U.S. returns thousands of smuggled ancient artifacts to Iraq

A man photographs artifacts on display, as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) hosts an event to return several thousand ancient artifacts to the Republic of Iraq, at the Iraqi ambassador's residence in Washington, DC, U.S., May 2, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Gina Cherelus

(Reuters) – About 3,800 artifacts, including Sumerian cuneiform tablets dating to 2100 B.C., that were illegally smuggled to retailer Hobby Lobby Stores Inc were returned to Iraqi officials in Washington on Wednesday.

U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement officials signed over the artifacts to Iraqi Ambassador Fareed Yasseen at his Washington residence, with some of the artifacts laid out on a table.

“We will continue to work together to prevent the looting of antiquities and ensure that those who would attempt to profit from this crime are held accountable,” said ICE Acting Director Thomas Homan.

Hobby Lobby, the Oklahoma City-based arts-and-crafts retailer, agreed in July to surrender the antiquities it received and pay $3 million to settle civil proceedings brought by the U.S. Justice Department. Shipping labels on the packages the artifacts arrived in described them as “tile samples,” federal prosecutors said.

The company had purchased more than 5,500 artifacts, according to court documents. It agreed that if it receives any of the remaining antiquities or learns where they are, it must notify the federal government, according to court documents.

Hobby Lobby’s president, Steve Green, is the founder of the Museum of the Bible, which opened in Washington in 2016. Privately held Hobby Lobby has said the seized artifacts were not intended for the museum. It has not said what it planned to do with them.

The forfeited packages included tablets with cuneiform script, one of the earliest systems of writing in ancient Mesopotamia. Many of the tablets come from the ancient city of Irisagrig and date to 2100 B.C. through 1600 B.C. primarily, known as the Ur III and Old Babylonian periods.

Justice Department officials have said Hobby Lobby’s 2010 purchase of $1.6 million in ancient artifacts through dealers in the United Arab Emirates and Israel was “fraught with red flags,” saying the company had ignored warnings that the items could have been looted from archaeological sites in Iraq.

When the company disclosed its settlement with the Justice Department in July, Green said Hobby Lobby should have “carefully questioned how the acquisitions were handled.”

A representative of the company did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.

Hobby Lobby and the Green family drew headlines in 2014 when the Supreme Court ruled the craft store chain and Conestoga Wood Specialties of Pennsylvania could refuse to cover contraceptives in their employees’ health insurance due to its owners’ religious beliefs.

(Reporting by Gina Cherelus in New York; editing by Scott Malone, Bill Trott and Jonathan Oatis)

France’s Macron visits Trump as Iran nuclear deal hangs in balance

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump meets French President Emmanuel Macron in New York, U.S., September 18, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – French President Emmanuel Macron arrives in Washington on Monday for a state visit likely to be dominated by differences over trade and the nuclear accord with Iran.

As Macron headed west, the Iranian government urged European leaders to convince U.S. President Donald Trump not to tear up the 2015 deal between Tehran and six world powers. Allies also spoke out in support of it.

Macron said on Sunday there was no “Plan B” for keeping a lid on Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.

He is on something of a rescue mission for what is formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which Trump has said he will scrap unless European allies fix what he called “terrible flaws” by mid-May.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called on European leaders to support it.

“It is either all or nothing. European leaders should encourage Trump not just to stay in the nuclear deal, but more important to begin implementing his part of the bargain in good faith,” Zarif wrote on his Twitter account.

The deal reached between six powers – all of whom but Germany are nuclear-armed – and Tehran put curbs on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.

Macron said on Fox News Sunday that it would be better to protect the deal instead of to get rid of it as there was no other plan.

“Is this agreement perfect and this JCPOA a perfect thing for our relationship with Iran?  No. But for nuclear — what do you have? As a better option? I don’t see it,” he said.

CHARM OFFENSIVE

Macron’s visit is the first time Trump has hosted a state visit since he took power in January 2017. While the French leader has tried to develop a close relationship with Trump since he took office in May, he has so far seen little tangible results on issues from Iran to climate politics.

The two men will get a sense of their two countries’ shared history during an evening meal on Monday night at Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington, the first U.S. president and Revolutionary War commander whose alliance with France was critical to victory over the British.

