U.N. warns of extraordinary humanitarian disaster in southeast Congo

Internally displaced Congolese civilians receive food aid at Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) centre in Bunia, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo February 16, 2018. Picture taken February 16, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

By Tom Miles

GENEVA (Reuters) – An upsurge of violence in southeastern Democratic Republic of Congo is set to cause a “humanitarian disaster of extraordinary proportions”, the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said on Tuesday.

Congo’s Tanganyika province has seen a sharp escalation of violence since late last year, with new armed groups forming and an increase in attacks and the use of firearms, UNHCR spokesman Andrej Mahecic told a regular U.N. briefing in Geneva.

“We are warning today that a humanitarian disaster of extraordinary proportions is about to hit the southeastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as the province of Tanganyika plunges further into violence, triggering spiraling displacement and human rights abuses,” he said.

Clashes between militias representing the Luba, a Bantu ethnic group, and Twa pygmies, have already been going on for more than four years, driven by inequalities between Bantu villagers and the Twa, a hunting and gathering people historically excluded from access to land and basic services.

Mahecic said the intercommunal violence had led to atrocities and mass displacement, but there had also been fierce clashes between the Congolese armed forces and militia groups since the end of January.

UNHCR partner agencies had documented about 800 “protection incidents” including killings, abductions and rape, in the first two weeks of February. But much of the violence was going on in areas that were impossible for aid workers to reach.

The “lion’s share” of abuses concerned extortion and illegal taxation, mostly carried out by Congolese armed forces at road blocks.

The conflict is part of a worsening humanitarian crisis in Congo. Militia violence has risen since President Joseph Kabila’s refused to step down when his constitutional mandate expired in 2016.

Congo’s military has largely stamped out an insurrection that displaced 1.5 million people in central Congo in 2016-17 but militias are increasingly active along the eastern borders with Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi.

Tanganyika province is three times the size of Switzerland with a population of about 3 million, of whom 630,000 have been displaced by the fighting, a number that has almost doubled in a year.

“Given the circumstances we are only observing an upward trend in displacement right now,” Mahecic said.

“How high it could go is anyone’s guess, but clearly it is a major concern for us.”

Last year UNHCR received less than $1 per person to support the 4.4 million people displaced in Congo, he said.

(Reporting by Tom Miles; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

U.N. mediator warns of ‘violent, worrying, dangerous’ moment in Syria

United Nations Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura speaks to attendees after a session of the Syrian Congress of National Dialogue in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia January 30, 2018. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

By Michelle Nichols

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – The U.N. Syria peace mediator warned on Wednesday that a recent increase in violence has created one of the most dangerous moments in years of civil war there, as the government bombards rebel areas and foreign powers further intervene.

“I have been now four years (as) special envoy, this is a violent and worrying and dangerous a moment as any that I’ve seen in my time,” Staffan de Mistura told the United Nations Security Council.

Last week was one of the bloodiest in the nearly seven-year-old conflict as Syrian government forces, backed by Russia and Iran, bombarded two of the last major rebel areas: Eastern Ghouta and the northwestern province of Idlib.

The 15-member Security Council is currently negotiating a possible resolution, drafted by Kuwait and Sweden, that would demand a 30-day ceasefire in Syria to allow the delivery of aid and the evacuation of sick and wounded.

The multi-sided conflict is also raging elsewhere, with Turkey waging an offensive against Syrian Kurdish forces in the Afrin region of northwestern Syria, while on Saturday, Syrian government anti-aircraft fire downed an Israeli warplane returning from a bombing raid on Iran-backed positions in Syria.

“What we are seeing in Syria today not only imperils the de-escalation arrangements and regional stability, it also undermines the efforts for a political solution. Yet we will not be deterred from pursuing the Geneva process, which is the only sustainable path toward a political solution,” De Mistura said.

The U.N.-led Geneva process to try and broker an end to the conflict has been making little or no progress. Last year Russia, Turkey and Iran agreed “de-escalation” zones to ease hostilities in western Syria where they wield influence.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley told the Security Council that Russia was supposed to guarantee adherence to the de-escalation zones and the removal of all chemical weapons from its ally Syria.

“Instead we to see the Assad regime continue to bomb, starve and yes, gas, civilians,” Haley said, referring to President Bashar al-Assad’s government. “Russia can push the regime to commit to seeking a real peace in Syria … now is the time for Russia to use that leverage.”

