s chief prosecutor, Hisham Barakat, an ally of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Sisi responded with a sweeping anti-terrorism law that shielded the police and military from prosecution for the proportionate use of force. Human rights groups say it was the start of a brutal crackdown. A researcher at an Egyptian organization that documents human rights abuses said police embarked on a spate of “extra judicial killings knowing that no one will hold them accountable.”

In 108 incidents involving 471 men, only six suspects survived, according to Interior Ministry statements from July 1, 2015 to the end of 2018. That represents a kill ratio of 98.7 percent. Five members of the security forces were killed, the statements said. Thirty seven were injured.

The Interior Ministry issued crime scene photographs with some of the statements. They showed bloodied bodies with assault rifles or shotguns on the ground beside them. Almost all of the statements said arms and ammunition were recovered at the scene. Some said Islamic State flyers were found.

But in interviews with Reuters, the relatives of 11 of the dead men contradicted the official accounts. Their sons, brothers or husbands had been plucked by police or national security agents from the streets or their homes and disappeared, they said, in some cases for several months. Then came news of their deaths in an Interior Ministry Facebook post or statement.

The families said none of the young men carried arms. But some were supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement that was outlawed in 2013 after Sisi led the military in toppling Egypt’s first Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohamed Mursi.

Reuters showed three forensic experts mortuary images of two of the 11 dead men. These specialists cast doubt on the Interior Ministry’s account of the two men’s deaths.

Three witnesses to one deadly encounter – the shooting of two members of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohamed Kamal and Yasser Shehata, in a Cairo apartment block in 2016 – disputed the Interior Ministry’s report of a gun battle with its forces. There was no exchange of fire or gun fight, these witnesses said.

The U.S. State Department’s latest annual report on human rights in Egypt, released in March, said abuses included arbitrary or unlawful killings by the government or its agents, forced disappearances and torture. The United States, nevertheless, has unfrozen $195 million in military aid to Egypt which it had previously withheld in part because of concerns over Egypt’s human rights record. U.S. officials reason that security cooperation with Egypt is important to U.S. national security.

Kate Vigneswaran, senior legal adviser at the International Commission of Jurists’ Middle East and North Africa program, said the killings described by Reuters could “constitute extrajudicial executions, a serious crime under international law.” Evidence that victims were shot at close range would “indicate that the use of lethal force was not a response to a legitimate threat, but rather premeditated and deliberate conduct by the security forces to execute individuals outside the protection of the law.”

Kevin Jon Heller, associate professor of public international law at Amsterdam University, said if the victims were civilians, “this would be the classic crime against humanity of murder: killing civilians as part of a widespread or systematic attack.”

The Egyptian government didn’t respond to questions for this article. Reuters provided officials with a detailed account of its analysis of the Interior Ministry statements and other findings of this article. They had no comment.

A ROAD TRIP

Cousins Souhail Ahmed and Zakaria Mahmoud had no connection with the Muslim Brotherhood or any political organization, their family said. In July 2017 the men, both in their twenties, set off from their homes in the Nile city of Damietta for a holiday in the Red Sea resort of Sharm El Sheikh.

The 600 km road trip would take them southwards from Damietta, close to the Mediterranean, along the Suez Canal and then the Gulf of Suez. For Ahmed, a student, it was a rare adventure. Hurt in a car crash a few years earlier, he still walked with a limp and stayed at home much of the time, a relative said.

Ahmed called home a few hours into the trip and told his mother that they had stopped to get sugarcane juice as they headed for a checkpoint in Ismailia province, on the Suez Canal. It was the last time the family heard from them.

Five days later, the Interior Ministry announced in a Facebook post that the cousins were among four Islamist militants killed in a shootout when security forces approached their hideout in an Ismailia village on July 15. Relatives found the bodies of the men at a mortuary in the town of Ismailia the next day.

The families of the two young men say the government’s version of events makes no sense.

“They are not Brotherhood supporters at all,” said the relative. They “were not supporters of anyone.” Ahmed “was like all young men, he dreamed to marry at a young age and have a family.” Mahmoud was a carpenter.

