March 23, 2017 at 3:14 pm

Taliban capture key Afghan district; 9 police killed

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The Taliban captured a key district centre in Afghanistan’s southern Helmand province on Thursday while in the country’s north, an officer turned his rifle on sleeping colleagues, killing nine policemen in the latest “insider attack”.

Helmand, which accounts for the bulk of Afghanistan’s billion dollar opium crop, is already largely in the hands of the Taliban but the capture of Sangin – where US and British forces once suffered heavy casualties – underlines its growing strength in the south.

The district’s police chief, Mohammad Rasoul, said the Taliban overran Sangin centre early Thursday.

Taliban spokesman Qari Yousuf Ahmadi also issued a statement claiming the Taliban capture of the district. He said the area had been bombarded by foreign forces following the withdrawal of Afghan troops and police, causing heavy damage to buildings and infrastructure.

1,100 Afghan children a day ‘to drop out of school’

Rasoul told AP news agency the district headquarters had been poorly protected and at the time of the Taliban siege, only eight policemen and 30 Afghan soldiers were on duty.

Afghan security forces were now amassing nearby for a full-scale counter-attack in a bid to retake Sangin, Rasoul added.

“We are preparing our reinforcements to recapture the district,” Rasoul said.

NATO spokesman William Salvin said in a statement that Afghan troops remained in Sangin district but had relocated several kilometres outside the district centre.

In Kabul, a lawmaker from Sangin, Mohammad Hashim Alokzai, urged the military to move quickly to retake the district, saying its fall could have devastating consequences for Helmand, where the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah has in the past months also come under constant and heavy attack by the Taliban.

“The seizure of Sangin is a major tactical triumph for the Taliban,” Michael Kugelman, senior associate for South Asia at the US-based Wilson Center, said Thursday. The group “has taken over a major urban space in one of its major stronghold provinces, amplifying the major threat that the group poses to Afghanistan nearly 16 years after it was removed from power”.

“It’s hard to overestimate the significance of Helmand – it’s strategically located near Pakistan, it’s a bastion of the opium trade,” said Kugelman.

American soldiers wounded in Afghan ‘insider attack’

In northern Kunduz province, police spokesman Mafuz Akbari said the insider attack on Thursday that claimed the lives on nine policemen took place at a security post and the assailant escaped.

Afghanistan has seen a spike in so-called insider attacks. In such incidents, attackers who turn their rifles and kill colleagues usually end up stealing their weapons and fleeing the scene to join insurgents.

Akbari said the assailant had gone over to the Taliban. He also said the attacker and the Taliban gathered the bodies of the dead policemen and set them on fire.

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahed claimed responsibility for the attack, but denied a policeman had been involved, or that the Taliban burned bodies.

The conflicting accounts could not be immediately reconciled. The region is remote and not accessible to reporters.

Afghan forces have come under intensified pressure by insurgents in both Helmand and Kunduz.

According to US estimates, government forces control less than 60 percent of Afghanistan, with almost half the country either contested or under the control of the Taliban, which is seeking to re-impose Islamic law after their 2001 ouster.

Source: News agencies

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at 3:14 pm

How chlorine gas became a weapon in Syria’s civil war

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Mohamed Tennari, a medical doctor, was visiting an electronics repair shop in the northwestern Syrian village of Sarmin to have a broken internet router fixed. The store was owned by family friend Waref Taleb. Tennari left the router with Taleb and returned the following day to collect it. Taleb did not charge him for the fix. These were the last exchanges the two Syrian friends would ever have.

The next time Tennari saw Taleb was on March 16, 2015, a month or two later, following a chlorine chemical attack in Sarmin. This time, though, Taleb was on an operation table in the emergency room of the Sarmin field hospital.

Tennari rushed into the emergency room to see Taleb, who was coughing, choking, foaming at the mouth, and barely clinging to life. That night, a helicopter had dropped a barrel bomb containing chlorine that exploded on Taleb’s home. 

“We couldn’t help him because he inhaled a lot of chlorine,” Tennari, 36, recalled, who has been working as a doctor in Syria since 2007.

OPINION: We must not let chemical weapons to become the ‘norm’

Taleb’s family scrambled into their basement to hide. The noxious gas seeped into the ventilation ducts of their house and killed Taleb and his entire family – his mother, wife, Ala’a Alajati, and their three children Aisha, three, Sarah, two, and Muhammad, one.

“They all died. It was so bad that we couldn’t save them,” he added. “[Taleb] was my friend and it was so sad.”

Tennari suspected it was the Syrian regime that dropped the toxic gas cannister. He estimated that he and his staff treated about 120 patients who had been exposed to chlorine that night. The Taleb family, however, were the only casualties.

“They were in the basement and the chemical material was going down. People must go high. Because they were in the basement they really got a lot of this material, the chemical material.”

Tennari described Taleb as a family man.

“He was friendly, quiet, [a] good person,” he said. “He had a nice family. He loved his family.”

