Hong Kong set to enact emergency laws as it struggles to contain violence

By Clare Jim and Felix Tam

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong’s government is expected to discuss sweeping emergency laws on Friday that would include banning face masks at protests, two sources told Reuters, as the Chinese-ruled territory grapples with an escalating cycle of violence.

Authorities have already loosened guidelines on the use of force by police, according to documents seen by Reuters on Thursday, as they struggle to stamp out anti-government protests that have rocked Hong Kong for nearly four months.

The loosening of restrictions on the use of force by police came into effect just before some of the most violent turmoil yet at protests on Tuesday, when a teenaged secondary school student was shot by an officer in the chest and wounded – the first time a demonstrator had been hit by live fire.

More than 100 people were wounded, after police fired about 1,400 rounds of tear gas, 900 rubber bullets and six live rounds as protesters threw petrol bombs and wielded sticks.

The Beijing-backed local government was set to hold a meeting on Friday morning where it was likely to enact a colonial-era emergency law that has not been used in half a century, two sources with knowledge of the matter told Reuters.

Media reports earlier on Thursday of an expected ban on face masks – which hundreds of thousands of protesters wear to conceal their identities and shield themselves from tear gas – sent Hong Kong’s stock market up to a one-week high.

Growing opposition to the former British colony’s government has plunged the financial hub into its biggest political crisis in decades and poses the gravest popular challenge to Chinese President Xi Jinping since he came to power.

Protesters are angry about what they see as creeping interference by Beijing in their city’s affairs despite a promise of autonomy in the “one country, two systems” formula under which Hong Kong returned to China in 1997.

China dismisses accusations it is meddling and has accused foreign governments, including the United States and Britain, of stirring up anti-China sentiment.

As speculation of an emergency law swirled, riot police moved into districts across Hong Kong that have seen violent clashes between demonstrators and security forces in recent weeks, according to Telegram groups, a popular encrypted messaging app popular with protesters.

LIVE ROUNDS

Local media Now TV and Cable TV reported the changes to the police procedures manual took effect on Sept. 30, the day before Tuesday’s violence at widespread protests on China’s National Day, during which the student was shot.

Reuters could not confirm when the changes were made, but has seen police documents that showed changes to some guidelines on how officers could act when considering force.

The updated guidelines also removed a line that said “officers will be accountable for their own actions”, stating only that “officers on the ground should exercise their own discretion to determine what level of force is justified in a given situation”.

Police declined to comment when asked if amendments had been made to the manual.

“The guidelines on the use of force involve details of operation. It may affect the normal and effective operation of the police force and work of police on crime prevention if details are made public,” police said in a statement to Reuters.

Hong Kong’s police have long been admired for their professionalism compared with some forces elsewhere in Asia.

But the public has become increasingly hostile towards the force over past weeks amid accusations of heavy-handed tactics. Police say they have shown restraint.

The unrest, which began over opposition to a now-withdrawn extradition bill that would have allowed people to be sent to mainland China for trial, shows no sign of letting up.

Protesters, fired up over the shooting of the young man this week, are planning more demonstrations at shopping malls across 11 districts on Thursday night and throughout the weekend.

“HEINOUS CRIMES”

Elizabeth Quat, a lawmaker for a pro-Beijing political party, told a news conference the looming ban on face masks under a law giving police broad emergency powers was aimed at stopping “illegal assemblies”.

“This law is not targeting peaceful protesters. It is focused on targeting those rioters who have committed heinous crimes,” she said.

But pro-democracy lawmakers fear the emergency powers could be used to further curtail freedoms.

“To impose an anti-mask law in the current social condition is to further infuriate the people and will definitely be met with escalating violence,” lawmaker Fernando Cheung told Reuters. “This is no different than adding fuel to fire. The result will be riots.”

Goldman Sachs estimated this week that the city might have lost as much as $4 billion in deposits to rival banking center Singapore between June and August.

On Thursday, Lam Chi-wai, chairman of the Junior Police Officers Association, urged the city’s leader to impose a curfew to maintain public order.

“We cannot work alone – clapping only with one hand – without appropriate measures and support from top level,” Lam said.

TEENAGER CHARGED

Tony Tsang, the 18-year-old who was shot at close range as he fought an officer with what appeared to be a white pole on Tuesday, has since been charged with rioting, which carries a maximum 10-year sentence, and assaulting a police officer.

