UK to pass law to stop early release of terrorists by February 27: government source

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain plans to pass emergency legislation by Feb. 27 to prevent convicted terrorists automatically being released from prison half-way through their sentence, a government source said on Wednesday.

Justice minister Robert Buckland announced plans for the law earlier this week after an Islamist attacker stabbed two people in London on Sunday. Sudesh Amman had been released from prison half-way through his term on Jan. 23, despite still being considered a risk by authorities.

He was shot dead by police officers who had placed him under covert surveillance.

The new emergency law will be introduced to parliament on Tuesday next week.

“If the legislation is passed by Feb. 27 we can prevent the automatic release of any further terrorist suspects who might pose a threat to the public,” the source said.

“This is emergency legislation which we believe is vital for protecting the public … We cannot continue to be in a position where the state has no power to block the release of terrorists who continue to pose a threat.”

Neil Basu, the country’s top counter-terrorism police officer, welcomed the move to keep the most dangerous offenders locked up for longer but said it was only part of the solution. More had to be done to prevent people becoming radicalized in the first place, he said.

“With 3000 or so subjects of interest currently on our radar and many convicted terrorists soon due to be released from prison, we simply cannot watch all of them, all the time.”

“Early intervention … is absolutely key. We need families, friends, colleagues and local communities to recognize that early intervention is not ruining someone’s life but saving it, and potentially that of others, too,” he said in a statement.

The government has said the legislation will apply to those already in prison, prompting predictions from some opponents that it could be challenged in the courts for breaching human rights law.

“What we are proposing in this emergency legislation is not to retrospectively alter offenders’ sentences as they were imposed by the court,” the government source said.

“This is in relation to release arrangements which are part of the administration of a sentence and it would be our position that you can change those without being considered to breach an offender’s human rights.”

London police chief Cressida Dick said if there were to be changes to sentencing, when offenders were released they needed to be freed on “strong license conditions”.

Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the attack, but Dick said there was no evidence at this stage that it was “directed or enabled by anyone else”.

(Reporting by Kylie MacLellan; editing by Michael Holden, Stephen Addison and Hugh Lawson)

Lone wolf attackers inspire each other, NATO chief says

FILE PHOTO: NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg speaks during a news conference after a NATO Defence Ministers meeting in Brussels, Belgium June 27, 2019. REUTERS/Francois Walschaerts

WELLINGTON (Reuters) – Nations must work together to stop lone-wolf attackers, who take inspiration from each other, NATO’s secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg said on Monday, during a visit to a mosque in New Zealand where a gunman killed dozens of people in March.

His comments came as the United States reels from two mass shootings at the weekend that killed 29 people and injured dozens in Texas and Ohio, provoking calls for tighter gun controls and prompting worries over a resurgence of white nationalism and xenophobic politics.

Stoltenberg, making a two-day trip to New Zealand, visited Christchurch, where 51 Muslim worshippers were killed in the attacks on two mosques by a suspected white supremacist.

“These attacks are committed by lone wolves but they are at the same time connected because they use each other as inspiration and they refer to each other in the different manifestos,” Stoltenberg told state broadcaster TVNZ.

“It highlights that we have to fight terrorism in many different ways, with many different tools.”

The Texas shooter who killed 20 people at a Walmart store expressed support for the Christchurch gunman in his manifesto.

New Zealand authorities have charged Australian Brenton Tarrant, a suspected white supremacist, with murder following the attacks. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

Society has to stand up for values of freedom, openness and tolerance, Stoltenberg said.

“We see that many of the terrorists are one of us,” he said. “They are home-grown, they are coming from our own societies. So this is very much also about addressing the root causes.”

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who is due to meet Stoltenberg on Tuesday, said New Zealand would only want to be remembered for the way it rejected the act of violence and hatred.

“This is a global challenge,” she told a news conference later in the day.

“Of course we can do what we can to defeat acts of hatred, violence and racism in our own domestic areas. But, as an international community, we should also be united against acts of hatred, violence and terrorism.”

(Reporting by Praveen Menon; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

U.S.-backed Syrian force starts final battle in Islamic State enclave

A fighter of Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) sits on a vehicle near the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria February 27, 2019. REUTERS/Rodi Said

By Ellen Francis and Rodi Said

DEIR AL-ZOR PROVINCE, Syria (Reuters) – U.S.-backed Syrian fighters launched an operation on Friday to clear the last remaining pocket of Islamic State fighters from the besieged eastern Syrian village of Baghouz after weeks of delays caused by the evacuation of thousands of civilians.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) moved on the enclave, a tiny area on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River, at 6 p.m. (1600 GMT) after the last batch of civilians were removed, said Mustafa Bali, the head of the SDF media office.