This is what’s left of the Taleb family’s home after a chlorine canister fell on it on March 16, 2015 [Courtesy of Sarmin field hospital/Al Jazeera]

On the anniversary of Taleb’s death two years later, that night of chaos and terror still gives the Syrian doctor chills. “Helicopters were in the sky at all times and we hear sound at all times and we didn’t know what second they would attack the hospital,” Tennari said in between heavy sighs.

Dr Tennari has been working as doctor in Syria since 2007 [Courtesy of Sarmin field hospital/Al Jazeera]

“We didn’t know what to do. Patients were in chairs, on the ground, on the floor- everywhere. We didn’t have enough time to stay with one patient. I was going from one patient to another patient every minute. It was so noisy.”

This is a fleeting, but not uncommon snapshot of the destructive role chlorine attacks have played – and the fear the chemical has sown – in the country’s civil war, which enters its seventh year this week.

Chemical weapons have been a recurring footnote in the bloody narrative of Syria’s civil war, which has robbed hundreds of thousands of lives, and displaced roughly 11 million more. But amid this troubling saga of chemical weapons use in Syria, it has been sarin nerve gas, and to a lesser extent mustard gas, that have punctuated this ongoing storyline.

Following the 1,300 tonnes of sarin nerve gas and its precursors being removed from Syria, chemical attacks persist there nearly four years later, but most notably in the form of chlorine, which has emerged as the most heavily used chemical weapon in the war.

“We saw chlorine appearing as a weapon in Syria for the first time in 2014,” said Ole Solvang, the deputy director of the emergencies division at Human Rights Watch.

“The challenge is there are so many horrific things going on in Syria, that this one issue tends to perhaps be overshadowed sometimes by other attacks that are going on.”

In February, Human Rights Watch and Solvang authored a report documenting at least eight instances of chlorine use by the Syrian regime in the battle for Aleppo between Nov. 17 and Dec. 13, 2016. The human rights watchdog verified the attacks through video footage analysis, phone, and in-person interviews, as well as by social media.

The report indicated that the chlorine attacks killed at least nine people, including four children, and injured around 200 people. The attacks, according to the report, constituted war crimes.

“This is, of course, horrific because it is a violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention that Syria is a part of,” Solvang explained. “It’s horrific for the victims, but also because it really undermines one of the strongest bans on any weapon in international humanitarian law and what we’re really concerned about is that the government’s continued use of chemical attacks will undermine this ban and lower the threshold for other countries to also use it [chlorine].”

INTERACTIVE: Syria’s Civil War Map

The Chemical Weapons Convention, which came to in effect in 1997, consitute the world’s first internationally binding chemical weapons laws. They are enforced by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, a independent treaty-based international organisation.

Following the sarin gas attack in Ghouta in August 2013 that killed more than 1,000 people – more than 400 of them children – according a United Nations Security Council report, Syria joined the convention as part of an international agreement – and to subdue the Obama administration’s threats of military action. It was the 190th country to sign on.

So to what role has chlorine played in Syria’s complex and long civil war? And what has been the human toll?

Human Rights Watch have documented 24 chlorine attacks in Syria since 2014, of which 32 people were killed and hundreds were injured. However, Solvang acknowledged that this is likely a grave underestimate.

“It’s a terrifying weapon to most people,” Solvang said.

Chlorine is a choking agent. Its greenish-yellow clouds of gas cause shortness of breath, wheezing, respiratory failure, irritation in the eyes, vomiting, and sometimes death.

Human Rights Watch have documented 24 chlorine attacks in Syria since 2014, of which 32 people were killed and hundreds were injured [Courtesy of Aleppo Media Centre/Al Jazeera]

Chlorine’s effects are also largely psychological: the chemical triggers fear, shock, and panic in a way that other conventional weapons don’t. In the case of Aleppo, Solvang suspects the regime strategically used chlorine to force a mass exodus of the city.

“Places that were relatively safe suddenly were not safe any more when chlorine started being used,” Solvang said. “When people were trying to hide and shelter from explosive weapons, regular rockets and bombs – they would go into a basement because that’s the safest place to be. Chlorine is heavier than air so it sinks into those basements, so those basements can become death traps.”

Solvang’s statement, echoed the way in which the Taleb family died in Sarmin: overexposure to chlorine gas after mistaking their cellar as a safe haven.

“It is definitely very scary if you are a physician in a small hospital with dozens or hundreds of patients that are suffocating and you don’t know what to do with all of that,” said Zaher Sahloul, a former president of Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), who is originally from Homs, but who now practices in Chicago.

SAMS has also closely monitored chlorine attacks in Syria. The medical organisation has documented 109 chlorine attacks since the civil war began in 2011.

“The main reason chlorine was used in Syria was to cause panic and to force people to flee. And that’s what it really did in most of the instances,” Sahloul added.

Sahloul, a pulmonary specialist, attended medical school with President Bashar al-Assad between 1982 and 1988 at Damascus University. He knew Assad personally.

“[Assad] was collegial, humble and talkative,” Sahloul recalled of his former classmate turned president, who he now accuses of war crimes.

“No one expected him to oversee the destruction of his country, target hospitals and doctors and use extreme brutality against civilians including torture, siege, collective punishment, and chemical weapons.”