Tsang is in hospital in a stable condition and was not able to attend a court session on Thursday, but his lawyer appeared on his behalf. About 200 supporters turned up to watch the proceedings.

Separately, the lawyer for an Indonesian journalist injured when police fired a projectile during protests on Sunday said she had been blinded in one eye.

The European Union said in a statement it was deeply troubled by the escalation of violence and the only way forward was through “restraint, de-escalation and dialogue”.

(Additional reporting by Donny Kwok, James Pomfret and Anne Marie Roantree; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree and Poppy McPherson; Editing by Stephen Coates, Robert Birsel and Alex Richardson)

Dozens killed, including children on a bus, in Yemen air strikes

A Yemeni man holds a boy who was injured by an airstrike in Saada, Yemen August 9, 2018./REUTERS/Naif Rahma

ADEN (Reuters) – Saudi-led coalition air strikes on Thursday killed dozens of people, including children traveling on a bus, in Yemen’s Saada province, Yemeni medical sources and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said.

The Western-backed alliance fighting the Iranian-aligned Houthi group in Yemen said in a statement that the air strikes targeted missile launchers used to attack the southern Saudi city of Jizan on Wednesday, killing a Yemeni civilian there.

It accused the Houthis of using children as human shields.

Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdul-Salam said the coalition showed “clear disregard for civilian life” as the attack had targeted a crowded public place in the city.

A Yemeni boy lies in the hospital after he was injured by an airstrike in Saada, Yemen August 9, 2018./REUTERS/Naif Rahma

A Yemeni boy lies in the hospital after he was injured by an airstrike in Saada, Yemen August 9, 2018./REUTERS/Naif Rahma

The ICRC said one attack hit the bus driving children in Dahyan market, in northern Saada, adding hospitals there had received dozens of dead and wounded.

A Reuters photographer saw bloodied and bandaged children being treated by doctors.

Footage from the Houthi media office showed a boy wearing a blue backpack with a UNICEF logo being carried into a hospital emergency room with blood pouring down his face and over his traditional Yemeni thawb, an ankle-length garment.

Abdul-Ghani Sareeh, head of a health department in Saada, told Reuters that the death toll was to 43, with 61 wounded.

“Scores killed, even more injured, most under the age of 10,” Johannes Bruwer, head of the delegation for the ICRC in Yemen, said in a Twitter post.

It was unclear how many children were killed and how many air strikes were carried out in the area, in northern Yemen, near the border with Saudi Arabia.

Smoke rises after an airstrike in Sanaa, Yemen August 9, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi

Smoke rises after an airstrike in Sanaa, Yemen August 9, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi

“RED LINE”

Saudi Arabia and Sunni Muslim allies intervened in Yemen’s war in 2015 against the Houthis, who control the most populous areas of Yemen, including the capital Sanaa, and drove the internationally recognized government into exile in 2014.

The United States and other Western powers provide arms and intelligence to the alliance, and human rights groups have criticized them over coalition air strikes that have killed hundreds of civilians at hospitals, schools, and markets.

The alliance says it does not intentionally target civilians and has set up a committee to probe alleged mass casualty air strikes, which has mostly cleared the coalition of any blame.

“Today’s attack in Saada was a legitimate military operation … and was carried out in accordance with international humanitarian law,” the coalition said in the Arabic-language statement carried by SPA.

“Targeting Saudis and residents in Saudi is a red line,” coalition spokesman Turki al-Malki later told Al Arabiya TV.

Fragments from the Houthi missile launched at Jizan Industrial City had killed one Yemeni civilian and wounded 11, Saudi state media said earlier on Thursday.

The Houthis have launched a series of missile strikes on the kingdom, including Riyadh, over the past year.

Saada, the main stronghold of the Houthis, has mainly come under air strikes from the coalition as the mountainous province makes battles hard for pro-government ground troops.

The Yemen war has killed more than 10,000 people, displaced more than 2 million and driven the country to the verge of famine, according to the United Nations.