Reuters showed photographs and video of the bodies to three forensic experts; Professor Derrick Pounder, a pathologist who has consulted for Amnesty International and the United Nations, and two other international experts who declined to be identified. All three cast doubt on the Interior Ministry’s account that the deaths were the result of a shootout.

Mahmoud had three gunshot wounds to the head. One bullet entered beside his right nostril and exited just below his lower lip. “That would place the shooter overlooking, above and to the right of the victim if the victim was standing, which would seem unlikely in an exchange of gunfire,” Pounder said. “A more likely scenario is that the victim was kneeling with the shooter standing close on the right side.”

The two other gunshot wounds were to Mahmoud’s forehead, almost symmetrically placed just below the hairline to the left and right, which suggested final “coup de grace shots,” according to Pounder.

Authorities said in the statement the cousins were part of a “group of fugitive terrorists” and died in a single incident. “As soon as security forces approached them, they were surprised by gunshots in their direction which they dealt with, resulting in the killing of four terrorist elements,” the Interior Ministry said.

Yet the cousins’ bodies exhibited different stages of decomposition. Mahmoud’s death appeared to have been very recent, the experts said, but Ahmed had died 36 to 48 hours before the images were taken. There were no obvious ante mortem injuries or gunshot wounds to Ahmed’s body and no obvious cause of death, Pounder said.

“THERE WAS NO SHOOTOUT”

From July 1, 2015 to Dec. 31, 2018, the Interior Ministry issued statements reporting the deaths of 465 men, almost all of them suspected militants, in gun battles with its forces. That compared with just five such deaths in the first half of 2015, before the murder of Barakat, the chief prosecutor.

The Interior Ministry statements were strikingly similar. In every instance, the ministry said its forces approached or raided the hideout of the terrorists or criminals having secured an arrest warrant or taken “all legal measures.” The terrorists or criminals opened fire, and security forces responded.

Most of the dead men were in their 20s; the youngest was 16, the oldest was 61. The Interior Ministry classified 320 of the slain men as terrorists and 28 as criminals or drug dealers.

It said 117 were members of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. Founded in Egypt in 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood spread its political activism and charity work across the Middle East in the decades that followed. But in recent years countries including Egypt and Saudi Arabia have cracked down on its activities, declaring it a terrorist group. The Brotherhood, which insists it is a peaceful movement, has largely gone underground.

Around a quarter of the deaths reported by the Interior Ministry, 104, were in the North Sinai region that borders Israel and Gaza, and where Egypt is battling an insurgency by Islamist militants.

The Interior Ministry statements didn’t name 302 of the dead men, nor did they give precise locations for many of the shootings. Many were in remote desert or mountain areas. Reuters managed to speak to three witnesses to one incident in a Cairo apartment in 2016.

The Interior Ministry announced on Oct. 3, 2016, that its forces had killed a Muslim Brotherhood leader and his aide in a raid on the apartment. The ministry said Mohamed Kamal, 61, a member of the group’s leadership council, and Yasser Shehata, 47, shot at police and died when officers returned fire.

Reuters asked three neighbors about the events of that evening. None of them had seen or heard a gun fight. A woman living nearby said the only shots came several hours after police had entered the apartment. A person who was in the apartment block was adamant: “There was no shootout.”

A lawyer speaking on behalf of the two men’s families told Reuters an official autopsy showed the two men were shot in the head. Reuters was not able to independently verify the autopsy conclusion.

Some Interior Ministry statements were accompanied by crime scene photographs. These included the aftermath of a shooting in November 2018. The Interior Ministry said security forces killed 19 men in a shootout in the desert, west of Minya, Upper Egypt. The ministry said the dead were members of a cell responsible for a deadly attack on Christians two days earlier.

Forensic expert Pounder reviewed 20 of the photographs. He said 11 of the bodies appeared to have been moved after death. He pointed to blood and drag marks in the sand. Depressions in the sand suggested two of the men were shot while in a kneeling position, he added. Photos of other bodies were inconclusive.