Zaher Sahloul attended medical school with Bashar al-Assad between 1982 and 1988 at Damascus University. Here, Sahloul is fourth from right [Courtesy of Zaher Sahloul/Al Jazeera]

Chlorine was first used as a weapon by the Germans on French, British, and Canadian troops in World War I on the battlefield in Ypres. A decade later, the Geneva Protocol of 1925, the first constructive international laws banning the use of chemical weapons, was introduced.

But despite its deadly effects, chlorine isn’t classified in the same league as sarin or mustard gas. It exists in somewhat of a grey zone under today’s international laws and is only regarded as a chemical weapon when it’s used maliciously. Chlorine’s complicated status on the spectrum of chemical weapons raises tough questions about the definitions of chemical warfare.

For instance, why are some lethal chemicals internationally prohibited, while others aren’t?

“The difference between chlorine and sarin is [that] chlorine is readily available,” Sahloul explained. “Chlorine is used for many other beneficial ways, to clean water and so forth, in many industries but that’s why the Syrian regime has been using it because it’s easily done and weaponised easily.”

Tens of millions of tonnes of chlorine are produced around the world each year. It’s used to disinfect water supplies, in the manufacturing of pharmaceuticals, antiseptics, and drugs, in textile industries, the bleaching of paper, in the separation of metals such as gold, nickel, and copper from their ores, as well as such household chemicals like adhesives.

Its widespread industrial use makes controlling and regulating its use as a weapon all the more problematic, which has allowed its use to persist in Syria’s civil war.

“Chlorine is used on a daily basis in all countries. It can be easily produced, in all of our countries, [regardless] of the development of the country, the materials are available,” said Ahmet Uzumcu, director general of the Netherlands-based Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the international organisation that verifies the destruction of existing global stockpiles of chemical weapons.

“It creates panic, of course, and terror especially among civilians [but] the difficulty to eradicate it – it’s not declarable – so we cannot ask state parties to declare the chlorine stocks,” added Uzumcu. “I believe that it is very difficult to contain it.”


The OPCW, which led a fact-finding mission in 2014 to investigate chlorine attacks in Syria, were unable to confirm to Al Jazeera the exact numbers of confirmed attacks, but a press release on the missions stated there was “compelling” evidence that chlorine was used “systematically and repeatedly”.

Kelsey Davenport, the director nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association, a non-profit organisation that promotes public understanding of arms control policies in Washington, DC, also echoed Sahloul and Uzumcu’s assertions on the problematic nature of containing chlorine as a chemical weapon.

“Chlorine is particularly a problem because it has so many uses for industrial purposes that don’t have anything to do with weaponisation,” she said.

“It can be very easy for organisations to get their hands on chlorine and the necessary ingredients to create chlorine gas, using sort of other mechanisms or justifications for industrial purposes. That makes it much more difficult to control and much more difficult to prevent groups from using,” Davenport added.

The precarious situation on the ground makes is even more difficult, if not impossible for governments and NGOs, to verify each attack, and who exactly is on the delivering end: the regime, rebel forces, or ISIL.

Last August, the UN-led a joint investigation in Syria to pinpoint who is responsible for the flurry of reported chlorine attacks. The UN examined nine cases of alleged chemical weapons attacks. They found what they described as “sufficient evidence” of three instances of chemical weapons attacks between 2014 and 2015. Two of these were chlorine gas attacks on civilians by the Syrian air force. Another was a sulphur mustard gas attack by the Islamic State.

“It’s hard – it’s impossible to use the word ‘verifiable’,” said Paul Walker, a chemical weapons expert and Director of Green Cross International’s Environmental Security and Sustainability programme.

Walker attributed the contrasting numbers of chlorine attacks recorded by NGOs, media, and governmental bodies like the UN to the dangerous conditions on the ground in Syria.

“By looking at newspaper reports, you know there’s an average alleged attack with chlorine probably every month and probably for the last several years,” he said. “A ballpark figure is a dozen [chlorine attacks] a year. And I think that’s a gross underestimate because it’s very difficult to verify these attacks when you can’t get to the site in a reasonable amount of time, you can’t gather forensics, [and] you can’t necessarily interview victims.”

In response to the UN joint investigation, the United States imposed sanctions on 18 Syrian military officials in January, according to a Treasury Department statement.

And just last month, the US, France, and Britain drafted a UN Security Council resolution that would have imposed further sanctions on Syrian military officials over the alleged use of chlorine. However, Russia and China vetoed it.

Prior to the veto, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2209 on March 6, 2015, condemning the use of chlorine attacks in the civil war, threatening to take Chapter VII action – which could include sanctions and ultimately military force – if the attacks continue. But that was two years ago; the attacks have persisted, UN sanctions have fallen flat, and the international community hasn’t been able to effectively halt Assad‘s regime or the rebels’ use of chlorine.

With the emergence of the US President Donald Trump‘s administration, which seems open to allowing Russia, Syria’s ally, operate more freely in the country, Assad’s regime appears more insulated than ever. Military escalation against Assad, or the possibility his regime will be charged with war crimes in an international criminal court, at least in the near future, seems unlikely.