Russian U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia pushed back on Haley’s remarks, saying the Syrian political process should be free from “external pressure.” He also called on the United States to “exert their influence” on Syrian opposition fighters to ensure they cease hostilities.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Alistair Bell)

Reuters report on Myanmar massacre brings calls for independent probe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A TURNING POINT”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Campaign group Fortify Rights also called for an independent investigation.

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

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

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

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

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

Philadelphia fans set fire, damage property after Super Bowl win

Fans celebrate the Philadelphia Superbowl LII victory over the New England Patriots in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania U.S. February 4, 2018.

(Reuters) – The Philadelphia Eagles’ first Super Bowl victory set off rowdy celebrations in Philadelphia as people who poured into the streets set at least one fire and damaged property early on Monday, images on social media showed.

Joyous football fans burst into jubilation in gatherings at bars and took their party into the streets, jumping up and down, setting off pyrotechnics and singing the fight song “Fly Eagles Fly.”

Some went further and ignited a fire in the middle of a street that firefighters soon extinguished. Other images showed a light pole tipping over and the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News website Philly.com reported smashed windows and toppled awnings.

Police in riot gear and on bicycles formed lines to control crowds and push people back, social media images showed.

Some people broke a display window at a department store near City Hall, and looters broke into a convenience store, grabbing merchandise and screaming, “Everything is free,” Philly.com reported.

Nearly all the light poles on one side of City Hall were toppled, and a car outside a hotel was tipped on its side, Philly.com said.

Philadelphia police and fire officials did not immediately respond to Reuters requests for information.

The Eagles, coming into the game as underdogs, defeated the five-time National Football League champion New England Patriots 41-33 in Minneapolis on Sunday.

In Boston, local media reported somber Patriots fans spilling out of local bars and heading home in the cold winter drizzle as temperatures dipped into the 30s (Fahrenheit).

“We haven’t had a single incident, thank God,” said a Boston police dispatcher.

Over in Amherst, Ma., State and University of Massachusetts police had more trouble as about 2,000 people flooded the streets near UMass Amherst and began throwing objects, setting off smoke bombs, fireworks and starting fistfights. The Boston Globe reported a number of injuries and that at least six people were arrested as police used pepper spray to disperse the angry fans.

(Reporting by Daniel Trotta and Rich McKay; Editing by Toby Chopra)

Taliban active in 70 percent of Afghanistan, BBC study finds

Afghan security forces take position on a roof of a building the site of a blast and gunfire between Taliban and Afghan forces in PD 6 in Kabul, Afghanistan March 1, 2017.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Taliban are openly active in 70 percent of Afghanistan’s districts, fully controlling 4 percent of the country and demonstrating an open physical presence in another 66 percent, according to a BBC study published on Tuesday.

The BBC estimate, which it said was based on conversations with more than 1,200 individual sources in all districts of the South Asian country, was significantly higher than the most recent assessment by the NATO-led coalition.

The coalition said on Tuesday that the Taliban contested or controlled only 44 percent of Afghan districts as of October 2017.

Afghanistan has been reeling over the past nine days from a renewed spate of violence that is adding scrutiny to the latest, more aggressive U.S.-backed strategy to bolster Afghan forces battling the Taliban in a 16-year-old war.

A bomb hidden in an ambulance struck the city center and killed more than 100 people, just over a week after an attack on the Hotel Intercontinental, also in Kabul, which left more than 20 people dead, including four U.S. citizens.

The BBC counted 399 districts in Afghanistan, but the NATO-led force counted 407. The reason for the discrepancy was not immediately clear.

The BBC study said the Afghan government controlled 122 districts, or about 30 percent of the country. Still, it noted, that did not mean that they were free from Taliban attacks.

“Kabul and other major cities, for example, suffered major attacks – launched from adjacent areas, or by sleeper cells – during the research period, as well as before and after,” the report said.

Asked about the BBC’s study, the Pentagon did not comment directly, but pointed to the latest figures by the NATO-led coalition asserting that about 56 percent of Afghanistan’s territory was under Afghan government control or influence.

Captain Thomas Gresback, a spokesman for the coalition in Kabul, said the BBC estimate overstated the militants’ “influence impact”.

“This is a criminal network, not a government in waiting,” Gresback said in an emailed statement.

“What really matters is not the number of districts held, but population controlled. RS assesses that around 12 percent of the population is actually under full Taliban control,” he said, referring to the Resolute Support mission.

The study by Britain’s public broadcaster quoted a spokesman for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani playing down the findings.