Working meetings will be held at the White House on Tuesday before Macron addresses Congress the following day, the anniversary of the day that French General Charles de Gaulle addressed a Joint Session of Congress in 1960.

Trump and the 40-year-old French leader began their friendship a year ago in Belgium with a jaw-clenching handshake. While some other European leaders have kept a certain distance from Trump, Macron has worked hard to remain close to the U.S. president and the two leaders speak frequently by phone.

TRADE TALKS

Highlighting the difficulties Macron will face reversing Trump’s mind on Iran, U.S. non-proliferation envoy Christopher Ford said Tehran presented a very real long-term challenge.

“Iran (is) a country that for years illegally and secretly sought to develop nuclear weapons, suspended its weaponization work only when confronted by the potentially direst of consequences without ever coming clean about its illicit endeavors,” he told a non-proliferation conference in Geneva.

Iran has long maintained that its nuclear programme was for peaceful purposes.

Macron also wants to persuade Trump to exempt European nations from metal tariffs that are part of the U.S. president’s plan to reduce chronic trade deficits with countries around the world, chiefly China.

His visit comes at a time of mounting alarm in Europe over the knock-on effect that U.S. sanctions on Russia will have on their own manufacturing industries.

French officials said Paris and other European governments were coordinating efforts to persuade Trump to ease sanctions on Russia, including measures against Russian aluminum producers.

“There are concerns raised by the extraterritoriality effects of the new sets of sanctions,” a French finance ministry source said. “Europeans…have jointly warned the US Administration about the economic impact and consequences and the need to find solutions.”

The official said France, Germany, Italy and Ireland were working together on the matter. German Chancellor Angela Merkel will hold talks with Trump in Washington later in the week.

Macron and Trump are also due to discuss Syria, less than two weeks after the United States, France and Britain launched airstrikes in Syria in retaliation for a suspected chemical weapons attack that killed dozens in Douma, Syria.

Macron said last week that he believed he had persuaded Trump to keep U.S. troops in Syria, though Trump has been insistent on bringing them home.

(Reporting By Steve Holland in Washington, Michel Rose and Richard Lough in Paris, Tom Miles in Geneva and Parisa Hafezi in Ankara; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

Americans reflect on Martin Luther King Jr’s legacy 50 years on

FILE PHOTO: People gather to march in the annual parade down MLK Boulevard to honor Martin Luther King, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, U.S., January 16, 2017. REUTERS/Billy Weeks

By Kia Johnson

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (Reuters) – A half century after Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, visitors still flock to the Memphis, Tennessee, site where the civil rights leader was assassinated and say that while there has been progress in racial equality, more strides need to be made.

“We still look like there is a shadow over us, still seems like something is holding us back,” Charles Wilson, a black man from Mississippi, said during a recent visit to the site.

On April 4, 1968, King, 39, was shot on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. The motel is now part of the National Civil Rights Museum, which includes Room 306, preserved as it was when King stayed there, and vintage cars parked out front.

A Baptist pastor and civil rights activist, King worked to end legal segregation of blacks in the United States. He gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the August 1963 March on Washington, and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 at age 35 – the youngest man to have received the award.

Despite King’s advocacy of nonviolent resistance, the days immediately following his death were marked by rioting in several American cities. Thousands of National Guard troops were deployed.

Wilson, the recent National Civil Rights Museum visitor, and his son Charles Jr. were among those who contemplated King’s legacy and the status of civil rights in the United States.

“I think that the changes that people fought for as far as voting and et cetera, a lot of people don’t take advantage of it, and a lot of people gave their lives for that right, they fought for it and people now don’t appreciate it,” Wilson Jr said.

Nancy Langfield, a white woman visiting from Missouri, said politicians in Washington do not reflect the racial makeup of the United States.

She deplored what she called the rhetoric coming out of Washington, calling it hateful and mean. “I look at the government and it looks very white to me, and then I think about the country and it doesn’t seem overly white to me,” Langfield said.

For Hyungu Lee, of Tennessee, who visited the museum with his family, King’s legacy is still alive.