“The people and physicians, especially in Syria gave up on this issue,” said Sahloul, the Chicago-based SAMS doctor, who has testified on chlorine attacks before the UN Security Council and the US House Foreign Relations Committee.

Sahloul is frustrated by the international community’s perceived indifference – and its inability – to solve the chlorine problem, and he, too, is sceptical anything will be accomplished in the near future to hold Assad’s regime accountable.

“There was a lot of effort that at one point to document all of these issues,” he added. “There were testimonies in the [UN] Security Council, there were resolutions, there were attributions, and then investigation teams, and then nothing happened. I think at this point, people gave up on Syria and talking about these issues.”

Instead, Sahloul, appealed directly to Assad, his former classmate, to end the brutality of chlorine chemical attacks once and for all.

“I want him [Assad] to see the faces of the children who woke up choking in the middle of the night,” he said, in reference to the chlorine attack that killed the Taleb family in Sarmin.

‘I want him [Assad] to see the faces of the children who woke up choking in the middle of the night.’ [Courtesy of Sarmin field hospital/Al Jazeera]

“I want him to imagine the panic in the faces of Taleb family in Sarmin [hiding] in a basement, when they were overwhelmed with the smell of bleach, and when their children – Aisha, Sarah, and Muhammad – started to suffocate; how they rushed to the field hospital and how they all ended up dead.”

For other Syrians, like Tennari, the Syrian doctor in Sarmin, who have seen the gruesomeness of a chlorine attack first hand, justice is already too late. Tennari still agonises over the loss of his friend Taleb, and his family, who were all killed by the toxic substance two years ago.

“I’m praying to not be in this situation again: to see a friend choking in front of me and I couldn’t do anything,” said Tennari, who said he’ll continuing practising in Syria as long as the civil war continues.

“I’m so sorry that we couldn’t help [the Taleb family],” Tennari said. “I feel bad all the time when I remember that we couldn’t help them and they died. I feel weak because of that. I wish that nobody would be in my situation and see what I see. It’s horrific. I wish this war will finish one day.”

Dorian Geiger is a Canadian journalist and an award-winning filmmaker based in Doha, Qatar and Queens, New York. He’s a social video producer and a freelance features writer at Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

Source: Al Jazeera

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at 3:14 pm

London police: Eight arrests over Westminster attack

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The suspect of a deadly attack outside the UK parliament in London was British-born, Prime Minister Theresa May said, as police arrested eight people after several overnight raids across the country.

In a statement to the House of Commons on Thursday, May said the attacker was once investigated by intelligence officers over concerns of “violent extremism”. 

“He was a peripheral figure,” she said. “The case is historic, he was not part of the current intelligence picture.”

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group claimed responsibility on Thursday for the attack. It said on its Aamaq website the attacker “carried out the operation in response to calls for targeting citizens of the coalition” of countries fighting ISIL in Syria and Iraq.

It was not possible for Al Jazeera to independently confirm the claim.

Some 40 people were wounded in the attack, 29 of whom were being treated in hospital, according to police. Seven were still in critical condition.

May said those wounded in the attack included 12 Britons, three French children, two Romanians, four South Koreans, two Greeks, and one each from Germany, Poland, Ireland, China, Italy and the United States.

Three police officers were also wounded.

The victims included Keith Palmer, a 48-year-old police officer who was stabbed to death, and two members of the public – a woman in her mid-40s and a man in his mid-50s.

The fourth dead was the attacker.

Earlier on Thursday, police said eight people had been arrested after raids on six homes in London, Birmingham and other parts of the country in their probe into the attack, in which a man ploughed into pedestrians in a car and then went on a stabbing spree before being shot dead.

Mark Rowley, acting deputy commissioner at the Metropolitan police, also revised down the number of victims to three from four.

“It is still our belief that the attacker acted alone was inspired by international terrorism,” Rowley said.

Al Jazeera’s Barnaby Phillips, reporting from London, said: “The absolute priority of the police at this point in time would be to know what sort of accomplices, if any, the assailant had. What sort of assistance, if any, did the assailant have and whether he belonged to any sort of network.”

Rowley said he had no specific information about any further risk to the public, but repeated that more officers were on the streets – armed and unarmed – and that many had leave cancelled or were working extended hours.

REPORTER’S NOTEBOOK: Seeking solace in wake of the Westminster attack

Injured people being assisted after the attack on Westminster Bridge in London, March 22, 2017. REUTERS/Toby Melville

Some of the wounds suffered by the victims were described as “catastrophic”. One woman was pulled out alive from the River Thames with serious injuries by port authorities.

“We saw a black vehicle at full speed and it ran down a number of people. I could see people flying all around,” tourist Babi Nagy told Al Jazeera. “Immediately it came to mind this was a terrorist attack.”

Polish politician and journalist Radoslaw Sikorski posted a video on Twitter of the aftermath on the bridge, showing several wounded people lying on the ground.

Another witness said he saw victims scattered along the street.