(Corrects official’s name in paragraph 8 to Abdul-Ghani Sareeh from Abdul-Ghani Nayeb)

(Reporting by Dubai Newsroom; Writing and additional reporting by Aziz El Yaakoubi; Editing by Alison Williams)

Police search schools in hunt for Nashville Waffle House shooter

Police hunting for a gunman who fled naked after killing four people at a Nashville Waffle House searched public schools through the night to make sure they would be safe when they reopen on Monday.

By Tim Ghianni

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (Reuters) – Police hunting for a gunman who fled naked after killing four people at a Nashville Waffle House searched public schools through the night to make sure they would be safe when they reopen on Monday.

All Metropolitan Nashville public schools were searched and will be checked again before school opens, officials said on the department’s Facebook page. Extra security will be in place at school bus stops. Schools will be on “lock-out,” barring all visitors.

“Metro Nashville Public Schools Parents always have the final decision on whether to send their child to school,” the statement said.

Police identified the victims. Slain outside the restaurant in Nashville’s Antioch neighborhood shortly before 3:30 a.m. Sunday were Waffle House cook Taurean C. Sanderlin, 29, and patron Joe R. Perez, 20, police said. Inside, the shooter killed patrons DeEbony Groves, 21, and Akilah Dasilva, 23.

“Please say a prayer for my family for today is the hardest day of my life. Me, my husband and sons are broken right now with this loss. Our lives are shattered,” Perez’s mother Trisha Perez posted on Facebook.

Dasilva’s mother Shaundelle Brooks told CBS News affiliate WTVF her son was a student at Middle Tennessee State University pursuing music engineering: “He meant the world to us. He was humble, kind, compassionate, outgoing and very creative.”

Groves was a Belmont University senior who studied social work and was described by her high school basketball coach Kim Kendrick on CBS News affiliate WTVF as a tenacious player.

Two wounded patrons, Shanita Waggoner, 21, and Sharita Henderson, 24, were being treated at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, both listed in stable condition early on Monday. Others were cut by shattered glass.

One diner, James Shaw Jr., 29, was grazed by a bullet as he hid near a restroom before he wrestled the AR-15 rifle from the gunman, police said. Police credited his action with saving lives. At a news conference, Shaw said he was no hero, adding: “I just wanted to live.”

Travis Reinking, 29, of Morton, Illinois, is shown in this undated photo obtained April 22, 2018. Tennessee Bureau of Investigation/Handout via REUTERS

Travis Reinking, 29, of Morton, Illinois, is shown in this undated photo obtained April 22, 2018. Tennessee Bureau of Investigation/Handout via REUTERS

Metropolitan Nashville Police Field Captain Daniel Newbern said the suspected shooter, Travis Reinking, 29, originally from Tazewell County, Illinois, faces multiple murder charges. Police believe he is still armed with a pistol.

Police disclosed no known motive for the attack by Reinking, who was naked except for a green jacket when he got out of his pickup truck and started shooting.

As the shooter ran off, he discarded the jacket, which contained two additional ammunition magazines for the AR-15, according to police.

(Writing by Rich McKay in Atlanta; Additional reporting by Barbara Goldberg in New York, and Keith Coffman in Denver; Editing by Michael Perry and Bernadette Baum)

South Korea warns North not to repeat armistice violation

South Korean Defence Minister Song Young-moo looks around a spot where a North Korean collapsed wounded by gun shot by North Korean soldiers while crossing the border on November 13, at the truce village of Panmunjom inside the demilitarized zone, South Korea, November 27, 2017.

PANMUNJOM, South Korea (Reuters) – North Korea violated an armistice agreement with South Korea this month when North Korean soldiers shot and wounded a North Korean soldier as he defected across their border and it must not do so again, South Korea’s defense minister said on Monday.

The defector, a North Korean soldier identified only by his surname, Oh, was critically wounded but has been recovering in hospital in South Korea.

The incident comes at a time of heightened tension between North Korea and the international community over its nuclear weapons program, but the North has not publicly responded to the defection at the sensitive border.

South Korean Minister of Defence Song Young-moo issued his warning to the North while on a visit to the border where he commended South Korean soldiers at a Joint Security Area (JSA), in the so-called Truce Village of Panmunjom, in the demilitarized zone, for rescuing the defector.

A North Korean border guard briefly crossed the border with the South in the chase for the defector on Nov. 13 – a video released by the U.N. Command (UNC) in Seoul showed – a violation of the ceasefire accord between North and South at the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.