The BBC study also said Islamic State had a presence in 30 districts, but noted it did not fully control any of them.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart, addional reporting by Robert Birsel in KABUL; Editing by G Crosse and Nick Macfie)

Mexico to send troops to stem violence after record 25,000 murders

A soldier stands guard next to a crime scene, where men were killed inside a home by unknown assailants, in the municipality of San Nicolas de los Garza, Mexico, January 27, 2018. Picture taken January 27, 2018.

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Mexican officials said on Sunday the government was set to unleash a new wave of troops to crack down on criminal groups in regions where a surge in violence led to more than 25,000 murders last year.

National Security Commissioner Renato Sales said federal police troops will work with local officials to round up known major criminals and bolster investigations.

The aim was “to recover peace and calm for all Mexicans,” he said. He did not provide details on the number of federal police to be deployed.

More than 25,000 murders were recorded last year as rival drug gangs increasingly splintered into smaller, more blood-thirsty groups after more than a decade of a military-led campaign to battle the cartels.

Violence is a central issue ahead of the presidential election in July. Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto’s ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party is trailing in third place in recent polls.

Sales said federal police troops would be deployed in the states of Colima and Baja California Sur, the resort town of Cancun and the border city of Ciudad Juarez, among others. He said more details would be forthcoming within days.

Earlier this month, the United States slapped its most stringent travel warnings on the states of Colima, Michoacan, Sinaloa, Tamaulipas and Guerrero, ranking them as bad as war-ravaged Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.

At least 25 people were murdered in Mexico this weekend, according to officials and local media, including nine men who were executed at a house party in a suburb of the wealthy northern industrial city of Monterrey.

Masked gunmen burst into a home in San Nicholas de los Garza as a group watched a local soccer team play on television, according to state prosecutors. Seven were killed at the scene and two more died later at a hospital.

There were a wave of attacks in night spots late Saturday and early Sunday. A group of armed men killed three people in a bar in the resort city of Cancun, a Chilean tourist was killed in the Pacific beach resort of Acapulco, and two more were killed in a bar in the capital of Veracruz state.

Six more were killed in the border city of Ciudad Juarez and four more died in the border state of Tamaulipas, where at least 10 were killed during the week at outlaw road blockades and in shootouts, local media reported.

(Reporting by Michael O’Boyle and Diego Ore; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)

With 25,339 murders in 2017, Mexico suffers record homicide tally

- A police cordon reading "Danger" is pictured at a crime scene where unknown assailants gunned down people at a garage in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, January 4, 2018. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – There were more than 25,000 murders across drug-ravaged Mexico in 2017, the highest annual tally since modern records began, government data showed.

Investigators opened 25,339 murder probes last year, up nearly 25 percent from the 2016 tally, interior ministry data released on Saturday showed. It was the highest annual total since the government began counting murders in 1997.

Mexico has struggled with years of violence as the government has battled vicious drug cartels that have increasingly splintered into smaller, more bloodthirsty, gangs.

Violence is a central issue in July’s presidential election. Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto faces an uphill battle to keep his ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party in office.

There were 40 percent more murder investigations opened last year compared with 2013, Pena Nieto’s first full year in office.

Mexico on Thursday dismissed a claim by U.S. President Donald Trump that it was the most dangerous country in the world.

(Reporting by Gabriel Stargardter; Editing by Daniel Wallis)

Palestinians protesting U.S Jerusalem move clash with Israeli troops

A Palestinian demonstrator hurls stones towards Israeli troops during clashes, near the border with Israel in the east of Gaza City January 12, 2018.

GAZA (Reuters) – Hundreds of Palestinians clashed with Israeli soldiers in the Gaza Strip and occupied West Bank on Friday in what they said was a protest against U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Such clashes occur weekly, but tensions have risen following U.S. President Donald Trump’s announcement on Dec. 6, which stirred anger across the Arab and Muslim world and concern among Washington’s European allies as well as Russia.

The move was welcomed by Israel.

“There is almost nothing left for the United States to do before it clearly declares a state of war against the Palestinian people, its authority and leadership,” wrote commentator Rajab Abu Serreya in the widely-circulated Palestinian newspaper Al-Ayyam.

A total of 17 Palestinians and one Israeli have been killed in the flare-up since Trump’s announcement, though analysts say neither Israel nor the Palestinians are interested in a major escalation.

A few hundred Gazans approached the border fence with Israel, throwing stones at soldiers who tried to disperse them by firing canisters of tear gas, according to Reuters video. Smaller crowds gathered in a couple of West Bank cities where protesters threw stones and burned tyres. Israeli soldiers fired tear gas and threw stun grenades.

East Jerusalem, which Palestinians want for the capital of a Palestinian state, was captured by Israel in the 1967 war and later annexed, though that action has not been internationally recognised.