An Egyptian judicial source said some police felt the courts were too slow, which led some officers to take justice into their own hands. “They call it ‘prompt justice,'” he said. Police often moved weapons and other objects at the crime scene to cover up executions, the source said. “The police are the ones who gather the information, and there is no way they will cooperate in collecting evidence that would incriminate their colleagues.”

Reuters analysis of the Interior Ministry statements showed that deadly shootouts often followed an attack by Islamist militants. For example, in December 2018, a day after the deadly bombing of a Vietnamese tourist bus in Giza, the ministry announced that its forces had killed 40 people in three separate incidents.

Gamal Eid, a human rights lawyer and founder of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information, said Egypt was trapped in a lethal cycle of extrajudicial killings and revenge attacks. “The more extrajudicial killings take place, the more there will be desire for revenge,” he said.

A member of the state-funded National Council of Human Rights, George Ishak, said: “There is a state of panic because of terrorism, but it shouldn’t be like this. This fear has to stop.”

A VERDICT OVERTURNED

In 2013, Khaled Emam, a 37-year-old weightlifting trainer, was sentenced in absentia to one year in jail for taking part in anti-government protests, his family said. To avoid arrest, he moved with his wife and two sons into an apartment in Cairo’s southeastern Mokattam district, away from the family home.

Emam was snatched from the street in June, 2017, his family said, when he was fetching medicine for one of his sons. Witnesses told his family that masked men leaped from a minibus and grabbed him.

The family filed a complaint with the local police and wrote to the authorities asking for information. They got no response.

Then, on Oct. 2, 2017, the Interior Ministry issued a statement that its forces had killed three men in a shootout in a graveyard. It named two of them – both friends of Emam. Two security sources confirmed to Reuters that Emam was also killed.

At Cairo’s Zeinhom mortuary, a relative found his body. It was bruised and showed signs of torture, the relative said. “There were injuries around his joints, his arms were detached from his shoulders. Half of his lower jaw was missing along with several of his upper teeth.”

One week after Emam’s death, an appeals court overturned the guilty verdict and his one-year jail term, the relative said. The family hasn’t filed a complaint about Emam’s death for fear of reprisal. “I know that I will not get justice,” the relative said.

(Reporting by Reuters staff; additional reporting by Stephanie van den Berg in The Hague, Edmund Blair in London and Lesley Wroughton in Washington; editing by Janet McBride and Richard Woods)

Britain strips citizenship from teenager who joined Islamic State in Syria

FILE PHOTO: Renu Begum, sister of teenage British girl Shamima Begum, holds a photo of her sister as she makes an appeal for her to return home at Scotland Yard, in London, Britain February 22, 2015. REUTERS/Laura Lean/Pool/File Photo

By Guy Faulconbridge and Paul Sandle

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain stripped a teenager who traveled to join Islamic State of her citizenship on security grounds, triggering a row over the ramifications of leaving a 19-year-old mother with a jihadist fighter’s child to fend for herself in a war zone.

The fate of Shamima Begum, who was found in a detention camp in Syria last week, has illustrated the ethical, legal and security conundrum that governments face when dealing with the families of militants who swore to destroy the West.

With Islamic State depleted and Kurdish-led militia poised to seize the group’s last holdout in eastern Syria, Western capitals are trying to work out what to do with battle-hardened foreign jihadist fighters, and their wives and children.

Begum, who gave birth to a son at the weekend, prompted a public backlash in Britain by appearing unrepentant about seeing severed heads and even claiming the 2017 Manchester suicide attack – that killed 22 people – was justified.

She had pleaded to be repatriated back to her family in London and said that she was not a threat.

But ITV News published a Feb. 19 letter from the interior ministry to her mother that said Home Secretary Sajid Javid had taken the decision to deprive Begum of her British citizenship.

“In light of the circumstances of your daughter, the notice of the Home Secretary’s decision has been served of file today, and the order removing her British citizenship has subsequently been made,” the letter said.

The letter asked Begum’s mother to inform her daughter of the decision and set out the appeal process.