“Even though he is not here, I feel that his spirit is with us now, and because of him, our human rights is getting better and better, so I feel really thankful,” Lee said.

(Reporting by Kia Johnson; Writing by Suzannah Gonzales; Editing by Matthew Lewis)

U.S. gun control movement pushing Congress to act: lawmakers

People take part in a "March For Our Lives" demonstration demanding gun control in Seattle, Washington, U.S. March 24, 2018. REUTERS/Jason Redmond

By Peter Szekely

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The youth-led U.S. gun control movement that flexed its public muscle with huge weekend rallies has already nudged Congress to enact minor firearms changes, but must remain active if it hopes to win more meaningful regulations, lawmakers said on Sunday.

The movement that erupted after the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, has generated a national conversation about gun rights and has chipped away at legislative gridlock on the issue, they said.

A protestor holds a sign during a "March For Our Lives" demonstration demanding gun control in Sacramento, California, U.S. March 24, 2018. REUTERS/Bob Stro

A protestor holds a sign during a “March For Our Lives” demonstration demanding gun control in Sacramento, California, U.S. March 24, 2018. REUTERS/Bob Strong

“The activism of these young people is actually changing the equation,” Senator Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat, said a day after hundreds of thousands of protesters rallied in Washington.

Tucked into a $1.3 trillion spending bill Congress passed last week were modest improvements to background checks for gun sales and an end to a ban on the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention studying the causes of gun violence.

“These are two things we could not have done in the past,” Kaine said on CNN’s “State of the Union” program. “But the active engagement by young people convinced Congress we better do something.”

The spending bill, which President Donald Trump signed on Friday, also includes grants to help schools prevent gun violence.

The Trump administration also took a step on Friday to ban the sale of bump stocks – devices that enable semi-automatic weapons to fire like machine guns – that helped gunman Stephen Paddock massacre 58 people in Las Vegas in October.

A key focus of Saturday’s march on Washington, which was duplicated in 800 cities across the country and around the world, was an effort to turn emotion into political activism by registering participants to vote.

Americans will vote in November on the entire U.S. House of Representatives and one-third of the Senate.

Gun control advocates have called for universal background checks on people buying guns, bans on assault-style rifles such as the one used to kill 17 students and staff in Parkland, and large-capacity ammunition magazines.

Senator Mark Warner, another Virginia Democrat, declared in the wake of the student-led movement that he would now support bans on such rifles and magazines, which he had voted against in recent years.

“I think it’s time to change our positions and re-examine them,” Warner said on the CBS News “Face the Nation” program.

“I think this time it’s going different,” Warner said. “I think we can actually get it done.”

To win significant changes, lawmakers said the young gun control advocates need to maintain their drive in the face of powerful pro-gun lobbying by the National Rifle Association and those who see gun ownership as a right protected by the U.S. Constitution.

A protestor holds a sign during a "March For Our Lives" demonstration demanding gun control in Sacramento, California, U.S. March 24, 2018. REUTERS/Bob Strong

A protestor holds a sign during a “March For Our Lives” demonstration demanding gun control in Sacramento, California, U.S. March 24, 2018. REUTERS/Bob Strong

“If they don’t keep it up, those that want no change will just sit on their hands,” Ohio Governor John Kasich, a Republican who formerly served in Congress, said on CNN.

Two Republican senators, Marco Rubio of Florida and Joni Ernst of Iowa, said over the weekend that while they supported gun control advocates’ right to protest, they opposed infringing on the constitutional right to bear arms.

Meanwhile, former Pennsylvania Republican Senator Rick Santorum drew an angry response on social media for saying on CNN that, instead of agitating for change, students should “do something about maybe taking CPR classes” or take other training to respond to school shooters.

(Reporting by Peter Szekely; Editing by Paul Simao)

U.S. Senate advances bill to penalize websites for sex trafficking

People walk by the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, U.S., February 8, 2018. REUTERS/ Leah Millis

By Dustin Volz

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate voted 94-2 on Monday to advance legislation to make it easier to penalize operators of websites that facilitate online sex trafficking, setting up final passage of a bill as soon as Tuesday that would chip away at a bedrock legal shield for the technology industry.

