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Search over for crashed pilot

The pilot of an F-15 jet that crashed this week in remote Virginia mountains was killed, military officials said Thursday, bringing to a sad end an exhaustive two-day search involving more than 100 local, state and federal officials as well as volunteers.

Col. James Keefe announced the news at the Massachusetts Air National Guard in Westfield, Massachusetts, home of the 104th Fighter Wing, where the pilot and jet were based.

Keefe said his "thoughts and prayers are with the family" of the pilot, whose identity wasn't disclosed.

"Today was a tough day for the Massachusetts Air National Guard," Brig. Gen. Robert Brooks, Commander of the Massachusetts Air National Guard, told a news conference in Deerfield.

Brooks said rescuers found evidence at the crash site Thursday that the pilot did not eject. When asked for specifics, he said, "We just found evidence that the ejection seat was with the aircraft."

Brooks would not comment on whether the pilot's remains had been found, but only said, "We bring every airman home."

The investigation into what caused the crash of the single-seat jet is ongoing and will take several weeks, Brooks said. He said the pilot's family had been informed and his identity would be made public Friday.

The jet crashed in the mountains of western Virginia on Wednesday morning, shaking residents but causing no injuries on the ground. Investigators said the jet hit the ground at a high rate of speed, leaving a deep crater and a large debris field in a heavily wooded area adjacent to a mountain in the George Washington National Forest.

Authorities said the pilot was headed to New Orleans for radar installation as part of routine maintenance and reported an inflight emergency before losing radio contact.

Keefe said there were no munitions aboard the jet at the time of the crash. He said the plane was flying at about 30,000 to 40,000 feet when the pilot reported the emergency.

F-15s are manoeuvrable tactical fighters that can reach speeds up to 1,875 mph, according to the Air Force website. The F-15C Eagle entered the Air Force inventory in 1979 and costs nearly $30 million, the website says. The Air Force has nearly 250 F-15s.

Several F-15s have crashed over the past few years in various states. In at least one, the pilot ejected safely. Causes included failure of a support structure for the jet and pilot error.

The Canadian Press


22059


US: Beware of giant snails!

The giant African snail damages buildings, destroys crops and can cause meningitis in humans. But some people still want to collect, and even eat, the slimy invaders.

The Agriculture Department is trying to stop them. Since June, department authorities have seized more than 1,200 live specimens of the large snails, also known as giant African land snails, all of them traced back to one person in Georgia, who was selling them illegally.

The USDA discovered the snails through a tip from social media at the end of June. From that tip, the department seized more than 200 snails from a person on Long Island, New York, who identified the seller in Georgia. The department then interviewed the seller and seized almost 1,000 more snails in Georgia, plus one each in Indiana, Pennsylvania and New York.

Agriculture officials said the investigation was ongoing and they would not identify any of the individuals.

It's important to capture the snails without delay, authorities say, because they multiply so quickly, producing 1,200 or more offspring a year. And the snails, which can grow larger than the size of a fist, have no natural predators in the United States. People are their only threat.

Florida authorities know this all too well. Agriculture officials there are in their third year of trying to eradicate the snails. They were discovered in Miami in September 2011, and they've been found on houses, where they eat plaster and stucco to gain calcium for their shells, and in residential gardens, where they tear through plants.

Mark Fagan, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Agriculture, said the agency so far has found 141,000 snails in 26 areas of Miami-Dade County. Luckily, he said, they have not yet progressed into any of the state's rich agricultural areas. The snails eat 500 types of plants, including most row crops and citrus, so keeping them away is an important investment for the state's $100 billion-a-year farm industry.

Florida first saw the giant snails in the 1960s, when a boy from Miami was believed to have smuggled some of them in from Hawaii. His grandmother eventually released his snails into her garden — starting an infestation that took 10 years to eradicate.

Fagan said state officials don't know how the latest infestation started. But people have different reasons for importing the snails. Sometimes they arrive accidentally in luggage or cargo. The USDA believes most of the snails it has seized this year were being collected by hobbyists who wanted them as pets. They are also used in some African religious practices and even in some cosmetic procedures. And some people consider the snails a food delicacy.

Consumption was the apparent reason for one person's attempt to bring 67 live snails into California in July. U.S. Customs and Border Protection at Los Angeles International Airport intercepted the snails, which were declared by a person from Nigeria, as for human consumption and destined for a location in Corona, California. Customs officers said the person appeared not to know that importation of the live snails into the United States was illegal.