When asked about the decision, a spokesman said Javid’s priority was “the safety and security of Britain and the people who live here”.

Begum was one of three outwardly studious schoolgirls who slipped away from their lives in London’s Bethnal Green area in February 2015 to fly to Turkey and then over the border into the cauldron of the Syrian civil war.

LONDON TO SYRIA

Islamic State propaganda videos enticed her to swap London for Raqqa, a step she still says she does not regret. She fled the self-styled caliphate because she wanted to give birth away from the fighting.

“When I saw my first severed head in a bin it didn’t faze me at all. It was from a captured fighter seized on the battlefield, an enemy of Islam,” she told The Times which first discovered her in the camp in Syria.

She was equally harsh when describing the videos she had seen of the beheaded Western hostages, The Times said.

Begum has named her newborn, Jerah, in accordance with the wishes of her jihadist husband, Yago Riedijk, a Dutch convert from Arnhem. He was tortured on suspicion of spying by Islamic State but later released.

Another son, also called Jerah, died at eight months old. A daughter, Sarayah, also died aged one year and nine months, The Times said.

Her family’s lawyer said he could seek to challenge the British government’s decision to deprive her of citizenship.

“We are considering all legal avenues to challenge this decision,” said lawyer, Tasnime Akunjee.

British law does allow the interior minister to deprive a person of British citizenship when conducive to the public good, though such decisions should not render the person stateless if they were born as British citizens.

Police in Bangladesh said they were checking whether Begum was a Bangladeshi citizen, and Britain’s opposition Labour Party said the government’s decision was wrong.

“If the government is proposing to make Shamima Begum stateless it is not just a breach of international human rights law but is a failure to meet our security obligations to the international community,” Diane Abbott, Labour spokeswoman on home issues.

Ken Clarke, a former Conservative minister, said he was surprised that Javid’s lawyers had given him such advice.

“What you can’t do is leave them in a camp in Syria being even more radicalised… until they disperse themselves through the world and make their way back here,” he said.

“I think the Germans, the French and ourselves have got to work out how to deal with this difficult and, I accept, dangerous problem,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Ruma Paul in Dhaka, Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

U.S. committed to pulling foreign forces out of Afghanistan: official

Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani (C) talks with the U.S. special envoy for peace in Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad (L), during a meeting in Kabul, Afghanistan January 27, 2019. Presidential Palace office/Handout via REUTERS

By Rupam Jain

KABUL (Reuters) – A senior U.S. government official, speaking after six days of U.S. peace talks with Afghan Taliban militants, said on Monday that Washington was committed to withdrawing foreign forces from Afghanistan to end more than 17 years of war.

The official, who declined to be identified, described “significant progress” in talks last week with the Taliban in Qatar about a foreign troop pullout, but more negotiations were needed on a ceasefire and its timing.

“Of course we don’t seek a permanent military presence in Afghanistan,” the official said in the capital Kabul.

“Our goal is to help bring peace in Afghanistan and we would like a future partnership, newly defined with a post peace government,” the official told Reuters. “We would like to leave a good legacy.”

There could not be a withdrawal without a ceasefire, the official said.

The issue looms as a sticking point in the next round of talks on Feb. 25, with the U.S. official saying Taliban negotiators wanted a full withdrawal before a ceasefire.

Despite the presence of U.S.-led foreign forces training, advising and assisting their Afghan counterparts, the Taliban control nearly half of Afghanistan and stage near-daily attacks against the Western-backed Afghan government and its security forces.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said last week that 45,000 members of the country’s security forces had been killed since he took office in 2014.

There were reports last month that the United States was considering pulling out almost half of its forces, but a White House spokesman said U.S. President Donald Trump had not issued orders to withdraw. However, the administration has not denied the reports.

CORE CONCERNS

Both U.S. officials and the hardline Islamic group hailed progress after the talks on Saturday with U.S. special peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad. He told the New York Times on Monday that a draft framework had been completed but details still needed to be fleshed out.