The U.S. House of Representatives passed the legislation overwhelmingly last month. It is expected to be sent to and signed by President Donald Trump later this week.

The bill’s expected passage marks one of the most concrete actions in recent years from the U.S. Congress to tighten regulation of internet firms, which have drawn scrutiny from lawmakers in both parties over the past year because of an array of concerns regarding the size and influence of their platforms.

The Senate vote to limit debate on the sex trafficking legislation came as Facebook endured withering scrutiny over its data protection practices after reports that political analytics firm Cambridge Analytica harvested the private data on more than 50 million Facebook users through inappropriate means.

Several major internet companies, including Facebook and Alphabet’s Google, have been reluctant in the past to support any congressional effort to dent what is known as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a decades-old law that protects them from liability for the activities of their users.

But facing political pressure, the internet industry slowly warmed to a proposal that began to gain traction in the Senate last year.

The legislation is a result of years of law enforcement lobbying for a crackdown on the online classified site backpage.com, which is used for sex advertising.

It would make it easier for states and sex-trafficking victims to sue social media networks, advertisers and others that fail to keep exploitative material off their platforms.

Some critics have warned that the measure would weaken Section 230 in a way that would only serve to help established internet giants, which possess larger resources to police their content, and not adequately address the problem.

Republican Senator Rand Paul and Democratic Senator Ron Wyden cast the only no votes.

(Reporting by Dustin Volz; Editing by Peter Cooney)

France will strike Syria chemical arms sites if used to kill: Macron

FILE PHOTO: French President Emmanuel Macron gestures as he addresses a news conference in Varanasi, India, March 12, 2018. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

PARIS (Reuters) – France is prepared to launch targeted strikes against any site in Syria used to deploy chemical attacks that result in the deaths of civilians, President Emmanuel Macron said.

Shortly before the United Nations was due to discuss Syria, Macron said Moscow, a close ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government, had not done enough to permit relief efforts into the rebel-held Damascus suburb of eastern Ghouta.

Asked about the Syrian conflict at a news conference in India, Macron said France would be ready to strike if it found “irrefutable evidence” chemical weapons had been used to kill.

“The day we have, in particular in tandem with our American partners, irrefutable proof that the red line was crossed — namely the chemical weapons were used to lethal effect — we will do what the Americans themselves did moreover a few months ago; we would put ourselves in position to proceed with targeted strikes,” Macron said.

The French leader has made the threat before but has so far made little headway influencing events in Syria.

“We are cross-matching our own information with that of our allies but to put it very clearly we have an independent capacity to identify targets and launch strikes where needed.”

Syria signed a Russian-brokered deal to give up its arsenal of chemical weapons to avert U.S. air strikes after a nerve gas attack killed hundreds of people in 2013. Last year, the United States again accused Damascus of using nerve gas and launched air strikes.

Since then, Washington has repeatedly accused Damascus of using chlorine gas in attacks. Chlorine is far less deadly than nerve agents and possession of it is allowed for civilian purposes, but its use as a weapon is banned.

Damascus and Moscow have been carrying out a fierce bombing campaign and ground assault against the besieged rebel-held eastern Ghouta enclave since mid-February, despite a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for a countrywide ceasefire.

“This is a debate we will have in the coming hours at the United Nations, where it will be shown that the concessions on the ground from Russia, but first and foremost the Syrian regime and its Iranian allies, are insufficient,” Macron said.

(Reporting by Jean-Baptiste Vey and Brian Love; Editing by Richard Lough and Peter Graff)

Travel snarled, power outages as storm bears down on U.S. Northeast

A woman walks during rain while the New York skyline and the One World Trade Center are seen from Exchange Place in New Jersey, U.S., March 7, 2018. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

By Jonathan Allen

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The second winter storm within a week crept into New York and surrounding states on Wednesday, with forecasters predicting intensifying snowfall that could snarl the evening commute as thousands remained without power from the last nor’easter.

Between 4 and 12 inches (10 and 30 cm) of snow were forecast for New York City and the surrounding suburbs in New Jersey and Connecticut through to Thursday morning, with wind gusts creating “near-whiteout conditions” for commuters, the National Weather Service said on Wednesday.