“Nothing remains in Baghouz except for terrorists. The battle … will not end until the elimination of Daesh and the liberation of the village,” he told Reuters, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State.

Bali said the initial fighting involved heavy weapons. Asked how long the battle would last, he said: “We expect a fierce and heavy battle.”

The Islamic State enclave at Baghouz, a tiny pocket on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River, is the last populated territory held by the jihadists, who have been steadily driven by an array of enemies from swathes of land they once held.

Though the fall of Baghouz will mark a milestone in the campaign against Islamic State, the group continues to be seen as a security threat, using guerrilla tactics and holding some desolate territory in a remote area west of the Euphrates River.

The SDF commander-in-chief said on Thursday that his force would declare victory over the jihadists in one week.

(Additional reporting by Tom Perry in Beirut and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Tom Perry/Stephen Kalin in Beirut; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Europe torn over Islamic State children in Syria

Belgian mothers attend a meeting of "Mothers' Jihad", a group aiming to repatriate women and children held in Syrian refugee camps, in Antwerp, Belgium September 8, 2018. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

By Alissa de Carbonnel and Emmanuel Jarry

ANTWERP/PARIS (Reuters) – For years, they heard little from daughters who went to join Islamic State. Now dozens of families across Europe have received messages from those same women, desperate to return home from detention in Syria.

They are among 650 Europeans, many of them infants, held by U.S.-backed Kurdish militias in three camps since IS was routed last year, according to Kurdish sources. Unwanted by their Kurdish guards, they are also a headache for officials in Europe.

In letters sent via the Red Cross and in phone messages, the women plead for their children to be allowed home to be raised in the countries they left behind.

In one message played by a woman at a cafe in Antwerp, the chatter of her young grandchildren underscores their mother’s pleas.

Another woman in Paris wants to care for three grandchildren she has never met, born after her daughter left for Syria in 2014, at the age 18. “They are innocent,” she said. “They had no part in any of this.”

Like other relatives of those held in Syria, the two mothers asked to remain anonymous – afraid of being linked to IS and worried their daughters may face reprisals.

The United States has taken custody of some citizens, as have Russia and Indonesia, and wants Europe to do the same – fearing the camps may breed a new generation of militants.

“We are telling European governments: ‘Take your people back, prosecute them. … They are more of a threat to you here than back home,'” a senior U.S. counterterrorism official said.

Europe is largely reluctant: there is little sympathy for militants’ families with the trauma of deadly attacks still fresh in many capitals, and European diplomats say they cannot act in a region where Kurdish control is not internationally recognized.

For the children it may be that their fate is determined by which country their mother came from.

The Kurds say it is not their job to prosecute or hold them indefinitely, leaving the women and children in legal limbo.

“Absolutely nobody wants them,” said a senior diplomat grappling with the issue. “How can you sell to the public that you are proactively helping the families of your enemies?”

However, mounting concern over abandoning hundreds of children with a claim to EU citizenship – most of them under six – is pushing governments to quietly explore how to tackle the complexities of bringing them back.

“The threat emanating from children of the caliphate is really an unprecedented, invisible and very complex one – one that we have to deal with right now,” Robert Bertholee, head of the Dutch AIVD intelligence agency, said earlier this year.

“These children are victims above all.”

French officials have said they will work to repatriate the children – but not their mothers. Other EU nations are in talks with Kurdish authorities, two European intelligence sources said, but these are complicated because the Kurds want governments to take back all their nationals – not just the young.

“About the children we all agree but not on the parents,” a senior European security source said.

LETTERS HOME

The Red Cross collected about 1,290 messages for families in visits to the Al Roj, Al Hol and Ain Issa camps where the women are held this year. The camps are in an area of Syria under Kurdish control following the defeat of Islamic State in nearly all territory it once held in Syria and Iraq.

“Mummy, Papa, forgive me for everything,” one 23-year-old wrote, adding little hearts to the margins of the page provided. “I’ve lived unimaginable things,” she scribbled. “I want to be with you and never leave.”

The women paint a grim picture: tuberculosis is rampant while food, baby milk and medical care are in short supply. Some women have died.

“There is no capacity; keeping them there is not a long-term viable option,” said Nadim Houry, director of Human Rights Watch’s counterterrorism program, who has visited some camps.

“You don’t build counterterrorism policy on public opinion.”

Kurdish officials say the foreigners in their custody comprise 900 IS fighters, 500 women and more than 1,000 children. As coalition forces clear remaining pockets of IS territory, Western security sources say numbers will grow.

They fear the camps will not hold them long. Kurdish forces have traded some women back to IS fighters in exchange for prisoners and let others go.