Taliban sources told Reuters on Saturday that the United States had agreed on the withdrawal of foreign troops within 18 months of the signing of a pact but the U.S. official said a timeline was not discussed.

The United States has about 14,000 troops in Afghanistan as part of a NATO-led mission and a U.S. counter-terrorism mission largely directed at groups such as Islamic State and al Qaeda.

Some 8,000 troops from 38 other countries are participating in the operation, known as Resolute Support.

The official said progress was made on addressing core U.S. concerns that Afghanistan will not be used as a base by al Qaeda or Islamic State for attacks against the United States and its allies.

“That is why we came to Afghanistan in the first place,” the official said.

Apart from the ceasefire, the Taliban did not discuss the need for talks with the Afghan government to reach a durable political settlement, the U.S. official said.

The Taliban have repeatedly refused to talk to the Afghan government, which they see as a puppet of the United States, throwing into question how effective a peace deal could really be.

The Taliban do want, however, to join an interim government post-deal – something that alarms Ghani.

Khalilzad, an Afghan-born American diplomat, met Ghani for four hours on Sunday to outline progress and seek his support.

In response, Ghani said in a televised address that the presence of foreign forces was based on an international agreement and they will not be required for ever.

“No Afghans want foreign forces in their country for the long term,” Ghani said.

“The current presence of foreign forces is based on need…and according to an exact and arranged plan we are trying to bring down that number to zero.”

(Reporting by Rupam Jain and Abdul Qadir Sediqi, Writing by Greg Torode; Editing by Nick Macfie)

U.S. touts new evidence of Iranian weaponry in Yemen, Afghanistan

FILE PHOTO: A missile that the U.S. Department of Defense says is confirmed as a "Qiam" ballistic missile manufactured in Iran by its distinctively Iranian nine fueling ports and that the Pentagon says was fired by Houthi rebels from Yemen into Saudi Arabia on July 22, 2017 is seen on display at a military base in Washington, U.S. December 13, 2017. REUTERS/Jim Bourg /File Photo

By Idrees Ali

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States on Thursday displayed pieces of what it said were Iranian weapons deployed to militants in Yemen and Afghanistan, a tactic by President Donald Trump’s administration to pressure Tehran to curb its regional activities.

The second presentation of Iranian weapons by the Pentagon, many of which were handed over by Saudi Arabia, coincides with growing concern in Congress over U.S. military support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen’s civil war, which has led to a deep humanitarian crisis.

Members of Congress have escalated their opposition to Saudi Arabia after the Oct. 2 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in its Istanbul consulate. Despite administration pleas to stick with the Saudis and thereby counter Iran, the Senate voted on Wednesday to advance a resolution to end military support for the Saudis in Yemen.

If Iran were found to be shipping arms to Yemen, Afghanistan and other countries, it would be in violation of United Nations resolutions.

Reuters was given advanced access to the military hangar at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling just outside of Washington where the U.S. Defense Department put the fragments of weaponry on display and explained how it concluded that they came from Iran.

“We want there to be no doubt across the world that this is a priority for the United States and that it’s in international interest to address it,” said Katie Wheelbarger, the principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs.

The presentation, the second such one in the last year, is part of a government-wide effort to follow through on Trump’s policy to take a far harder line toward Tehran. He pulled the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal and reimposed sanctions, in part for its “malign” regional activities.

Iran has denied supplying the Houthis in Yemen with such weaponry and described the Pentagon’s previous arms display as “fabricated.”

WEAPONS TO YEMEN

The Pentagon offered a detailed explanation of why it believed the arms on display came from Iran, noting what it said were Iranian corporate logos on arms fragments and the unique nature of the designs of Iranian weaponry.

The United States acknowledged it could not say precisely when the weapons were transferred to the Houthis, and, in some cases, could not say when they were used. There was no immediate way to independently verify where the weapons were made or employed.

This included a “Sayyad-2” surface to air missile (SAM), which the Pentagon said had been interdicted by the Saudi government in early 2018 en route to Houthi militants in Yemen.

The Pentagon cited a corporate logo of an Iranian defense firm in the warhead section, which was not displayed, and writing in Farsi along the missile as evidence that it was Iranian.