“Shooting towards the South at a defecting person, that’s a violation of the armistice agreement,” Song said.

“Crossing the military demarcation line, a violation. Carrying automatic rifles (in the JSA), another violation,” he added as he stood near where South Korean soldiers had found Oh, collapsed and bleeding from his wounds.

“North Korea should be informed this sort of thing should never occur again.”

Since the defection, North Korea has reportedly replaced guards stationed there. Soldiers have fortified a section of the area seen aimed at blocking any more defections by digging a trench and planting trees.

As Song was speaking 10 meters away from the trees North Korean soldiers planted, four North Korean soldiers were spotted listening closely.

South Korean military officials pointed out two bullet holes in a metal wall on a South Korean building, from North Korean shots fired at Oh as he ran.

Oh has undergone several operations in hospital to remove bullets. His lead surgeon, Lee Cook-jong, told Reuters his patient has suffers from nightmares about being returned to the North.

In South Korea, six soldiers, three South Korean and three American, were given awards by the U.S. Forces Korea last week in recognition for their efforts in rescuing the defector.

After inspecting the site on Monday, Song met troops stationed there for lunch and praised them for acting ‘promptly and appropriately’.

South Korea has been broadcasting news of the soldier’s defection towards North Korea via loudspeakers, according to the South’s Yonhap news agency.

South Korean military officials have declined to confirm that.

 

(Reporting by Do-gyun Kim; Writing by Christine Kim; Editing by Soyoung Kim, Robert Birsel)

 

Gunman kills 26 in rural Texas church during Sunday service

By Lisa Maria Garza

SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Texas (Reuters) – A man with an assault rifle killed at least 26 people and wounded 20 in a rural Texas church during Sunday services, adding the name of Sutherland Springs to the litany of American communities shattered by mass shootings.

The massacre, which media reports say was carried out by a man thrown out of the Air Force for assaulting his wife and child, is likely to renew questions about why someone with a history of violence could amass an arsenal of lethal weaponry.

The lone gunman, dressed in black tactical gear and a ballistic vest, drove up to the white-steepled First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs and started firing inside. He kept shooting once he entered, killing or wounding victims ranging in age from five to 72 years, police told a news conference.

The area around a site of a mass shooting is taped out in Sutherland Springs, Texas, U.S., November 5, 2017, in this picture obtained via social media.

The area around a site of a mass shooting is taped out in Sutherland Springs, Texas, U.S., November 5, 2017, in this picture obtained via social media. MAX MASSEY/ KSAT 12/via REUTERS

President Donald Trump told reporters the shooting was due to a “mental health problem” and wasn’t “a guns situation.” He was speaking during an official visit to Japan.

Among the dead was the 14-year-old daughter of church Pastor Frank Pomeroy, the family told several television stations. One couple, Joe and Claryce Holcombe, told the Washington Post they lost eight extended family members, including their pregnant granddaughter-in-law and three of her children.

The gunman was later found dead, apparently of a gunshot wound, after he fled the scene.

“We are dealing with the largest mass shooting in our state’s history,” Texas Governor Greg Abbott told a news conference. “The tragedy of course is worsened by the fact that it occurred in a church, a place of worship.”

About 40 miles (65 km) east of San Antonio in Wilson County, Sutherland Springs has fewer than 400 residents.

“This would never be expected in a little county like (this),” Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton told CNN.

A local resident with a rifle fired at the suspect as he left the church. The gunman dropped his Ruger assault weapon and fled in his vehicle, said Freeman Martin, regional director of the Texas Department of Public Safety.

A man told San Antonio television station KSAT he was driving near the church when the resident who had opened fire on the gunman approached his truck and urged him to give chase.

“He said that we had to get him (the gunman), and so that’s what I did,” Johnnie Langendorff, the driver of the truck, told KSAT. He added they reached speeds of 95 miles (153 km/h) per hour during the chase, while he was on the phone with emergency dispatchers.

Soon afterward, the suspect crashed the vehicle near the border of a neighboring county and was found dead inside with a cache of weapons. It was not immediately clear if he killed himself or was hit when the resident fired at him outside the church, authorities said.

The suspect’s identity was not disclosed by authorities, but law enforcement officials who asked not to be named said he was Devin Patrick Kelley, described as a white, 26-year-old man, the New York Times and other media reported.