While women made up almost 20 percent of 5,900 Western Europeans who joined IS – and they had at least 566 babies abroad, a report by the London-based International Centre for the Study of Radicalism found, few have returned.

 

LEGAL GREY ZONE

Families in Belgium, France and the Netherlands are suing governments to intervene to get their relatives home.

One mother has been petitioning authorities since receiving a letter on March 30 from her daughter – one of at least 20 Belgian women in the camps.

“I’ve tried everything,” she said, meeting with other mothers from around the country to share sorrows over tea and cupcakes on a recent Saturday in Antwerp. “We have no voice. We are branded the parents of terrorists.”

Calling their cause the Mothers’ Jihad, they plan to joint legal action after one of their group lost a case to repatriate six grandchildren – all under 5 years old – by her daughter and step-daughter from camp Roj.

The judge ruled that although Belgium had a moral duty under the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child to do so, it could not be enforced in the stateless war zone.

“I am broken,” their grandmother said after the ruling.

In the Netherlands, lawyers for three of about 35 women in the camps won a small victory. Judges ruled the government should bring them to stand trial where they would otherwise be prosecuted in absentia over their role in IS.

As long as Dutch authorities do not act, their trials are frozen. “It is a political decision,” a government official said. “Other countries are taking steps to bring people back.”

In France, lawyers say the absence of an official government stance on at least 60 French women and 150 children in camps has made it difficult to bring cases to court. “We have been met with a scornful silence,” said Martin Pradel, who represents several families.

‘DENIAL AND PANIC’

The children are seen both as victims and threats, so bringing them back to schools and homes in Europe is fraught with difficulties.

“I understand the sensitivities in countries that suffered from terrorist attacks; still we hope to facilitate humane solutions for kids,” said Peter Maurer, president of the ICRC.

But DNA testing to confirm claims of nationality may not be possible when parents are dead. IS widows often remarried, complicating custody issues. And separating children from their parents breaches international humanitarian law.

“The debate must stop oscillating between denial and panic,” said Muriel Domenach, who leads efforts against radicalization in France, where some 78 children of militants who fled IS have been taken in charge by the state. “These are neither kids like any other, nor are they time bombs.”

When French psychiatrists first see their young charges, they are in a state of shock from being separated from their mothers at the airport. “They are in a terrible state when we see them,” said Thierry Baubet, who is treating 40 children as part of the program set up by French authorities last year.

With their returning mothers in pre-trial detention, the children are placed with foster families – many of whom are at a loss on how to handle their trauma and have begun attending a support group set up by psychiatrists.

Mostly the children are too young to understand the stigma of IS or how their words may alarm neighbors, teachers and social workers.

“They talk about bombs. They talk about fathers who passed away,” Baubet said. “They talk about the Islamic State all the time.”

(Reporting by Alissa de Carbonnel; Additional reporting by Andrea Shalal in Berlin and Mark Hosenball in London; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards threaten to avenge military parade attack

A general view of the attack during the military parade in Ahvaz, Iran September 22, 2018. Tasnim News Agency/via REUTERS

By Michael Georgy

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards vowed on Sunday to exact “deadly and unforgettable” vengeance for an attack on a military parade that killed 25 people, including 12 of their comrades, and Tehran accused Gulf Arab states of backing the gunmen.

Saturday’s assault, one of the worst ever against the most powerful force of the Islamic Republic, struck a blow at its security establishment at a time when the United States and its Gulf allies are working to isolate Tehran.

“Considering (the Guards’) full knowledge about the centers of deployment of the criminal terrorists’ leaders …, they will face a deadly and unforgettable vengeance in the near future,” the Guards said in a statement carried by state media.

Four assailants fired on a viewing stand in the southwestern city of Ahvaz where Iranian officials had gathered to watch an annual event marking the start of the Islamic Republic’s 1980-88 war with Iraq. Soldiers crawled about as gunfire crackled. Women and children fled for their lives.

Islamic State’s Amaq agency posted a video of three men in a vehicle who it said were on their way to carry out the attack.

A man wearing a baseball cap emblazoned with what appears to be a Revolutionary Guard logo discussed the impending attack in Farsi in the video. “We are Muslims, they are kafirs (non-believers),” the man says. He adds: “We will destroy them with a strong and guerrilla-style attack, inshallah (God willing).”

Ahvaz National Resistance, an Iranian ethnic Arab opposition movement which seeks a separate state in oil-rich Khuzestan province, also claimed responsibility for the attack.

Neither of them provided evidence.

There has been a blizzard of furious statements from top Iranian officials, including President Hassan Rouhani, accusing Iran’s adversaries the United States and Gulf states of provoking the bloodshed and threatening a tough response.

Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, rejected Rouhani’s accusations.

“He’s got the Iranian people … protesting, every ounce of money that goes into Iran goes into his military, he has oppressed his people for a long time and he needs to look at his own base to figure out where that’s coming from,” she told CNN.

DETAINING ACTIVISTS

Senior commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) have said the Ahvaz attack was carried out by militants trained by Gulf states and Israel, and backed by America. But it is unlikely the IRGC will strike any of these foes directly.

The Guards could put on a show of strength by firing missiles at opposition groups operating in Iraq or Syria that may be linked to the militants who staged the attack.

They are also likely to enforce a tight security policy in Khuzestan province, arresting any perceived domestic opponents including civil rights activists.

Three Arab activists told Reuters that security forces, especially the intelligence branch of the Revolutionary Guards, had detained more activists in Ahvaz.

Rouhani engineered Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers that ushered in a cautious detente with Washington before tensions flared anew with President Donald Trump’s decision in May to pull out of the accord and reimpose sanctions on Tehran.

The attack on the military parade is likely to give security hardliners like the Guards more political ammunition because they did not endorse the pragmatist Rouhani’s pursuit of the nuclear deal with the West, analysts say.

In New York, Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani said on Saturday that U.S. sanctions were inflicting economic pain on Iran that could lead to a “successful revolution”.

The Trump administration has said that changing Iran’s system of government is not U.S. policy.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Fox News on Sunday that Trump was willing to meet top Iranian officials for talks.

Asked if Trump would like to meet with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the highest authority in Iran, Pompeo replied: “The president has said he’ll talk with anyone if we can have a constructive conversation.”

Mostly Shi’ite Muslim Iran is at odds with Western-allied Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia for predominance in the Middle East. The regional superpowers support opposing sides in the civil wars in Yemen and Syria, as well as rival political groups in Iraq and Lebanon.

A senior United Arab Emirates official denied Iranian allegations alluding to the involvement of the UAE in training gunmen that claimed the attack.

The “formal incitement against the UAE from within Iran is unfortunate, and has escalated after the Ahvaz attack,” Minister of State for Foreign Affairs for the United Arab Emirates Anwar Gargash said in a tweet.

(Reporting by Dubai newsroom, Bozorg Sharafedin in London and Babak Dehghanpisheh in Geneva, Doina Chiacu in Washington and Sami Aboudi in Cairo; Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Edmund Blair)

America’s dangerous nuclear headache: old plutonium with nowhere to go

The U.S. Energy Department's Savannah River Site, with the unfinished building which was meant to make plutonium safe but now may not be finished until 2048, is seen in this aerial image, taken near Aiken, South Carolina, U. S. January 31, 2018. High Flyer © 2018/Handout via REUTERS

By Scot J. Paltrow

AMARILLO, Texas (Reuters) – In a sprawling plant near Amarillo, Texas, rows of workers perform by hand one of the most dangerous jobs in American industry. Contract workers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pantex facility gingerly remove the plutonium cores from retired nuclear warheads.

Although many safety rules are in place, a slip of the hand could mean disaster.

In Energy Department facilities around the country, there are 54 metric tons of surplus plutonium. Pantex, the plant near Amarillo, holds so much plutonium that it has exceeded the 20,000 cores, called “pits,” regulations allow it to hold in its temporary storage facility. There are enough cores there to cause thousands of megatons of nuclear explosions. More are added each day.

The delicate, potentially deadly dismantling of nuclear warheads at Pantex, while little noticed, has grown increasingly urgent to keep the United States from exceeding a limit of 1,550 warheads permitted under a 2010 treaty with Russia. The United States wants to dismantle older warheads so that it can substitute some of them with newer, more lethal weapons. Russia, too, is building new, dangerous weapons.

The United States has a vast amount of deadly plutonium, which terrorists would love to get their hands on. Under another agreement, Washington and Moscow each are required to render unusable for weapons 34 metric tons of plutonium. The purpose is twofold: keep the material out of the hands of bad guys, and eliminate the possibility of the two countries themselves using it again for weapons. An Energy Department website says the two countries combined have 68 metric tons designated for destruction – enough to make 17,000 nuclear weapons. But the United States has no permanent plan for what to do with its share.

Plutonium must be made permanently inaccessible because it has a radioactive half-life of 24,000 years.

“A MUCH MORE DANGEROUS SITUATION”

Edwin Lyman, a physicist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a science advocacy group based in Washington, says solving the problem of plutonium storage is urgent. In an increasingly unstable world, with terrorism, heightened international tensions and non-nuclear countries coveting the bomb, he says, the risk is that this metal of mass annihilation will be used again. William Potter, director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, told Reuters: “We are in a much more dangerous situation today than we were in the Cold War.”