Israeli-Palestinian peace talks have collapsed, partly due to Israeli settlement building on occupied land and to Israeli concerns over contact between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas which Israel considers a terrorist organisation.

Palestinian medical officials said 14 Palestinians were wounded by live ammunition in Friday’s clash. An Israeli military spokeswoman said she was checking the reports.

“We want the Americans to know that the bloodshed here of unarmed people is on the hands of their president,” said Ali, a 20-year-old university student in Gaza who did not want to give his family name.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi; editing by Ralph Boulton)

Boy’s death shows danger for besieged Syrians seeking food

Heba Amouri, mourns as she holds the body of her two-year-old son, Emir al-Bash at a medical center in the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria January 8, 2018.

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Two-year-old Emir al-Bash’s blood still showed on his mother’s hand as she sat in a medical center in Syria’s besieged eastern Ghouta where his body was taken after he died from a shellblast.

His family had left their home in the village of Kafr Batna on Monday for a market in a nearby village, seeking food for their malnourished children, but a mortar shell landed close to them, instantly killing the boy.

“My child died hungry. We wanted to feed him. He was crying from hunger when we left the house,” said the mother, Heba Amouri. Emir is the second child she has lost since the war began six years ago.

Eastern Ghouta is the last big stronghold of rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad near the capital Damascus and has been besieged for years.

The United Nations estimates it is home to 400,000 civilians and says food and medical supplies have run low. The army and its allies – Russia and Iran-backed militias – bombard it daily. Rebels there shell government-held Damascus.

After Emir’s death, Amouri tried to quiet her surviving baby, a hungry two-month-old girl, by placing her finger in her mouth at the medical center. Malnutrition means she is unable to breastfeed, she said.

On Saturday, the International Committee of the Red Cross said it was alarmed by the ongoing violence in eastern Ghouta and the growing number of civilian casualties and displacement since the start of the year.

“Now I lost my second child. My baby daughter is the only surviving child,” Mahmoud al-Bash, 27, Emir’s father said. A year ago, the family lost another son to the bombardment.

The United Nations children’s agency UNICEF said in November that 11.9 percent of children under five in eastern Ghouta suffered acute malnourishment.

Mothers of infants had reduced breastfeeding or stopped it altogether because of their own poor nutrition, it said.

On Monday evening, Emir’s father carried Emir’s tiny body wrapped in bright white cloth, marked with a big blood stain, to the village’s cemetery.

“May God protect the children, and everyone, and take the life of Bashar (al-Assad),” he said, fixing his eyes on his child as he bid him a last farewell.

(Writing by Beirut bureau; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

Violent crime rises in Germany and is attributed to refugees

Armed police officers guard 'St. Petri Dome,' next to the town hall of the northern German city Bremen, February 28, 2015.

By Riham Alkousaa

BERLIN (Reuters) – Young male refugees in Germany got the blame on Wednesday for most of a two-year increase in violent crime, adding fuel to the country’s political debate over migrants.

Violent crime rose by about 10 percent in 2015 and 2016, a study showed. It attributed more than 90 percent of that to young male refugees.

It noted, however, that migrants settling from war-torn countries such as Syria were much less likely to commit violent crimes that those from other places who were unlikely to be given asylum.

Migration will be a key issue in forthcoming coalition talks between Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives and the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD). The arrival of more than a million migrants since mid-2015 hurt both parties in last September’s election.

The government-sponsored study showed a jump in violent crime committed by male migrants aged 14 to 30.

Christian Pfeiffer, a criminology expert and one of the study researchers, told Deutschlandfunk radio there were huge differences between various refugee groups depending on where they came from and how high their chances were of staying and gaining legal status in Germany.

Asylum seekers who are regarded as war refugees who have relatively good chances of staying in Germany tend to avoid trouble more, the study found.

Around 17 percent of violent crimes in Lower Saxony that were attributed to refugees, for example, were suspected of being committed by North African asylum seekers who made up less than 1 percent of the state’s registered refugee population. North African asylum seekers have relatively slim chances of obtaining legal status in Germany.

“The situation is completely different for those who find out as soon as they arrive that they are totally undesirable here. No chance of working, of staying here,” Pfeiffer said.

The study said reuniting refugees with their families by allowing them to come to Germany too could help to reduce violence. Such reunions look set to be a particularly contentious issue in talks about a new coalition government.

The predominantly young male majority of refugees live in Germany without partners, mothers, sisters or other females whom the study sees as a “violence-preventing, civilising force.”

(Reporting By Riham Alkousaa Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)