“As I was walking up the steps, there was a man who had fallen and medics were taking care of him. There was a lady who was also stabbed or shot. There was a lot of blood,” Martin Pearce told Al Jazeera at the scene.

The last  major attack to hit London was in July 2005, when a coordinated series of bomb blasts targeted its public transportation system during rush hour. The bombings killed 52 people and wounded more than 700 others. 

Mayor Sadiq Khan said Londoners will “never be cowed by terrorism”.

“There will be additional armed and unarmed police officers on our streets from tonight in order to keep Londoners, and all those visiting our city, safe,” he said.

“I want to reassure all Londoners, and all our visitors, not to be alarmed.” 

Leaders across the world condemned the attack, while lights on the Eiffel Tower in Paris were switched off at midnight in solidarity with victims of the attack.

US President Donald Trump and French President Francois Hollande both spoke to May and Chancellor Angela Merkel said Germany stood with Britons “against all forms of terrorism”.

“Spoke to UK Prime Minister Theresa May today to offer condolences on the terrorist attack in London,” Trump tweeted.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that “Turkey feels and shares deeply in the United Kingdom’s pain” and that it stood in “solidarity” with Britain “in the fight against terrorism”.

Several international tourists visiting one of London’s most iconic sights were caught up in the violence.

Five South Korean tourists were wounded, Seoul’s foreign ministry said, while the Romanian government said two of its citizens were also injured.

Westminster bridge cordoned off by police after the attack.

Samir Puri, a lecturer in terrorism and security studies at Kings College London, told Al Jazeera that the attack raises profound questions over the wisdom of automatically framing such incidents as being of a “terrorist” nature.

“If it was a lone attacker, then perhaps we should really be saying that this a criminal and a mass-murderer, and kind of leaving it at that. And I think those are questions that will be quite politically resonant.”

Puri predicted an upcoming narrative battle between, on the one hand, the British “centre-right tabloid press” who might be eager to try to link the attack explicitly to “jihad” and “international terrorism” and, on the other hand, “voices of caution and tolerance to try to maybe de-link the actions of one individual from any kind of wider community or any kind of wider cause”.

“I think what we should say, even at the outset, is to handle all of these messages with extraordinary care, because this is the way in which terrorism has a disproportionate impact on public opinion.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies

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at 3:11 am

Westminster attack: Five killed outside UK parliament

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London police say five people, including the attacker, were killed injured after a car ploughed into pedestrians and a man went on a stabbing spree before being shot dead close to the British parliament.

Around 40 others were injured in Wednesday’s attack that caused chaos in one of the city’s busiest locations.

London Metropolitan Police Commissioner Mark Rowley said investigators suspect the attacker had been “inspired by international terrorism”.

“Islamist-related terrorism is our assumption,” Rowley told reporters.

He said police believed they knew the identity of the attacker but he declined to provide details.   

Rowley said the violence started when a car was driven over Westminster Bridge, hitting and injuring a number of civilians and three police officers.

The car then crashed into railings just outside parliament where a man armed with a knife continued the attack and tried to enter the building. 

The assailant was shot dead after he stabbed a policeman to death. The other three victims were among those hit by the car.

Many people were lying on the ground – some bleeding heavily and apparently unconscious – after the attack, which Prime Minister Theresa May condemned as “sick and depraved”.

“The location of this attack was no accident,” she said in a statement outside her Downing Street office late in the evening.

“The terrorist chose to strike at the heart of our capital city, where people of all nationalities, religions and cultures come together to celebrate the values of liberty, democracy and freedom of speech.”

Injured people are assisted after the attack on Westminster Bridge [Toby Melville/Reuters]

Some of the wounds suffered by the victims were described as “catastrophic”. One woman was pulled out alive from the River Thames with serious injuries by port authorities.  

Witnesses initially reported multiple attacks near parliament. 

“We saw a black vehicle at full speed and it ran down a number of people. I could see people flying all around,” tourist Babi Nagy told Al Jazeera. “Immediately it came to mind this was a terrorist attack.”

Polish politician and journalist Radoslaw Sikorski posted a video on Twitter of the aftermath on the bridge, showing several injured people lying on the ground.

Another witness said he saw victims scattered along the street.

“As I was walking up the steps, there was a man who had fallen and medics were taking care of him. There was a lady who was also stabbed or shot. There was a lot of blood,” Martin Pearce told Al Jazeera at the scene.

The last major attack to hit London was in July 2005, when a coordinated series of bomb blasts targeted its public transportation system during rush hour. The bombings killed 52 people and wounded more than 700 others. 

Mayor Sadiq Khan said Londoners will “never be cowed by terrorism”.

“There will be additional armed and unarmed police officers on our streets from tonight in order to keep Londoners, and all those visiting our city, safe,” he said.

“I want to reassure all Londoners, and all our visitors, not to be alarmed.” 

International messages of condolence were offered to the United Kingdom.

Chancellor Angela Merkel said Germany stood by Britain following the deadly attack.    