The storm will spread with varying degrees of intensity across the Northeast, from western Pennsylvania up into New England, and officials took precautions.

New York’s three major airlines reported a total of 1,431 canceled flights on Wednesday morning, about 40 percent of their normally scheduled flights.

All schools were closed in Philadelphia while schools across the region canceled classes or shortened the school day ahead of the storm, local news media reported. Schools stayed open in New York City.

This week’s storm was not forecast to have the hurricane-strength winds whipped up at times by the storm last week, but forecasters say strong gusts of 60 miles per hour (96.56 km per hour) and accumulated snow will still be enough to knock down more power lines.

Last week’s storm brought major coastal flooding to Massachusetts, killed at least nine people and knocked out power to about 2.4 million homes and businesses in the Northeast.

Some 100,000 homes and businesses in the region remained without power on Wednesday. A nor’easter is an East Coast storm in which winds blow from the northeast.

The governors of New Jersey and Pennsylvania declared states of emergency, giving them access to support from the U.S. government if needed.

The Amtrak passenger train service canceled some Wednesday trains between Washington and Boston, as well as some services in Pennsylvania, New York state and other parts of the Northeast.

The storm got off to an uncertain start in New York City, where the air was damp, and the odd stray snowflake could be spotted, but many early commuters saw no reason to unfurl the umbrellas stashed under their arms.

“I was expecting more than this,” Michelle Boone, 50, said as she waited for a bus to get to her job at a Manhattan homeless shelter. “I’m happy it’s not doing what they said it was going do. This evening could be different, though.”

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York; additional reporting by Scott DiSavino in New York and Barbara Goldberg in Maplewood, New Jersey; editing by Scott Malone and Jonathan Oatis)

U.S. top court rejects challenge to California gun waiting period

Firearms are shown for sale at the AO Sword gun store in El Cajon, California, January 5, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake

By Andrew Chung

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – In a blow to gun rights activists, the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday turned away a challenge to California’s 10-day waiting period for firearms purchases that is intended to guard against impulsive violence and suicides.

The court’s action underscored its continued reluctance to step into the national debate over gun control roiled by a series of mass shootings including one at a Florida school last week. One of the court’s most conservative justices, Clarence Thomas, dissented from the decision to reject the case and accused his colleagues of showing contempt toward constitutional protections for gun rights.

The gun rights groups and individual gun owners who challenged the law had argued that it violated their right to keep and bear arms under the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment. The challengers did not seek to invalidate California’s waiting period for everyone, just for people who already owned guns and passed a background check.

In his dissent, Thomas scolded his colleagues. “If a lower court treated another right so cavalierly, I have little doubt this court would intervene,” Thomas wrote. “But as evidenced by our continued inaction in this area, the Second Amendment is a disfavored right in this court.”

The Supreme Court has not taken up a major firearms case since issuing important gun rulings in 2008 and 2010.

The United States has among the most lenient gun control laws in the world. With the U.S. Congress deeply divided over gun control, it has fallen to states and localities to impose firearms restrictions. Democratic-governed California has some of the broadest firearms measures of any state.

A series of mass shootings including one in which a gunman killed 17 people at a Parkland, Florida high school on Feb. 14 have added to the long-simmering U.S. debate over gun control and the availability of firearms.

In another gun case, the high court on Tuesday also declined to take up a National Rifle Association challenge to California’s refusal to lower its fees on firearms sales and instead use a surplus generated by the fees to fund efforts to track down illegal weapons.

Thomas said he suspected that the Supreme Court would readily hear cases involving potentially unconstitutional waiting periods if they involved abortion, racist publications or police traffic stops.

“The right to keep and bear arms is apparently this court’s constitutional orphan. And the lower courts seem to have gotten the message,” Thomas added.

Lead plaintiff Jeff Silvester, the Calguns Foundation and its executive director Brandon Combs, and the Second Amendment Foundation in 2011 challenged the 10-day waiting period between the purchase of a firearm and its actual delivery to the buyer, saying it violated the Second Amendment for individuals who already lawfully own a firearm or are licensed to carry one.