A U.S. defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, acknowledged that the Pentagon did not know if the Houthis had actually used this type of missile before.

The Houthis, who control Yemen’s capital Sanaa, have fired dozens of missiles into Saudi Arabia in recent months, part of a three-year-old conflict widely seen as a proxy battle between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Under a U.N. resolution that enshrines the Iran nuclear deal with world powers, Tehran is prohibited from supplying, selling or transferring weapons outside the country unless approved by the U.N. Security Council. A separate U.N. resolution on Yemen bans the supply of weapons to Houthi leaders.

WAR IN AFGHANISTAN

The United States has long accused Iran of providing weapons to Taliban militants in Afghanistan. In October, Washington targeted two individuals linked to the Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards for providing material and financial support to the Taliban.

The Pentagon displayed a number of “Fadjr” rockets, that it said had been provided to the Taliban. It said they were Iranian because of the unique markings on the rockets and the paint scheme, along with the markings on them.

The Taliban is known to buy weapons on the black market and defense officials could not say why they were sure these missiles had not been simply bought by the Taliban.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali; Editing by Mary Milliken and Lisa Shumaker)

Japanese journalist apologizes, recounts days as hostage in Syria

Jumpei Yasuda, the Japanese journalist held in Syria for more than three years, bows during a news conference for the first time since his release last month, at the Japan National Press Club in Tokyo, Japan November 2, 2018. REUTERS/Issei Kato

By Kiyoshi Takenaka

TOKYO (Reuters) – Jumpei Yasuda, a Japanese journalist held by militants in Syria for more than three years, said on Friday he told his captors to deafen him if they suspected he was eavesdropping on their conversations.

Yasuda, 44, said it was one of the darkest moments before his release last month, ending what he called 40 months of physical and psychological “hell”.

“I told them to burst my eardrums and destroy my ears if they don’t like to be heard so much,” the freelance journalist said at the first news conference since his return on Oct 25.

Wearing a black suit and dark blue necktie, and with his greying beard trimmed short, Yasuda bowed in front of reporters and rows of television cameras before taking questions.

Yasuda said he was fully accountable for his actions.

“I would like to offer my apology and express my gratitude to those who worked for my release, and who were worried about me,” he said in a somber voice.

“I am very sorry that my conduct has had the Japanese government involved in this matter,” Yasuda added.

He was captured almost immediately after entering Syria on foot from Turkey in June 2015 and moved from one detention facility to another routinely over the 40 months.

At one location, he was not allowed to make any noise — even the sound of breathing through his nose or cracking of his knuckles — making it virtually impossible for him to move.

“In their logic, my making noise seemed to mean I moved to eavesdrop on what’s going on. So, whenever I made noise, they started doing things like torture (other hostages) and turn off the light,” Yasuda said.

At one point, he didn’t eat for 20 days in an effort to avoid any movement. It left him thin and nauseated.

He later converted to Islam because it allowed him more freedom of movement.

“As a Muslim, you must pray five times a day. As I could move only twice a day during meal time, conversion to Islam meant five additional occasions for me to move,” he said.

Jumpei Yasuda, the Japanese journalist held in Syria for more than three years, addresses a news conference for the first time since his release last month, at the Japan National Press Club in Tokyo, Japan November 2, 2018. REUTERS/Issei Kato

Jumpei Yasuda, the Japanese journalist held in Syria for more than three years, addresses a news conference for the first time since his release last month, at the Japan National Press Club in Tokyo, Japan November 2, 2018. REUTERS/Issei Kato

RECKLESS OR COURAGEOUS?

It was not the first time Yasuda had been detained in the Middle East. He was held in Iraq in 2004 and criticized at home for drawing the government into negotiations for his release.

Yasuda’s latest release, which made front-page news in Japan, rekindled debate about reporting from war zones that some see as reckless adventure and others as courageous journalism.

“My own conduct caused trouble for the Japanese government as well as many people. It is only natural I take criticism,” Yasuda said.