“We don’t think he had any connection to this church,” Wilson County Sheriff Joe Tackitt told CNN. “We have no motive.”

Wilson County Sheriff Joe Tackett gives an update during a news conference at the Stockdale Community Center following a shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs that left many dead and injured in Stockdale, Texas, U.S., November 5, 2017.

Wilson County Sheriff Joe Tackett gives an update during a news conference at the Stockdale Community Center following a shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs that left many dead and injured in Stockdale, Texas, U.S., November 5, 2017. REUTERS/Sergio Flores

‘I HIT THE DECK’

The massacre came weeks after a sniper killed 58 people in Las Vegas. It was the deadliest attack in modern U.S. history and rekindled a years-long national debate over whether easy access to firearms was contributing to the trend of mass shootings.

In rural areas like Sutherland Springs, gun ownership is a part of life and the state’s Republican leaders for years have balked at campaigns for gun control, arguing that more firearms among responsible owners make the state safer.

Jeff Forrest, a 36-year-old military veteran who lives a block away from the church, said what sounded like high-caliber, semi-automatic gunfire triggered memories of his four combat deployments with the Marine Corps.

“I was on the porch, I heard 10 rounds go off and then my ears just started ringing,” Forrest said. “I hit the deck and I just lay there.”

To honor the victims, Trump ordered flags on all federal buildings to be flown at half staff.

In Japan during the first leg of a 12-day Asian trip, the president said preliminary reports indicated the shooter was “deranged.”

“This isn’t a guns situation, I mean we could go into it, but it’s a little bit soon to go into it,” Trump said. “But fortunately somebody else had a gun that was shooting in the opposite direction, otherwise … it would have been much worse. But this is a mental health problem at the highest level.”

The First Baptist Church is one of two houses of worship in Sutherland Springs, which also has two gas stations and a Dollar General store.

The white-painted, one-story church features a small steeple and a single front door. On Sunday, the Lone Star flag of Texas was flying alongside the U.S. flag and a third, unidentified banner.

Inside, there is a small raised platform on which members sang worship songs to guitar music and the pastor delivered a weekly sermon, according to videos posted on YouTube. In one of the clips, a few dozen people, including young children, can be seen sitting in the wooden pews.

It was not clear how many worshipers were inside when Sunday’s shooting occurred.

 

SOCIAL MEDIA PRESENCE

Online records show a man named Devin Patrick Kelley lived in New Braunfels, Texas, about 35 miles (56 km) north of Sutherland Springs.

The U.S. Air Force said Kelley served in its Logistics Readiness unit at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico from 2010 until his discharge in 2014.

Kelley was court-martialed in 2012 on charges of assaulting his wife and child, and given a bad-conduct discharge, confinement for 12 months and a reduction in rank, Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said.

Kelley’s Facebook page has been deleted, but cached photos show a profile picture where he appeared with two small children. He also posted a photo of what appeared to be an assault rifle, writing a post that read: “She’s a bad bitch.”

Sunday’s shooting occurred on the eighth anniversary of the Nov. 5, 2009, massacre of 13 people at the Fort Hood Army base in central Texas. A U.S. Army Medical Corps psychiatrist convicted of the killings is awaiting execution.

In 2015, a white gunman killed nine black parishioners at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The gunman was sentenced to death for the racially motivated attack.

In September, a gunman killed a woman in the parking lot of a Tennessee church and wounded six worshipers inside.

 

(Additional reporting by Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas, Phil Stewart in Washington, and Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; writing by Frank McGurty; editing by Mark Heinrich)

 

U.S. soldiers wounded in apparent shooting at Afghan base: official

By Abdul Matin

MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan (Reuters) – At least one Afghan soldier was killed and several American soldiers were wounded in an incident at a base in northern Afghanistan on Saturday, a U.S. military official said.

A spokesman for the U.S. military command in Kabul denied earlier comments by an Afghan official that Americans had been killed, but confirmed that an unspecified number of soldiers had been wounded at Camp Shaheen, the headquarters of the Afghan army’s 209th Corps in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif.

At least one Afghan soldier was killed and another wounded, the U.S. official said.

Abdul Qahar Araam, spokesman for the Afghan army’s 209th Corps, had announced that an Afghan soldier shot and killed four U.S. troops inside the base.