Eating or handling them could be dangerous, government officials said. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the snails can carry a parasitic worm that can lead to meningitis.

The Agriculture Department said it wants to warn people about the threat. People may not know the live snails are prohibited in the United States, and if those people report that they have them, they won't face any penalties. Those who knowingly import them illegally could face fines.

"The more people who know about giant African snails and know that they are illegal in the United States, the better we are in keeping them out," said Wendolyn Beltz, a director in the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. "If they didn't know and they are reaching out to us to do the right thing, there will be absolutely no penalties for that."

 

The Canadian Press


UN: 43 peacekeepers detained

An armed group detained 43 U.N. peacekeepers during fighting in Syria early Thursday and another 81 peacekeepers are trapped, the United Nations said.

The peacekeepers were detained on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights during a "period of increased fighting between armed elements and the Syrian Arab Armed Forces," the office of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement. It said another 81 peacekeepers are "currently being restricted to their positions in the vicinity of Ar Ruwayhinah and Burayqah."

The statement did not specify which armed group is holding the peacekeepers. Various Syrian rebel groups, including the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front, have been fighting the Syrian military near the Golan Heights. On Wednesday, opposition fighters captured a Golan Heights crossing point on the disputed border between Syria and Israel.

U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the 43 detained peacekeepers are from Fiji and are thought to be in the southern part of the area of separation. The 81 troops from the Philippines had their movements restricted.

"The situation is extremely fluid. Obviously, we are very concerned," Dujarric said.

"We are dealing with non-state armed actors," he said. "The command and control of these groups is unclear. We're not in a position to confirm who is holding whom. Some groups self-identified as being affiliated with al-Nusra, however, we are unable to confirm it."

The statement said the United Nations "is making every effort to secure the release of the detained peacekeepers," who are part of UNDOF, the mission that has been monitoring a 1974 disengagement accord between Syria and Israel after their 1973 war.

Philippines military spokesman Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala said in a statement later that Syrian rebels demanded that the Filipino troops surrender their firearms, but the soldiers refused.

"They did not surrender their firearms as they may in turn be held hostage themselves. This resulted in a stand-off which is still the prevailing situation at this time," Zagala said.

Israel captured part of the Golan in the 1967 Mideast war and subsequently annexed the area in a move that is not internationally recognized. Syria retained the rest of the territory.

The Security Council condemned the detention of the 43 peacekeepers and the restriction of movement of the other 81 and called for their immediate release. A rapidly drafted press statement blamed "Security Council-designated terrorist groups" and "members of non-state armed groups."

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki condemned the detainment of the U.N. detachment.

"This is a force that is responsible for peacekeeping around the world, and certainly we don't think they should be a target of these type of efforts," Psaki said.

In June, the U.N. Security Council strongly condemned the intense fighting between Syrian government and opposition fighters in the Golan Heights and demanded an end to all military activity in the area. Syrian mortars overshooting their target have repeatedly hit the Israeli-controlled Golan, and U.N. peacekeepers have been abducted.

Thursday's statement noted that UNDOF peacekeepers who were detained by armed forces in March and May were later safely released.

As of July, UNDOF has 1,223 troops from six countries: Fiji, India, Ireland, Nepal, Netherlands and the Philippines.

But the Philippine government last week said it would bring home its 331 peacekeeping forces from the Golan Heights after their tour of duty ends in October, amid the deteriorating security in the region.

In June 2013, Austria said it was withdrawing its 377 U.N. peacekeepers from the Golan Heights. Croatia also withdrew in 2013 amid fears its troops would be targeted.

 

The Canadian Press


22060


Dozens of soldiers killed by ISIS

The Islamic State group killed more than 160 Syrian government troops seized in recent fighting, posting pictures of terrified young conscripts stripped down to their underwear before meeting their deaths in the arid Syrian countryside.

The images of the slayings that emerged Thursday were the latest massacre attributed to the extremist group, which has terrorized rivals and civilians alike with widely publicized brutality in Syria and Iraq as it seeks to expand a proto-state it has carved out on both sides of the border.

In southern Syria, meanwhile, gunmen detained 43 U.N. peacekeepers during fighting on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights, the United Nations said. It added that another 81 peacekeepers were trapped in the area by heavy clashes between rebels and Syrian troops.