“Although the background to these acts are not yet clear, I reaffirm that Germany and its citizens stand firmly and resolutely alongside Britons in the struggle against all forms of terrorism,” Merkel said in a statement.

US President Donald Trump offered May the full cooperation and support of the United States in responding to the attack, the White House said in a statement.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sent a letter of condolences to the British prime minister.

“I want to emphasise that Turkey deeply feels and shares the United Kingdom’s sorrow. Turkey always stands in solidarity with the friendly and allied United Kingdom in the fight against terrorism, one of the greatest threats to international peace and security,” he said.

In Paris, the lights of the Eiffel tower were switched off. Three French schoolchildren on a visit to London were injured in the attack.

Police cordoned off the bridge after the attack [Eddie Keogh/Reuters]

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies

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at 3:11 am

Turkey protests against Norway giving officers asylum

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The Norwegian ambassador to Ankara has been summoned to Turkey’s foreign ministry after Norway granted political asylum to five former Turkish military officers allegedly involved in a July coup attempt, a ministry spokesperson said.

The asylum seekers, who had been ordered to return to Turkey, include a former military attache and four military officers who worked at a NATO education centre in Norway, state-run Anadolu Agency said on Wednesday.

“It is saddening and unacceptable to see an allied country supporting the efforts of individuals who were recalled from their state duty and who abused the political, social, and economic resources of their country of residence instead of returning to Turkey,” said a statement by foreign ministry spokesman Huseyin Muftuoglu.

Newspaper Verdens Gang said the group feared being arrested in Turkey. 

In 2016, 89 people from Turkey applied for asylum in Norway – with peaks in September and October when 17 and 28 people sought shelter respectively.

Since the July 15 coup attempt, some 40,000 people have been arrested in Turkey and more than 100,000 sacked or suspended from the military, civil service and private sector, while others have sought asylum abroad.

Ankara says the failed coup, which left 249 people dead, was orchestrated by US-based cleric Fetullah Gulen.

Turkey’s government accuses Gulen’s network of staging the coup attempt as well as being behind a long-running campaign to overthrow the state through the infiltration of Turkish institutions, particularly the military, police and judiciary.

Source: News agencies

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at 3:11 am

US to focus on ‘elimination’ of ISIL by military force

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The United States will set up “interim zones of stability” to help refugees return home in the next phase of the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group and al-Qaeda, the US secretary of defense said on Wednesday.

Top US diplomat Rex Tillerson did not make clear where these zones were to be set up. He was addressing a meeting of 68 countries gathered in Washington, DC to discuss the fight to defeat ISIL, also known as ISIS.

“The United States will increase our pressure on ISIS and al-Qaeda and will work to establish interim zones of stability, through ceasefires, to allow refugees to return home,” Tillerson told the gathering at the state department.

John McCain warns of ‘tough decisions’ on Syrian Kurds

Creating safe zones could ratchet up US military involvement in Syria and mark a major departure from former president Barack Obama’s more cautious approach.

Increased US or allied air power would be required if President Donald Trump chooses to enforce “no fly” restrictions, and ground forces might also be needed to protect civilians in those areas.

ISIL has been losing ground in both Iraq and Syria, with three separate forces, backed by the United States, Turkey and Russia, advancing on the group’s Syrian stronghold city of Raqqa.

Defeating ISIL is the “number one US goal in the region”, Tillerson said, adding the coalition will focus on “regional elimination of ISIS through military force”.

Wednesday’s event was the first meeting of the international coalition since the election of Trump, who has pledged to make the fight against ISIL a priority. He vowed in January to set up safe zones in Syria for refugees.

In a statement released after the meeting, the 68 partners underlined their “determination to intensify and accelerate… efforts to eliminate ISIS” in Iraq, Syria and beyond.

They hailed progress by US-backed local forces against the group’s main strongholds in Raqqa and the northern Iraqi city of Mosul.

And, as they predicted victory on the battlefield, they vowed to prevent the group’s fleeing fighters from spreading instability or from setting up a propaganda base in cyber space.

Tillerson said the flow of foreign fighters into Syria and Iraq was down 90 percent over the past year.

“It is harder for terrorists to get in and more importantly harder for them to get out to threaten our homelands,” he said.

He called on coalition partners to make good on financial pledges to help secure and rebuild areas where ISIL fighters have been pushed out.

OPINION: ISIL after Mosul – Insurgency and rivalry

The United States will do its part but circumstances on the ground require more, Tillerson said, urging allies to allocate more military, financial resources towards defeating ISIL.

Wednesday’s meeting is the first of the international coalition since Iraqi government forces, backed by the US-led international coalition, retook several Iraqi cities from ISIL last year and recaptured eastern Mosul.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi believes reconstruction of Anbar province as well as Mosul, in Nineveh province, will cost about $50bn, US Senator Lindsey Graham said on Wednesday, recounting a Tuesday conversation with the Iraqi leader.