Washington has not even begun to take the steps needed to acquire additional space for burying plutonium more than 2,000 feet below ground – the depth considered safe. Much of America’s plutonium currently is stored in a building at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina – like Pantex, an Energy Department site. Savannah River used to house a reactor. Local opponents of the storage, such as Tom Clements, director of SRS Watch, contend the facility was never built for holding plutonium and say there is a risk of leakage and accidents in which large amounts of radioactivity are released.

The Energy Department has a small experimental storage site underground in New Mexico. The department controls the radioactive materials – plutonium, uranium and tritium – used in America’s nuclear weapons and in the reactors of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines. In a Senate hearing in June 2017, Energy Secretary Rick Perry said the Energy Department has been in talks with New Mexico officials to enlarge the site. Environmental groups there have strongly opposed expansion.

Under an agreement with Russia, the United States was to convert 34 metric tons of plutonium into fuel for civilian reactors that generate electricity. The fuel is known as MOX, for “mixed oxide fuel.” Plutonium and uranium are converted into chemical compounds called oxides, and mixed together in fuel rods for civilian nuclear power plants. The two metals are converted into oxides because these can’t cause nuclear explosions. But the U.S. effort has run into severe delays and cost overruns.

The alternative method is known as dilute-and-dispose. It involves blending plutonium with an inert material and storing it in casks. The casks, however, are projected to last only 50 years before beginning to leak, and so would need to be buried permanently deep underground.

THE MOX MESS

President Donald Trump has sided with the Energy Department in wanting to kill the MOX project because of the extreme cost overruns and delays. The Energy Department, beginning in the Obama administration, favored closing down the MOX project for the same reason, but Congress overruled it. The federal budget adopted in February, however, specifies a means for ending the project, if a study shows that dilute-and-dispose would be at least 50 percent cheaper than making MOX.

The National Nuclear Security Administration, the part of the Energy Department that oversees the nuclear sites and materials, favors switching to the dilute-and-dispose method. In recent testimony before a House of Representatives subcommittee, Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, the new NNSA administrator, said that method would “cost billions less” than completing the MOX plant.

Plutonium is a versatile nuclear bomb material. Terrorists would need only 11 kilograms or less to make a bomb, Lyman says.

Its ordinarily limited radioactivity makes plutonium safe for terrorists or other thieves to transport with little risk of radiation injury. It goes undetected by most sensors. It radiates alpha particles, relatively large on an atomic scale, which means the thin glass of a test tube, the leather of a briefcase, or even air or skin stop them. The danger from handling small amounts is inhaling plutonium dust. In that case, the dust spreads from the lungs throughout the body, causing multiple kinds of cancer.

The federal government now has no solution in sight to dispose of the plutonium permanently. Its one effort to make it unusable for bombs has turned into what the White House and Energy Department say is a costly failure. The MOX project, at the Energy Department’s Savannah River Site in South Carolina, has been kept on life support by Congress thanks to the influence of South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham and other lawmakers. The MOX plant employs about 2,000 people in Graham’s state.

Graham and other Congressional backers say MOX is the best way to keep plutonium out of the hands of terrorists. They note too that the pact with Russia requires the United States to use MOX as the method for disposal.

A spokeswoman for Graham declined to comment on his behalf but sent a link to a YouTube video of a Senate hearing in March. In the hearing, Graham, referring to steps already taken to limit work on the MOX plant, said: “What I think we’ve done is ended the biggest non-proliferation program in the world, and I’m going to try and fix that.”

Today’s plutonium glut mainly is a legacy of the Cold War. The quantities now seem surreal. By 1967 the U.S. nuclear arsenal reached its apex, with 37,000 warheads. The Soviet Union’s peak came in the 1970s, with approximately 45,000. These were enough to destroy life on Earth thousands of times over.

A RADIOACTIVE PEACE DIVIDEND

Amid the terror and aggressiveness then of government and military leaders on both sides, little or no thought was given what to do with the warheads should the risk of mass annihilation ebb.

Daniel Ellsberg, best known for leaking in 1971 the Pentagon Papers about the Vietnam war, in the early 1960s was an adviser to the Air Force and White House on nuclear policy. He recently published a book detailing and criticizing the nuclear policy debates and decisions of that era. In a phone interview, he said disposal of weapons was never considered at the time.

“I don’t think one person gave one moment of thought to that,” Ellsberg said. “No one thought that the Cold War would end.”

Treaties that dramatically reduced U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals were signed soon after the Soviet Union fell. It was then that the magnitude of the problem – disposing of the surplus plutonium – dawned on the two countries.