The German military heads the multinational advising mission based in Mazar-i-Sharif. A spokeswoman for the German forces at the joint missions command in Potsdam said “according to what we know right now, no Germans were affected”.

Three U.S. soldiers were killed and a fourth wounded on June 11 when an Afghan soldier opened fire on them at a base in eastern Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province.

In April, scores of Afghan soldiers were killed when militants breached security at Camp Shaheen, detonating explosives and shooting hundreds of troops at a mosque and dining hall on the base.

Coalition countries, led by the United States, are considering sending thousands more troops to Afghanistan to help advise and assist Afghan forces struggling against Taliban and Islamic State militants.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Monday that he would present options on Afghanistan to President Donald Trump “very soon”.

(Additional reporting by Sabine Siebold in Berlin and Josh Smith in Kabul; Writing by Josh Smith; Editing by Dale Hudson and Adrian Croft)

Afghan families search morgues, hospitals after devastating truck bomb

Relatives of victims listen to hospital officials after a blast in Kabul.

By Mirwais Harooni

KABUL (Reuters) – It took nearly 24 hours for his Afghan family to discover Hamidullah’s broken body on the bottom shelf of a morgue at Kabul’s Wazir Akhbar Khan hospital.

Around him were placed the few personal belongings he had with him when he died.

“He was engaged and was about to get married,” his cousin Abdullah told Reuters, grief clouding his eyes as he stood in the barren morgue. “All of his and his family‚Äôs dreams remained unfinished.”

Twenty-year-old Hamidullah was on his way to his print shop in Afghanistan’s capital city early on Wednesday morning when he was killed by a massive truck bomb that exploded in the middle of a busy street, killing at least 80 people and wounding more than 450.

While the intended target of the bomb remains unknown, the explosion occurred near the gates of a heavily fortified area of the city that holds many foreign embassies and government ministries.

Many of the victims, however, were working class Afghans, people who had managed to eke out livelihoods during years of violence and economic malaise.

For Hamidullah’s family, the first indication something was be wrong was the sound of a powerful explosion, followed by an expanding cloud of smoke rising over the city.

Calls to his cellphone went unanswered, and a growing number of extended family members joined huge crowds at hospitals around the city, all seeking news of friends and family caught in the attack.

“We went to several hospitals to find him,” said Abdullah.

The hospital in Wazir Akhbar Khan was one of several inundated with the wounded, and later, the bodies.

“I have never experienced such a day in all my life,” said one morgue attendant who asked for anonymity as he was not authorized to speak publicly. “All the freezers were full, and the dead bodies lined the road to the morgue as well.”

As of Thursday morning, as Hamidullah’s family gathered in small groups under the trees outside the morgue to wait for his father’s arrival, there were still a dozen unidentified bodies at the hospital, officials said.

Among those, around half are unrecognizable, the attendant added. Due to a lack of space, bodies had to be laid out on the ground and 20 were sent to a nearby military hospital.

VICTIMS REMEMBER

Among the victims were employees of Afghan and international media, a major telecommunications company and a bank as well as police officers and security guards.

Kabul’s Emergency Hospital received at least 108 victims of Wednesday’s attack, said Sakhi Shafiq, a team leader there.

From their hospital beds, survivors described the scenes of horror they had lived through.

“I felt my face and body burning and I felt blood coming out of my face,” said Karim Jan, speaking with difficulty.

With chaos all around, he staggered several blocks to Emergency Hospital where he remains, heavily bandaged, with shrapnel scars dotting his face and limbs.

Baqer Zmarai was walking to his job at the state television station and had just passed the German Embassy, which was heavily damaged in the blast, when the bomb went off.

“I fell on the ground,” he said from his bed at Wazir Akhbar Khan hospital. “It was hard to see my surroundings. I could hear people yelling for help.”

Surrounded by dirt, smoke, mangled cars and shattered buildings, Zmarai struggled to stand on injured legs.

“I tried to escape but I could not walk.”

While some of the wounded were able to go home, many remain in hospitals and the search for lost loved ones continues.

“I do not know if my son is dead or alive. I have to see and find him,” said Besmillah, who stood outside the locked gates of Emergency Hospital on Thursday, pleading with the staff to let him enter.