However, he defended the need for on-the-ground reporting in conflict zones.

“States kill people in war. Information is absolutely necessary for people to decide if such an act is acceptable,” Yasuda said. “Information for that purpose should come not only from the states involved but from a third party as well.”

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe thanked Qatar and Turkey for their cooperation after Yasuda was released, but Japan’s government said it did not pay a ransom.

Japanese media have reported he was held hostage by the Nusra Front, but Yasuda said he was not told the identity of his captors and he had no idea what had triggered his release.

Asked if he would go back to war reporting, Yasuda said he didn’t know.

“I am thinking I should be good to my parents. So, I could be more cautious in the way I conduct my reporting from now on.”

(Reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka; editing by Darren Schuettler)

U.N. fears chemical weapons in Syria battle with ‘10,000 terrorists’

FILE PHOTO:A general view taken with a drone shows part of the rebel-held Idlib city, Syria June 8, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah/File Photo

GENEVA (Reuters) – The United Nations called on Russia, Iran, and Turkey on Thursday to forestall a battle in Syria’s Idlib province which would affect millions of civilians and could see both militants and the government potentially using chlorine as a chemical weapon.

U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura said there was a high concentration of foreign fighters in Idlib, including an estimated 10,000 fighters designated by the U.N. as terrorists, who he said belonged to the al-Nusra Front and al Qaeda.

There could be no justification to use heavy weapons against them in densely populated areas, he said. Miscalculations could lead to unintended consequences, including the possible use of chemical weapons.

“Avoiding the potential use of chemical weapons is indeed crucial,” de Mistura told reporters in Geneva.

“We all are aware that both the government and al-Nusra have the capability to produce weaponized chlorine.”

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem, speaking during a meeting with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Moscow on Thursday, said: “We are at the final stage of solving the crisis in Syria and liberating our whole territory from terrorism.”

“I assure you that we do not have chemical weapons and are not able to use them,” he added, according to Syrian state news agency SANA.

Idlib province is the last major rebel-held area in Syria, serving as what the U.N. has called a “dumping ground” for fighters and civilians evacuated from other battles. It is one of the areas that Russia, Iran, and Turkey agreed to “de-escalate” last year at a series of talks in the Kazakh capital Astana.

But a source said on Wednesday that Russia’s ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, was preparing a phased offensive there.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Wednesday that militants in Idlib had to be liquidated, describing them as “a festering abscess”.

“Why such a hurry, and not provide more time in order to allow more discussions, especially among the Astana guarantors?,” de Mistura said, referring to Russia, Iran, and Turkey.

The potential battlefield contains two crucial roads, transport arteries between major Syrian cities, which the Syrian government argues must be made safe. De Mistura asked if it was necessary to create a “worst-case scenario” just to secure Syrian government access to the roads.

It would be better to set up humanitarian corridors to evacuate civilians than rush into a battle which could prove to be a “perfect storm”, he said.

“The lives of 2.9 million people are at stake, and international mutually threatening messages and warnings and counter-warnings are taking place in the last few days.”

(Reporting by Tom Miles and Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Alexandra Hudson)

Syrian offensive uprooted 120,000 people so far, U.N. warns of catastrophe

Residents celebrate the army's arrival in the formerly rebel-held town of Ibta, northeast of Deraa city, Syria in this handout released on June 29, 2018. SANA/Handout via REUTERS

BEIRUT/GENEVA (Reuters) – More than 120,000 civilians have been uprooted by a Syrian army offensive in the southwest since it began last week, a war monitor said on Friday, and a senior U.N. official warned of catastrophe as they risked being trapped between warring sides.

Government forces and their allies appeared to be making significant gains in eastern Deraa province, where state media said they marched into several towns. A rebel official said opposition front lines had collapsed.

The Russian-backed offensive has killed at least 98 civilians, including 19 children, since June 19, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

It has also driven tens of thousands of people toward the border with Jordan and thousands more to the frontier with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, the UK-based monitor said.

Israel and Jordan – which is already hosting 650,000 Syrians – say they will not let refugees in.