The waiting period gives a gun buyer inclined to use it for an impulsive purpose a “cooling off” period before obtaining it, which has been shown in studies to reduce handgun suicides and homicides, the state said in a legal filing. The waiting period also gives officials time to run background checks and ensure that weapons being sold are not stolen or being purchased for someone prohibited from gun ownership, the state said.

The states of California, Hawaii, Rhode Island, Illinois, Minnesota, Florida, Iowa, Maryland and New Jersey as well as Washington, D.C., have waiting periods that vary in duration and type of firearm, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence gun control advocacy group.

The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld California’s law in 2016, reversing a federal trial court that had ruled it unconstitutional.

Last year, the Supreme Court left in place a California law that bars permits to carry a concealed gun in public places unless the applicant can show “good cause” for having it.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)

U.S. and Turkey agree to mend ties; Turks propose joint deployment in Syria

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson shakes hands with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu after a news conference in Ankara, Turkey, February 16, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

By Yara Bayoumy, Orhan Coskun and Ece Toksabay

ANKARA (Reuters) – The United States and Turkey agreed on Friday to try to rescue a strategic relationship that Washington acknowledged had reached a crisis point, with Turkey proposing a joint deployment in Syria if a U.S.-backed Kurdish militia leaves a border area.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met President Tayyip Erdogan during a two-day visit that followed weeks of escalating anti-American rhetoric from the Turkish government.

While relations between Washington and its main Muslim ally in NATO have been strained by a number of issues, Turkey has been particularly infuriated by U.S. support for the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, which it sees as terrorists.

Turkey launched an air and ground assault last month in Syria’s northwest Afrin region to sweep the YPG away from its southern border. The United States has armed, trained and aided YPG fighters with air support and special forces, as the main ground force in its campaign against Islamic State.

“We find ourselves at a bit of a crisis point in the relationship,” Tillerson told a news conference after meeting with Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on Friday morning. He had met with Erdogan for a more than three-hour discussion on Thursday night.

“We’re going to act together from this point forward. We’re going to lock arms. We’re going to work through the issues that are causing difficulties for us and we’re going to resolve them.”

The United States has no troops on the ground in Afrin, where the Turkish offensive has so far taken place. But Turkey has proposed extending its campaign further east to the town of Manbij, where U.S. troops are based, potentially leading to direct confrontation with U.S.-backed units.

In a proposal that could signal an important breakthrough in efforts to overcome the allies’ stark differences over Syria, a Turkish official told Reuters that Turkey had proposed that Turkish and U.S. forces could deploy jointly in Manbij.

Such a joint deployment could take place if YPG fighters first withdrew to positions east of the Euphrates river, long a Turkish demand.

Neither Tillerson nor Cavusoglu, the Turkish foreign minister, directly responded to a question about Reuters’ report of a possible joint deployment to Manbij.

MANBIJ

Turkey would be able to take joint steps with the United States in Syria once the YPG left the vicinity of Manbij, Cavusoglu told reporters.

“What is important is who will govern and provide security to these areas,” he said. “We will coordinate to restore stability in Manbij and other cities. We will start with Manbij. After YPG leaves there, we can take steps with the U.S. based on trust.”

He also said the two countries had created a “mechanism” for further talks and would meet again by mid-March to further hash out their differences. Tillerson said issues around Manbij would receive priority in the talks, acknowledging Washington had not fufilled some of its promises to Turkey on Manbij.

“The United States made commitments to Turkey previously, we’ve not completed fulfilling those commitments. Through the working group, we’re going to address that and Manbij is going to receive priority,” he said.

Turkey’s pro-government media has been particularly scathing of the United States over its failure to keep a promise that the YPG would leave the town once Islamic State was defeated there.

“But it’s not just Manbij. We have to think about all of northern Syria,” Tillerson said.

Tillerson said he recognized Turkey’s legitimate right to defend its borders, but called on Ankara to show restraint in the Afrin operation and avoid actions that would escalate tensions in the area.

He also said the United States had serious concerns about local employees at its missions in Turkey and called on Ankara to release a U.S. pastor and other Americans detained in Turkey.

(Additional reporting by Ezgi Erkoyun in Istanbul; Writing by David Dolan; Editing by Gareth Jones, Peter Graff and Andrew Heavens)

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)