“I went to every single hospital but could not find my son.”

(Writing by Josh Smith; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

At least 120 killed as quake flattens towns in central Italy

rescuers helping those in Italian quake

By Steve Scherer

ACCUMOLI, Italy (Reuters) – An earthquake flattened towns in central Italy in the early hours of Wednesday, killing at least 120 people and burying some alive in their sleep, with volunteers and firefighters racing to free those trapped under mounds of rubble as darkness fell.

The quake razed mountain homes and buckled roads in a cluster of communities some 140 km (85 miles) east of Rome. It was powerful enough to be felt in Bologna to the north and Naples to the south, each more than 220 km from the epicenter.

“I was blown away by what I saw. We haven’t stopped digging all day,” said Marcello di Marco, 34, a farmer who traveled from the town of Narni some 100 km away to help with emergency services’ rescue efforts in the hamlet of Pescara del Tronto.

In the nearby village of Accumoli, a family of four, including two boys aged 8 months and 9 years, were buried when their house imploded.

As rescue workers carried away the body of the infant, carefully covered by a small blanket, the children’s grandmother blamed God: “He took them all at once,” she wailed.

The army was mobilized to help with special heavy equipment and the Treasury released 235 million euros ($265 million) of emergency funds. At the Vatican, Pope Francis dispatched part of the Holy See’s tiny firefighting force to help in the rescue.

Rescue workers used helicopters to pluck survivors to safety in more isolated villages cut off by landslides and rubble.

Aerial photographs showed whole areas of Amatrice, last year voted one of Italy’s most beautiful historic towns, flattened by the 6.2 magnitude quake. Many of those killed or missing were visitors.

“It’s all young people here, it’s holiday season, the town festival was to have been held the day after tomorrow so lots of people came for that,” said Amatrice resident Giancarlo, sitting in the road wearing just his underwear.

“It’s terrible, I’m 65 years old and I have never experienced anything like this, small tremors, yes, but nothing this big. This is a catastrophe,” he said.

Scores of people are believed unaccounted for, with the presence of the holidaymakers making it difficult to tally.

Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who gave the latest toll figure after visiting the area, called for national unity.

“We Italians are very good at arguing and being polemical but now let’s stand in solidarity and pride alongside those who are rescuing others,” he said. “Today is a day for tears. Tomorrow we can talk of reconstruction.”

VOICES UNDER THE RUBBLE

Patients at the badly damaged hospital in Amatrice were moved into the streets and a field hospital was set up.

“Three quarters of the town is not there anymore,” Amatrice mayor Sergio Pirozzi told state broadcaster RAI. “The aim now is to save as many lives as possible. There are voices under the rubble, we have to save the people there.”

Accumoli’s mayor, Stefano Petrucci, said some 2,500 people were left homeless in the local community of 17 hamlets.

Residents responding to wails muffled by tonnes of bricks and mortar sifted through with their bare hands before emergency services arrived with earth-moving equipment and sniffer dogs. Wide cracks had appeared like open wounds on the buildings that were still standing.

The national Civil Protection Department said some survivors would be put up elsewhere in central Italy, while others would be housed in tents that were being dispatched to the area.

Most of the damage was in the Lazio and Marche regions, with Lazio taking the brunt of the damage and the biggest toll. Neighboring Umbria was also affected. All three regions are dotted with centuries-old buildings susceptible to earthquakes.

The U.S. Geological Survey said the quake struck near the Umbrian city of Norcia. Italy’s earthquake institute INGV registered it at 6.0 and put the epicenter further south, closer to Accumoli and Amatrice.

It was relatively shallow at 4 km below the earth’s surface.

INGV reported 150 aftershocks in the 12 hours following the initial quake, the strongest measuring 5.5.

Residents of Rome were woken by the tremors, which rattled furniture, swayed lights and set off car alarms in most of central Italy.

“It was so strong. It seemed the bed was walking across the room by itself with us on it,” Lina Mercantini of Ceselli, Umbria, about 75 km away from the hardest hit area, told Reuters.

Italy sits on two fault lines, making it one of the most seismically active countries in Europe.

The last major earthquake to hit the country struck the central city of L’Aquila in 2009, killing more than 300 people.