The mass killing of Syrian soldiers is part of a stepped up campaign by Islamic State militants targeting President Bashar Assad's forces. Until recently, the group had been focused on eliminating rivals among the rebels fighting to topple him, systematically routing Western-backed opposition fighters and other Islamic factions from towns and villages in northern and eastern Syria as it expands.

More recently, the jihadists have turned their attention to Assad's forces, seizing a series of military bases in northeastern Raqqa province. In the process, they have killed hundreds of pro-government forces, beheading some and later displaying their severed heads on poles and fences and posting the pictures online.

Most of the dozens killed over the past 24 hours were rounded up Wednesday near the Tabqa air base, three days after Islamic State fighters seized the base. The government troops were among a large group of soldiers from the base who were stuck behind front lines after the airfield fell to the jihadi fighters.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said around 120 captive government troops from Tabqa were killed near the base. Islamic State fighters also killed at least another 40 soldiers, most of whom were taken prisoner in recent fighting at other bases in the Hamrat region near Raqqa city, the group's stronghold.

A statement posted online and circulated on Twitter claimed the extremists killed about 200 government prisoners captured near Tabqa. It also showed photographs of what it said were the prisoners: young men stripped down to their underwear marching in the desert, some with their hands behind their heads. The photos could not immediately be verified, but correspond to other AP reporting.

In its rise to prominence over the past year, the extremist group has frequently published graphic photos and videos of everything from bombings and beheadings to mass killings and images of jihadis taunting and humiliating terrified troops or other opponents.

In Iraq, the group killed nearly 200 men — most of them Iraqi soldiers — in late June near the northern city of Tikrit, human rights groups and Iraqi officials say. It published photos online showing dozens of men dressed in civilian clothing lying face down as militants aimed rifles at their backs. A final set of photos showed their bloodied bodies.

Earlier this month, Islamic State fighters shot hundreds of tribesmen in eastern Syria who had risen up against the group. Some were beheaded. Last week, they posted a video showing the beheading of U.S. journalist James Foley.

The Canadian Press


Ebola cases could reach 20,000

The Ebola outbreak in West Africa eventually could exceed 20,000 cases, more than six times as many as are now known, the World Health Organization said Thursday.

A new plan released by the U.N. health agency to stop Ebola also assumes that the actual number of cases in many hard-hit areas may be two to four times higher than currently reported. If that's accurate, it suggests there could be up to 12,000 cases already.

Currently, about half of the people infected with Ebola have died, so in the worst case scenario outlined by the WHO, the death toll could reach 10,000.

"This far outstrips any historic Ebola outbreak in numbers. The largest outbreak in the past was about 400 cases," Dr. Bruce Aylward, WHO's assistant director-general for emergency operations, told reporters.

He said the agency does not necessarily expect 20,000 cases, but a system must be put in place to handle a massive increase in the numbers.

Separately Thursday, the U.S. National Institutes of Health announced it will start testing an experimental Ebola vaccine in humans next week. The vaccine was developed by the U.S. government and GlaxoSmithKline and the preliminary trial will test the shot in healthy U.S. adults in Maryland. At the same time, British experts will test the same vaccine in healthy people in the U.K., Gambia and Mali.

The vaccine trial was accelerated in response to the outbreak. Preliminary results to determine if the vaccine is safe could be available within months.

The outbreak is posing a unique challenge, Aylward said, because there are multiple hotspots in several countries, including in densely populated urban areas. Previous outbreaks had happened in a single, remote area.

In new figures, the agency said 1,552 people have died from the virus from among the 3,069 cases reported so far in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Nigeria. More than 40 per cent of the cases have been identified in the last three weeks, the U.N. health agency said, adding that "the outbreak continues to accelerate."

The new plan for handling the outbreak aims to stop Ebola transmission in affected countries within six to nine months and prevent it from spreading internationally.

The plan calls for $489 million over the next nine months and requires 750 international workers and 12,000 national workers.

The goal is to take "the heat out of this outbreak" within three months, he said.

The next goal, Aylward said, is to be able to stop transmission within eight weeks of a new case being confirmed anywhere.

The third major goal is to increase the preparedness for dealing with Ebola in all nations that share borders with affected countries or have major transportation hubs, he said.

Doctors Without Borders, which has criticized the WHO and the international community, in general, for responding too slowly to the crisis, warned that the plan "should not give a false sense of hope."