“We left under bombardment, barrel bombs, (air strikes by) Russian and Syrian warplanes,” said Abu Khaled al-Hariri, 36, who fled from al-Harak town to the Golan frontier with his wife and five children.

“We are waiting for God to help us, for tents, blankets, mattresses, aid for our children to eat and drink.”

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein said there was a grave risk of many civilians being trapped between government forces, rebel groups and Islamic State militants who have a small foothold there, an outcome he said would be a “catastrophe”.

“The real concern is that we are going to see a repetition of what we saw in eastern Ghouta – the bloodshed, the suffering, the civilians being held, being under a siege,” U.N. human rights spokeswoman Liz Throssell said.

Syrian government forces backed by Russian air power have turned their focus to the rebel-held southwest since defeating the last remaining besieged insurgent pockets, including eastern Ghouta, near Damascus. The assault has so far targeted Deraa, not rebel-held parts of nearby Quneitra province at the Golan frontier which are more sensitive to Israel.

The campaign has shattered a “de-escalation” deal negotiated by the United States, Russia and Jordan that had mostly contained fighting in the southwest since last year.

President Bashar al-Assad pressed ahead with the offensive despite U.S. condemnations and warnings of “serious repercussions”. The United States has told rebels not to expect military support against the assault.

The chief Syrian opposition negotiator Nasr al-Hariri on Thursday decried “U.S. silence” over the offensive and said only a “malicious deal” could explain the lack of a U.S. response.

The Kremlin said Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump will have a detailed discussion about Syria when they meet in July.

EASTERN DERAA PROVINCE

The war has been going Assad’s way since Russia intervened on his side in 2015, when he held just a fraction of the country. Today he commands the single largest part of Syria, though much of the north and east is outside his control.

Syrian troops have seized a swathe of rebel territory northeast of Deraa city. State TV broadcast scenes of what they said were locals celebrating the army’s arrival in the formerly rebel-held town of Ibta, where they said rebels were turning in their weapons.

State media said that government forces seized al-Harak and Rakham towns, and that insurgents in four other towns agreed to surrender their weapons and make “reconciliation” deals with the government.

“Most of the (people in) the eastern villages have fled to west Deraa and to Quneitra,” said Abu Shaima, a Free Syrian Army rebel spokesman.

Another rebel official said some towns were trying to negotiate deals with the state on their own. “There was a collapse in the eastern front yesterday,” he added. “The front in Deraa city is steadfast.”

Al-Manar TV, run by Assad’s Lebanese ally Hezbollah, said the army captured a hill overlooking a road linking eastern and western parts of Deraa province – an advance that would mean rebels could no longer safely use it.

The seven-year-long war has already displaced six million people inside Syria and driven 5.5 million abroad as refugees, and killed hundreds of thousands of people.

ISRAEL SENDS AID, WON’T OPEN FRONTIER

Many of the civilians on the move have fled from areas east and northeast of Deraa city and from the heavily populated rebel-held town of Nawa to its northwest.

Observatory Director Rami Abdulrahman, speaking by phone, said some people had also crossed into government-held areas, while others had gone to a corner of the southwest held by an Islamic State-affiliated group.

Jordan reiterated its position that newly displaced Syrians must be helped inside Syria. “Jordan has reached its capacity in receiving refugees,” Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi told the pan-Arab broadcaster al-Jazeera late on Thursday.

Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, in an interview with Tel Aviv Radio 102FM, said: “I think we must prevent the entry of refugees from Syria to Israel, in the past we have prevented such cases.”

The Israeli military said an increased number of civilians had been spotted in refugee camps on the Syrian side of the Golan over the past few days, and that it had overnight sent aid supplies at four locations to people fleeing hostilities.

Footage released by the Israeli military on Friday showed a forklift truck unloading palettes with supplies that it said included 300 tents, 28 tonnes of food, medical equipment and medication, footwear and clothing.

(Reporting by Tom Perry in Beirut, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and Ori Lewis in Jerusalem; Editing by William Maclean and Raissa Kasolowsky)