The most deadly since the start of the 20th century came in 1908, when an earthquake followed by a tsunami killed an estimated 80,000 people in the southern regions of Reggio Calabria and Sicily.

(Additional reporting by Philip Pullella, Gavin Jones, Stephen Jewkes, Eleanor Biles and Giulia Segreti; Writing by Crispian Balmer and Philip Pullella; Editing by Louise Ireland)

U.S, Iraqi officials can’t confirm report Islamic State leader wounded

Iraqi security forces firing at Islamic State

BAGHDAD/FALLUJA (Reuters) – U.S. and Iraqi officials said on Friday they could not confirm a report by an Iraqi TV channel that Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had been wounded in an air strike in northern Iraq.

A spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition fighting the radical Islamist militants, Colonel Chris Garver, said in an email that he had seen the reports but had “nothing to confirm this at this time”.

Brett McGurk, the U.S. envoy to the coalition, told a daily briefing at the White House in Washington that there was no reason to believe that Baghdadi was not alive “even though we haven’t heard of him since late last year.”

“We presume that he’s still alive,” he added. “It’s really a matter of time for him.”

Kurdish and Arab security officials in northern Iraq said they also could not confirm the report.

Al Sumariya TV cited a local source in the northern province of Nineveh saying that Baghdadi and other Islamic State leaders were wounded on Thursday in a coalition air strike on one of the group’s command headquarters close to the Syrian border.

The channel has good connections with Shi’ite politicians and Iraqi forces engaged in the battle against Islamic State.

There have been several reports in the past that Baghdadi, whose real name is Ibrahim al-Samarrai, was killed or wounded after proclaiming himself caliph of all Muslims two years ago.

In the last audio message, posted at the end of December on Twitter accounts that had published Islamic State statements previously, Baghdadi said the air strikes carried out by Russia and the U.S.-led coalition had failed to weaken the group.

The ultra-hardline Sunni group is under increased pressure in both Iraq and Syria, and the territory under its control has shrunk significantly since 2014, limiting the potential for its leaders to move around or seek shelter.

The U.S. earlier this year announced an intensification of the war on Islamic State with more air strikes and more American troops on the ground to advise and assist allied forces.

The U.S.-led coalition has regularly flown raids out of Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan region, in operations aimed at killing and capturing Islamic State leaders.

A Kurdish intelligence official and an Arab from the Baaj area west of Mosul said the U.S.-led coalition had conducted such a raid there earlier this week. The coalition did not confirm this raid.

Kurdish Peshmerga forces are positioned in an arc around the north and east of Mosul while the Iraqi army is trying to capture Falluja, 50 km (30 miles) west of Baghdad.

The army’s elite Counter Terrorism Service was battling on Friday in al-Shuhada, a southern district of Falluja, a Reuters photographer reported from the scene.

Loud explosions and bursts of gunfire were heard from the district, while aircraft believed to belong to the U.S.-led coalition flew overhead.

Al-Shuhada marks the first advance of the army inside the built-up area of Falluja, after two weeks of fighting on the outskirts to complete the encirclement of the city.

The encirclement was completed with help from Iran-backed Shi’ite militias. They deployed behind the army’s lines and did not take part directly in the assault on the city to avoid inflaming sectarian feelings.

A government official said Islamic State militants are putting up a tough fight defending the city that stands as a symbol of the Sunni insurgency that followed the U.S. occupation of Iraq, in 2003.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said the troops are progressing cautiously in order to protect tens of thousands of civilians trapped in Falluja.

The United Nations says 90,000 civilians may have remained in Falluja, under “harrowing” conditions with little access to food, water and healthcare, and no safe exit routes.

The insurgents have dug a network of tunnels to move around without being detected and planted thousands of mines and explosive devices to delay the army’s advance.

Finance Minister Hoshiyar Zebari said a week ago that the battle of Falluja “will take time”.

The Iraqi army is also massing tanks and troops south of Mosul, in preparation for an offensive planned later this year to retake the largest city under the control of the militants.

In Syria, Russian- and Iranian-backed Syrian government forces and U.S.-backed Syrian opposition and Kurds are separately trying to advance on Raqqa, the group’s capital in Syria.

(Reporting by Maher Chmaytelli and Isabel Coles; Additional reporting by Tim Gardner in Washington; Editing by Dominic Evans and Hugh Lawson)