Scientists proffered ideas, nearly all involving making the plutonium forbiddingly dangerous for malefactors to transport and burying it deep underground.

Instead, under a 2000 treaty, the United States agreed to transform the 34 metric tons of plutonium into MOX, unusable for bombs. Russia agreed to destroy the same quantity using a special type of reactor. But the United States had never before built a MOX plant. No U.S. civilian reactor had ever used MOX as fuel.

This misplaced optimism led to one of the costliest snafus ever in U.S. government construction. Work began in 2007 to build a MOX plant that was to be operational by November 2016. The Energy Department now estimates that, if allowed to proceed, it will not be finished until 2048. In 2007 the Energy Department said the total cost would be $4.8 billion. Now it estimates the cost at more than $17 billion.

Building of the plant began when detailed designs were between 20 percent and 40 percent complete. But once initial construction finished, the contractor, under instructions from the Energy Department, breezed ahead without architectural plans.

Reports from the Union of Concerned Scientists said rooms were built for laboratories and offices where none were needed. Ventilation ducts and electrical wiring were in the wrong places. Plumbing was a maze of misplaced pipes. The contractor later had to rip out much of its work and start over.

The contractor is a consortium of companies I Areva MOX Services. It includes CB&I (formerly Chicago Bridge and Iron), based in the Netherlands, and Areva, which specializes in nuclear-related and alternative power projects, majority owned by the French government.

GIVING IT AWAY

In an e-mailed statement to Reuters, the consortium said it expects to finish the facility. It said “the project is over 70 percent physically complete.”

But Gordon-Hagerty, the National Nuclear Security Administration’s new chief, testified in March before a House Appropriations Subcommittee that it is “nowhere near” 50% complete. Government Accountability Office reports criticized the Energy Department for awarding a “cost plus” contract, which guarantees a profit regardless of how much work is done.

In an emailed response to questions for this article, Lindsey Geisler, a spokesperson for the NNSA, said that in 2011, after the contract had been awarded, “NNSA recognized the need to institute project management reforms.” She said the NNSA established a new office to better oversee contracting and acquisition, and that practices have improved significantly.

Echoing other critics, Frank von Hippel, a Princeton University professor who researches nuclear arms control and policymaking, said weak oversight continues. “The problem at DOE is that the quality of managers, with some exceptions, is quite low,” he said. “Contractors just milk them for money.”

An Energy Department panel reported in 2016 that there is no US market for MOX. To use MOX fuel rods, civilian power plants would have to modify their reactors, requiring lengthy relicensing by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The report said the best the Energy Department could hope for was to give the stuff away.

(Edited by Michael Williams)

Israel says it destroyed Gaza attack tunnel under Egyptian border

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

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Maayan Lubell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pakistan summons U.S. ambassador after Trump’s angry tweet

David Hale, U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan, speaks at the Pakistan Stock Exchange in Karachi, Pakistan, July 26, 2016.

By Drazen Jorgic

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Pakistan has summoned the U.S. ambassador to protest against U.S. President Donald Trump’s angry tweet about Pakistani “lies and deceit”, which Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif dismissed as a political stunt.

David Hale was summoned by the Pakistan foreign office on Monday to explain Trump’s tweet, media said. The ministry could not be reached for comment but the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad confirmed on Tuesday that a meeting had taken place.

Trump said the United States had had been rewarded with “nothing but lies and deceit” for “foolishly” giving Pakistan more than $33 billion in aid in the last 15 years.

“They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!” he tweeted on Monday.

His words drew praise from Pakistan’s old foe, India, and neighboring Afghanistan, but long-time ally China defended Pakistan.

Pakistan Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi on Tuesday chaired a National Security Committee meeting of civilian and military chiefs, focusing on Trump’s tweet. The meeting, which lasted nearly three hours, was brought forward by a day and followed an earlier meeting of army generals.

Relations with Washington have been strained for years over Islamabad’s alleged support for Haqqani network militants, who are allied with the Afghan Taliban.

The United States also alleges that senior Afghan Taliban commanders live on Pakistani soil, and has signaled that it will cut aid and take other steps if Islamabad does not stop helping or turning a blind eye to Haqqani militants crossing the border to carry out attacks in Afghanistan.

In 2016, Taliban leader Mullah Mansour was killed by a U.S. drone strike inside Pakistan and in 2011, al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was found and killed by U.S. troops in the garrison town of Abbottabad.

Islamabad bristles at the suggestion that it is not doing enough to fight Islamist militants, noting that its casualties at the hands of Islamists since 2001 number in the tens of thousands.