Nigerian authorities, meanwhile, said a man who contracted Ebola after coming into contact with a traveller from Liberia had evaded surveillance and infected a doctor in southern Nigeria who later died.

The doctor is the sixth person to die of the disease in Nigeria and marks the first fatality outside the commercial capital of Lagos, where a Liberian-American man, Patrick Sawyer, arrived in late July.

The World Food Program says it is preparing to feed 1.3 million people in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone in the coming months because measures to control an Ebola outbreak have cut off whole communities from markets, pushed up food prices and separated farmers from their fields. Denise Brown, the West Africa regional director for the U.N. agency, said $70 million is needed immediately to meet those needs.

The Canadian Press


Surfing some hurricane waves

Thundering surf spawned by a Pacific hurricane pounded the Southern California coast Wednesday, causing minor flooding in a low-lying beach town while drawing daredevil surfers and body-boarders into churning, 20-foot waves as crowds of spectators lined the shore.

Despite the danger, surfers, body-boarders and body-surfers flocked to favourite spots such as the notorious Wedge at Newport Beach, where the interaction of swells and a jetty produced huge waves, and cars were backed up for miles along the only road to the narrow peninsula.

Big crowds watched surfers in the morning, while bodysurfers took on the surf in the afternoon.

Among them was Joshua Magner, 35, who has been surfing since he was 10, and said being in the water in Wednesday's waves was life-altering.

"It's like being born," he said as he zipped his wetsuit and prepared to go back out. "You don't know what the outcome will be, but when you do make it through all that pressure is alleviated, it's liberation, truly the feeling of liberation."

Asked if he was afraid, he replied, "I was scared leaving my house. Dude, I was scared last night. I couldn't sleep."

Some gawkers had to park nearly two miles away and walk to the scene. One man rode a skateboard, carrying a baby. A man put a sign on his car offering his parking space for cash and another was selling commemorative T-shirts for $20 apiece.

Lifeguards up and down the coast sought to keep anyone out of the water who did not have strong experience and were kept busy making rescues all day.

In Malibu, a surfer died a day earlier after being pulled from the water but it was not clear whether the death was related to the surf or a medical condition. There were 60 rescues Wednesday in the area.

Residents of about four blocks of homes along Seal Beach, south of Los Angeles, swept seawater from ground-floor rooms after flooding overnight, and bulldozers reinforced a 6-foot-tall sand berm hastily built to protect shoreline structures.

The berm — a measure normally not needed until winter storms — and the use of pumps prevented more water intrusion during the morning high tide, and another test was expected close to midnight.

The towering waves and rip currents were being produced by swells generated by Hurricane Marie in the Pacific Ocean about 800 miles west of the southern tip of Mexico's Baja California peninsula. While Hurricane-generated waves reached California's shores, the storm itself would remain far from the state.

On Santa Catalina Island south of Los Angeles, a heavy surge Tuesday night sent sand, water and some 3,000-pound rocks into a boatyard, causing substantial damage and tossing some dry-docked boats off their stands, Avalon Harbor Master Brian Bray said.

The surge also tore away a floating children's swim platform and closed several docks to incoming traffic.

Along the shoreline in Seal Beach, firefighters went door to door, dropping off more sandbags for residents and surveying damage after the initial surge late Tuesday that topped a 2 1/2 foot beach wall, causing flooding in or around the first row of homes. About 100 residences were affected, Orange County Fire Authority Capt. Steve Concialdi said.

"This is our worst summer storm, and I've been here 42 years," said resident Jerry Rootlieb, who was sweeping out his home Wednesday.

Jaime and Blanca Brown's seaside home had a foot of seawater throughout the home, garage and carport. Soaked floor tiles in the hallway were buckled, and a dirty line marked the high point of water in almost every room and the garage. Sodden mattresses and carpets were stacked outside.

"What can you do, man? We are just trying to win the war, and we're just bringing out water. Water, water, water," said the Browns' nephew, Hector Brown.

The Malibu Pier was closed after pilings were knocked loose. The pier's structural integrity remained sound because of redundancy but people were asked to stay away, State Parks Department official Craig Sap he said.

The Canadian Press


6 dead, 21 missing in landslide

Six people died and 21 others were missing after a landslide hit a village in southwestern China, Chinese state media reported Thursday.