Source: Reuters news agency

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March 22, 2017 at 3:09 pm

Haiti By Force

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Correspondent: Femi Oke

There is no greater betrayal of the UN peacekeeping mission than for troops deployed to protect communities to instead perpetrate violence and abuse. For nearly a decade, UN peacekeepers around the globe have faced allegations of rape and sexual exploitation. These vary from one-off attacks on children, women and/or disabled/incapacitated civilians, to larger, more complex operations, including prostitute trafficking and paedophile rings.

This has greatly undermined the credibility of the UN’s peacekeeping missions in some of the most vulnerable countries in the world. Most recently, Antonio Guterres, UN secretary general, confirmed that there has been a total of 145 cases of sexual assault and abuse across all UN peace missions in 2016 – up from 99 reported cases in 2015. 

The abuse has not only been chronic and unabated: it has been covered up and mishandled at every stage. In many cases, victims have been left without care, or any sense of justice. Some of the victims have never been allowed the platform to voice the abuses committed against them or to confront those who have failed to protect them.

The countries with the highest number of reported allegations include: Haiti, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan.

The UN mission in Haiti, known as MINUSTAH, has been plagued by reports of sexual abuse since its establishment in 2004. The number of abuse cases cited by the UN in Haiti are a mere fraction of what independent estimates reflect, with long withstanding allegations of cover-ups by the organisation and unreported rape both playing a part. 

Legal battles against the UN mission, from within Haiti and globally, face a legal catch – peacekeepers are given immunity to any criminal liability in the countries they serve. In cases where reports are actually investigated, victims have had to bear all costs of travel, paternity tests and/or medical needs. Financial compensation is so rare, there are fewer than a dozen children worldwide receiving child support from peacekeeper-civilian rape incidents. 

Source: Al Jazeera

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at 3:09 pm

Trump administration to host first anti-ISIL meeting

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Foreign ministers from 68 countries will meet in Washington on Wednesday to agree on the next steps to defeat ISIL, the first such gathering of the US-led military coalition since the election of President Donald Trump in November.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis are expected to host Iraq’s prime minister and diplomats from the coalition partners in a meeting at the State Department.

Trump has vowed to make the fight against Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) a priority and directed the Pentagon and other agencies in January to submit a plan for defeating the hardline group.

READ MORE: ‘US-led coalition air raid’ hits refugee shelter near Raqqa

ISIL has been losing ground in both Iraq and Syria, and three separate forces, backed by the United States, Turkey and Russia, are advancing on the group’s Syrian stronghold of Raqqa.

The meeting is the first of the international coalition since Iraqi government forces, backed by the US-led international coalition, retook several Iraqi cities, including eastern Mosul, from ISIL last year.

While the the hardline group is overwhelmingly outnumbered by Iraqi forces, it has been using suicide car bombs and snipers to defend its remaining strongholds.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who met with Trump in Washington on Monday, said he had won assurances of more US support in the war against ISIL. 

A White House statement after the meeting said both Trump and Abadi agreed that “terrorism cannot be defeated by military might alone”. The two leaders also called for deepening commercial ties.

Discussions on Wednesday will also focus on how to help Mosul rebuild and ways to tackle ISIL operations in Libya and elsewhere.

In Syria, the US-led coalition has been working with an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias. Its current focus is to encircle and ultimately recapture Raqqa – ISIL’s main base of operations in Syria.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-led group of militias backed by the US-led coalition, is fighting to isolate Raqqa ahead of an anticipated assault on the city, which the ISIL group has used as a command node to plan attacks abroad.

In a statement put out on social media on Wednesday, the SDF said the US-coalition has air-dropped US and SDF forces near the town of Al-Tabqah in Raqqa province, expanding its campaign against ISIL in the area.

The operation aims to both capture the strategic area of  Al-Tabqah across the Euphrates River from the SDF’s other holdings, and to curb Syrian government advances in that direction.

“What we’re seeing right now is a race to Raqqa. Which forces are going to try to take on ISIL in that pivotal city? Is it going to by Syrian forces backed by Russia and Iran, or is it going to be US forces? Another big question is what role is Turkey going to play in all of this?” said Al Jazeera’s Patty Culhane, reporting from the US capitol. 

READ MORE: Iran and ISIL ‘top priority’ for Iraq-US relations

“This could be an indication though that this key offensive that we’ve been waiting for is going to get under way, but we haven’t had any confirmation yet from the Department of Defence.” 

The head of the YPG militia, the strongest in the SDF, said last week that the offensive to retake Raqqa would begin in early April, but a spokesman for the US Pentagon said no decision had yet been made.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is supported by Russia and Iran, has said he saw scope for cooperation with Trump, although he has dismissed the US-backed military campaign against ISIL in Syria as “only a few raids”.


Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies

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at 3:09 pm

‘Firearm incident’ investigated outside UK parliament

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The UK Metropolitan police say they are investigating a “firearms incident” near parliament in London. 

“We were called at approx 2:40pm to reports of an incident at Bridge. Being treated as a firearms incident – police on scene,” Metropolitan Police said on Twitter.

More soon …

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at 2:52 am

Darren Rainey’s death in prison shower ‘accidental’

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Civil rights organisations have condemned a US state attorney’s decision to close the case against prison guards who sent an inmate to a scalding shower, which witnesses and lawyers believe killed him.