“DEAD-END STREET”

Foreign Minister Asif dismissed Trump’s comments as a political stunt born out of frustration over U.S. failures in Afghanistan, where Afghan Taliban militants have been gaining territory and carrying out major attacks.

“He has tweeted against us and Iran for his domestic consumption,” Asif told Geo TV on Monday.

“He is again and again displacing his frustrations on Pakistan over failures in Afghanistan as they are trapped in dead-end street in Afghanistan.”

Asif added that Pakistan did not need U.S. aid.

A U.S. National Security Council official on Monday said the White House did not plan to send an already-delayed $255 million in aid to Pakistan “at this time” and that “the administration continues to review Pakistan’s level of cooperation”.

Afghan defense spokesman General Dawlat Waziri said Trump had “declared the reality”, adding that “Pakistan has never helped or participated in tackling terrorism”.

Jitendra Singh, a junior minister at the Indian prime minister’s office, said Trump’s comment had “vindicated India’s stand as far as terror is concerned and as far as Pakistan’s role in perpetrating terrorism is concerned”.

But Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang, asked during a briefing about Trump’s tweet, did not mention the United States.

“We have said many times that Pakistan has put forth great effort and made great sacrifices in combating terrorism,” he said. “It has made a prominent contribution to global anti-terror efforts.”

Pakistani officials say tough U.S. measures threaten to push Pakistan further into the arms of China, which has pledged to invest $57 billion in Pakistani infrastructure as part of its vast Belt and Road initiative.

(Reporting by Drazen Jorgic in ISLAMABAD, Syed Raza Hassan in KARACHI, Malini Menon in NEW DELHI, Mirwais Harooni in KABUL; Writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Philippines’ Duterte ditches peace process with Maoist rebels

Philippines' Duterte ditches peace process with Maoist rebels

By Neil Jerome Morales

MANILA (Reuters) – Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said on Friday he has terminated intermittent peace talks with Maoist-led rebels and would consider them “terrorists” because hostilities had continued during negotiations.

Ending the nearly half-century long conflict with the communists, in which more than 40,000 people have been killed, was among Duterte’s priorities when he took office in June last year.

Duterte said he would consider the political arm of the Maoists a “terrorist group” and was demanding that dozens of rebel leaders he freed last year in order to restart talks turn themselves in.

“I am ordering those I have released temporarily to surrender or face again punitive action,” Duterte in a speech to soldiers.

“Let it not be said that I did not try to reach out to them,” he said.

Duterte on Thursday signed a proclamation ending the peace talks, which started in August last year and were brokered by Norway. Talks have been intermittent since 1986.

“We find it unfortunate that their members have failed to show their sincerity and commitment in pursuing genuine and meaningful peaceful negotiations,” Duterte’s spokesman, Harry Roque, said in a statement late on Thursday.

In May, government negotiators canceled a round of formal talks with the Maoist-led rebels in the Netherlands as the guerrillas stepped up attacks in the countryside.

The rebels had no choice but to intensify guerrilla warfare in rural areas, Jose Maria Sison, chief political consultant of the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDF), said in a statement.

The NDF, the political arm of the Maoist guerrillas, said it regretted the unilateral cancellation of talks on such vital social and economic reforms.

Government troops were advised to stay alert on the movements of the estimated 3,800 leftist guerrillas, said military spokesman Major-General Restituto Padilla.

Government forces are also battling Islamist fighters in the south of the largely Christian country, some of whom recently occupied a town for several months in the biggest battle in the Philippines since World War Two.

(Reporting by Neil Jerome Morales; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore, Robert Birsel)

Exclusive: $6 for 38 days work: Child exploitation rife in Rohingya camps

Azimul Hasan, 10, a Rohingya refugee boy, serves plates at a roadside hotel where he works at Jamtoli, close to Palong Khali camp, near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, November 12, 2017.

By Tom Allard and Tommy Wilkes

COX’S BAZAR/KUTUPALONG, Bangladesh (Reuters) – Rohingya refugee children from Myanmar are working punishing hours for paltry pay in Bangladesh, with some suffering beatings and sexual assault, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) has found.

Independent reporting by Reuters corroborated some of the findings.

The results of a probe by the IOM into exploitation and trafficking in Bangladesh’s refugee camps, which Reuters reviewed on an exclusive basis, also documented accounts of Rohingya girls as young as 11 getting married, and parents saying the unions would provide protection and economic advancement.

About 450,000 children, or 55 percent of the refugee population, live in teeming settlements near the border with Myanmar after fleeing the destruction of villages and alleged murder, looting and rape by security forces and Buddhist mobs.

Afjurul Hoque Tutul, additional superintendent of police in Cox’s Bazar, near where the camps are based, said 11 checkpoints had been set up that would help prevent children from leaving.