The official Xinhua News Agency said 77 houses collapsed or were buried in the landslide Wednesday night in the village of Yingping in Guizhou province. It said 21 people were injured.

State television network CCTV said a small reservoir was breached during the landslide, and the flooding caused further damage to the village. It showed dozens of rescuers combing a wide area covered in dried mud.

The Canadian Press


Russian tanks enter Ukraine

Two columns of Russian tanks and military vehicles fired Grad missiles at a border post in southeastern Ukraine, then rolled into the country Thursday as Ukraine's overmatched border guards fled, a top Ukrainian official said.

The comments by Col. Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for Ukraine's National Security Council, and other statements from NATO, the pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine and the United States left no doubt that the Russian military had invaded southeastern Ukraine.

A top NATO official said at least 1,000 Russian troops have poured into Ukraine with sophisticated equipment and have been in direct "contact" with Ukrainian soldiers, resulting in casualties. He called that a conservative estimate and said another 20,000 Russian troops were right over the Russian border.

"Russian forces have entered Ukraine," Ukraine's president declared Thursday, cancelling a foreign trip and calling an emergency meeting of his security council.

President Petro Poroshenko summoned the council as the strategic southeastern town of Novoazovsk appeared firmly under the control of separatists and their Russian backers, a new front in the war in eastern Ukraine between the separatists and Poroshenko's government in Kyiv.

"Today the president's place is in Kyiv," Poroshenko said.

Lysenko said the missiles from Russia were fired about 11 a.m. and about an hour and a half later, two columns, including tanks and other fighting vehicles began an attack. They entered Ukraine from Veselo-Voznesenka and Maximovo of the Rostov region in Russia.

Russian stock markets dived as fears grew that the country was escalating its role in the conflict, a move that could provoke the U.S. and European Union to impose further sanctions on Russian businesses and individuals. Russia's MICEX index dropped nearly 2 per cent on Thursday, and major Russian state banks VTB and Sberbank dropped more than 4 per cent.

Brig. Gen. Nico Tak told reporters at NATO headquarters that the ultimate aim of Russia was to stave off defeat for the separatists and turn eastern Ukraine into a "frozen conflict" that would destabilize the country "indefinitely."

"Over the past two weeks we have noted a significant escalation in both the level and sophistication of Russia's military interference in Ukraine," Tak said in Casteau, Brussels. "Russia is reinforcing and resupplying separatist forces in a blatant attempt to change the momentum of the fighting, which is currently favouring the Ukrainian military."

NATO also produced satellite images to provide what it called "additional evidence that Russian combat soldiers, equipped with sophisticated heavy weaponry, are operating inside Ukraine's sovereign territory."

Tak said the satellite images were only "the tip of the iceberg in terms of the overall scope of Russian troop and weapons movements."

"We have also detected large quantities of advanced weapons, including air defence systems, artillery, tanks, and armoured personnel carriers being transferred to separatist forces in Eastern Ukraine," he said. "The presence of these weapons along with substantial numbers of Russian combat troops inside Ukraine make the situation increasingly grave."

The leader of the insurgency, Alexander Zakharchenko, said in an interview on Russian state television that 3,000 to 4,000 Russians have fought on the separatist side since the armed conflict began in April.

The U.S. government accused Russia of orchestrating a new military campaign in Ukraine, helping rebel forces expand their fight and sending in tanks, rocket launchers and armoured vehicles.

On Thursday morning, an Associated Press journalist saw rebel checkpoints at the outskirts of Novoazovsk and was told he could not enter. One of the rebels said there was no fighting in the town.

Novoazovsk, which lies along the road connecting Russia to the Russia-annexed Crimean Peninsula, had come under shelling for three days, with the rebels entering it on Wednesday. This area had previously escaped the fighting that has engulfed areas to the north, and the only way rebels could have reached the southeast was coming through Russia.

The new southeastern front raised fears that the separatists are seeking to create a land link between Russia and Crimea. If successful, it could give them or Russia control over the entire Sea of Azov and the gas and mineral riches that energy experts believe it contains. Ukraine already lost roughly half its coastline, several major ports and significant Black Sea mineral rights in March when Russia annexed Crimea.

The Canadian Press


Mother pleads for journalist's life

The mother of a hostage American journalist pleaded for his release Wednesday in a video directed at the Islamic State group, while new images emerged of mass killings, including masked militants shooting kneeling men after the capture of a strategic air base in Syria.