In June 2012, four guards trapped 50-year-old Darren Rainey, a schizophrenic, in a shower at Florida’s Dade Correctional Institute for two hours

He was found dead lying face up in the shower, his skin red and slipping off.

Some prisoners said they heard Rainey scream out for help, saying the water was “too hot”, that they saw steam coming out of the shower, and that CPR was not performed.

While a prison nurse said that Rainey’s body felt hot, she said a sergeant did perform CPR.

On Friday, the office of Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle released a 101-page report saying Rainey’s cause of death was “an accident”.

READ MORE: Is this the end of prison for profit in the US?

The report concluded: “Facts and evidence in this case do not meet the required elements for the filing of any criminal charge … none of the correctional officers at Dade CI are criminally responsible for the death.”

In a statement sent to Al Jazeera on Monday, Howard Simon, American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) Florida executive director, said: “Just because the state attorney found that the standards to secure a criminal conviction was not met does not mean that corrections officers did not do something horribly wrong.

“Changes need to be made in our corrections department to ensure that guards are held responsible when their actions, negligent or willful, result in the death of an inmate.”

Florida, a state that holds more more than 100,000 people behind bars, is home to America’s third largest prison system behind California and Texas.

Rainey’s death ‘utterly preventable’

Anger swelled after the Rundle’s report was released.

Protesters said on social media that they would gather outside the state attorney’s office on Tuesday to demand her resignation, calling on those concerned to continue to phone Rundle for answers.

“We’re fully aware of [the planned protest],” a spokeswoman from Rundle’s office told Al Jazeera, refusing to comment further about Rainey’s death.

Later on Monday, Rundle tweeted that due to the volume of calls she had established a hotline “to answer your concerns regarding the death of Darren Rainey”.

According to Human Rights Watch, there are around 2.37 million people in American prisons, the largest reported incarcerated population in the world.

“Jail and prison staff throughout the US use unnecessary, excessive, and even malicious force against prisoners with mental disabilities,” the group said in its 2016 annual report.

Alex Friedmann, associate director of the Florida-based Human Rights Defense Center, told Al Jazeera that he was not surprised by the state’s decision to close Rainey’s case, but explained his death was “utterly preventable”.

“Florida specifically has a long and sordid history of prisoners being killed by guards,” he said. “There are systemic failures at every step, from preventing abuse, investigating, and holding them accountable.”

It was unlikely that Rainey – who had been on hunger strikes – had the mental health support he needed, Friedmann explained.

“Rainey was mentally ill. We have basically criminalised mental illness in the United States. People who commit crimes on the base of mental illness, we funnel them into prison, not mental health facilities.

“We have more people with mental health [issues] incarcerated, rather than in hospitals. We put them in prisons. They don’t fare well in those environments.”

‘A grave injustice’

Rainey had allegedly wiped faeces over himself before the shower.

“Prisons aren’t mental health hospitals. They [prison authorities] tell you, ‘we don’t need to be dealing with it’. When you put mentally ill people in these situations, these are the tragic results that happen,” said Friedmann.

One nurse at Dade Correctional Institute, Britney Wilson, said that prisoners were routinely disciplined with long showers, according to the state attorney’s report.

“She observed that Rainey’s skin … appeared red and wrinkled,” the report said. “Wilson told the [911] operator that Rainey’s body appeared to be burned.”

READ MORE: Is the US failing its inmates?

Steve Wetstein, a member of the Stop Prison Abuse Now advocacy group, told Al Jazeera that it was “a grave injustice that the case has been closed”.

“There’s an awful lot of testimony that says the shower that he was placed into was used as a punishment … realistically as a torture device,” he said. “I do think that he was murdered.”

Rainey had been serving a two-year sentence on a cocaine charge.

“I think there is a tremendous amount of abuse [in prisons]. Darren Rainey is not the only death that looks like a criminal act,” Wetstein said. “There are numerous other cases where someone has died and very frankly the system has just covered it up.”

In October, 14 human rights groups led by the ACLU called for a US Department of Justice investigation (DoJ) into Florida’s prisons, urging intervention into abuse, neglect, torture and deaths of prisoners.

According to the Orlando Sentinel, the groups’ letter cited 17 prisoners who allegedly died of neglect.

The ACLU’s Simon told Al Jazeera following the closure of Rainey’s case, it was “imperative” that a federal investigation “into a pattern and practice of brutality in Florida prison” continued.

But Wetstein has lost some hope since the election of Donald Trump.

“To be very honest, we had infinitely more hope that federal charges might have been brought with the [Barack] Obama administration,” Wetstein said, referring to the former Democratic president.

Trump, a Republican, has said he is “tough on crime” and has vowed to give further powers to law enforcement.

“When Trump was elected, our opinion was it’s (the DoJ investigation) not going to happen. The change of administrations makes a big difference. With any Republican administration, I would not be hopeful. With this particular one, I’m certainly not hopeful. It’s worse if anything,” said Wetstein.

Follow Anealla Safdar on Twitter: @anealla

Source: Al Jazeera News

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