“If any Rohingya child is found working, then the owners will be punished,” he said.

Most of the refugees have arrived in the past two and a half months after attacks on about 30 security posts by Rohingya rebels met a ferocious response from Myanmar’s military.

Described by the United Nations human rights commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”, Myanmar’s government counters that its actions are a proportionate response to attacks by Rohingya “terrorists”.

The IOM’s findings, based on discussions with groups of long-term residents and recent arrivals, and separate interviews by Reuters, show life in the refugee camps is hardly better than it is in Myanmar for Rohingya children.

The IOM said children were targeted by labor agents and encouraged to work by their destitute parents amid widespread malnutrition and poverty in the camps. Education opportunities are limited for children beyond Grade 3.

Azimul Hasan, 10, a Rohingya refugee boy, stands inside a roadside hotel where he works at Jamtoli, close to Palong Khali camp, near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, November 12, 2017.

Azimul Hasan, 10, a Rohingya refugee boy, stands inside a roadside hotel where he works at Jamtoli, close to Palong Khali camp, near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, November 12, 2017. REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar

Rohingya boys and girls as young as seven years old were confirmed working outside the settlements, according to the findings.

Boys work on farms, construction sites and fishing boats, as well as in tea shops and as rickshaw drivers, the IOM and Rohingya residents in the camp reported.

Girls typically work as maids and nannies for Bangladeshi families, either in the nearby resort town of Cox’s Bazar or in Chittagong, Bangladesh’s second-largest city, about 150 km (100 miles) from the camps.

One Rohingya parent, who asked not to be identified because she feared reprisals, told Reuters her 14-year-old daughter had been working in Chittagong as a maid but fled her employers.

When she returned to the camp, she was unable to walk, her mother said, adding that her daughter’s Bangladeshi employers had physically and sexually assaulted her.

“The husband was an alcoholic and he would come to her bedroom at night and rape her. He did it six or seven times,” the mother said. “They gave us no money. Nothing.”

The account could not be independently verified by Reuters but was similar to others recorded by the IOM.

Most interviewees said female Rohingya refugees “experienced sexual harassment, rape and being forced to marry the person who raped her”, the IOM said.

A 12 year old Rohingya girl who worked as domestic help in a house in Bangladesh, looks out the window at an undisclosed location near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, November 8, 2017.

A 12 year old Rohingya girl who worked as domestic help in a house in Bangladesh, looks out the window at an undisclosed location near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, November 8, 2017. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

PAID A PITTANCE, IF AT ALL

Across Bangladesh’s refugee settlements, Reuters saw children wandering muddy lanes alone and aimlessly, or sitting listlessly outside tents. Many children begged along roadsides.

The Inter Sector Coordination Group, which oversees UN agencies and charities, said this month it had documented 2,462 unaccompanied and separated children in the camps. The actual number was “likely to be far higher”, it said.

A preliminary survey by the UNHCR and Bangladesh’s Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commission has found that 5 percent of households – or 3,576 families – were headed by a child.

Reuters interviewed seven families who sent their children to work. All reported terrible working conditions, low wages or abuse.

Muhammad Zubair, dressed in a dirty football shirt, his small stature belying his stated age of 12 years old, said he was offered 250 taka per day but ended up with only 500 taka ($6) for 38 days work building roads. His mother said he was 14 years old.

“It was hard work, laying bricks on the road,” he said, squatting in the doorway of his mud hut in the Kutupalong camp. He said he was verbally abused by his employers when he asked for more money and was told to leave. He declined to provide their identities.

Zubair then took a job in a tea shop for a month, putting in two shifts per day from 6am to past midnight, broken by a four-hour rest period in the afternoon.

He said he wasn’t allowed to leave the shop and was only permitted to speak to his parents by phone once.

“When I wasn’t paid, I escaped,” he said. “I was frightened because I thought the owner, the master, would come here with other people and take me again.”

 

FORCED MARRIAGE

Many parents also pressure their daughters to marry early, for protection and for financial stability, according to the IOM findings. Some child brides are as young as 11, the IOM said.

But many women only became “second wives,” the IOM said. Second wives are frequently divorced quickly and “abandoned without any further economic support”.

Kateryna Ardanyan, an IOM anti-trafficking specialist, said exploitation had become “normalized” in the camps.

“Human traffickers usually adapt faster to the situation than any other response mechanism can. It’s very important we try to do prevention.” Ardanyan said.

“Funding dedicated to protecting Rohingya men, women and children from exploitation and abuse is urgently needed.”

 

(Reporting by Tom Allard and Tommy Wilkes; Editing by Philip McClellan)