Shirley Sotloff's plea came as a U.N. commission accused the group, which dominates a broad swath of territory spanning the Syria-Iraq border, of committing crimes against humanity and President Barack Obama weighs options for targeting the extremists' stronghold in Syria.

The Islamic State militants have threatened to kill 31-year-old Steven Sotloff unless the U.S. halts its airstrikes against it.

Sotloff, who free-lanced for Time and Foreign Policy magazines, had last been seen in Syria in August 2013 until he appeared in a video released online last week by the Islamic State group showing the beheading of fellow American journalist, James Foley. Dressed in an orange jumpsuit against the backdrop of an arid Syrian landscape, Sotloff was threatened with death unless the U.S. stopped airstrikes on the group in Iraq.

Addressing the leader of the Islamic State by name, Shirley Sotloff said her son was "an innocent journalist" who shouldn't pay for U.S. government actions in the Middle East over which he has no control.

Speaking directly to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who describes himself as a caliph, or Islamic leader intending to lead the Muslim world, she implored him to show mercy and follow the example of the prophet Muhammad.

"You, the caliph, can grant amnesty. I ask you, please, to release my child. I ask you to use your authority to spare his life," Shirley Sotloff said on the video, which was first aired on the Al-Arabiya television network. It was widely retweeted by Islamic State supporters later Wednesday with her face blurred because their ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam doesn't allow a woman's face to be shown.

At the White House, spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters he did not know whether Obama had seen Shirley Sotloff's video appeal, but he said the administration was "deeply engaged" in trying to gain release of all Americans held hostage in the Middle East.

"She obviously, as is evident from the video, feels desperate about the safety and well-being of her son, and understandably so, and that is why our thoughts and prayers are with Mr. Sotloff's family at this very difficult and trying time," Earnest said.

A U.N. commission in Geneva, meanwhile, accused the Islamic State group of committing crimes against humanity with attacks on civilians, and photos emerged of the extremists' bloody takeover of a Syrian military air base.

In one photo posted online, masked gunmen were seen shooting seven men kneeling on the ground, some dressed in what appeared to be Syrian military uniforms, after the seizure of the Tabqa air base in the northeastern Syrian province of Raqqa earlier this week.

The 36 photos and video images corresponded to reporting by The Associated Press of the Islamic State militants' seizure Sunday of the air base, which had been the last government-held outpost in Raqqa, a province now dominated by the jihadi group. Militants also captured the the bases' weaponry, including artillery and mounted machine-guns.

The images underscored how the group uses violence, and images of violence to terrorize its opponents, as it sweeps further into Syria and Iraq, where it has imposed an Islamic state, or caliphate, governed by its harsh interpretation of Islamic law.

Some photos showed captured Syrian soldiers, some with bloodied and swollen faces. In one, a masked Islamic State fighter stood behind a group of soldiers brandishing a knife of the type the militants have used is the past to behead victims, including Foley. In another, a militant grinned as he pressed a double-edged sword against the neck of a captured soldier inside a jeep.

One photograph showed a headless corpse, while another showed 10 slain men, sprawled in a pool of blood on a dirt road. It wasn't clear if they were killed after fighting or during clashes. Video uploaded to social media networks of the battle showed the charred bodies of Syrian soldiers as Islamic music played in the background.

The images emerged as a U.N. commission on Wednesday accused the group of committing crimes against humanity in Syria. The U.N. had earlier accused the group of similar crimes in Iraq.

"This is a continuation — and a geographic expansion — of the widespread and systematic attack on the civilian population" by the Islamic State group, said the four-member commission chaired by Brazilian diplomat Paulo Sergio Pinheiro.

Pinheiro told reporters one of the most disturbing findings was the existence of large training camps where boys, some as young as 14, are recruited and trained to fight alongside adult Islamic State fighters.

The report, based on 480 interviews and documentary material, cited dozens of public executions in Aleppo and Raqqa during the bloody Syrian civil war that activists say has killed more than 190,000 people since 2011.

The report cited how the group's fighters have beheaded or shot civilians, mostly adult men, accused of violating their harsh interpretation of religious law, as crowds of people, including children, have looked on. The purpose, according to the commission, is "to instil terror among the population, ensuring submission to its authority."

On Monday, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said Islamic State fighters had likely killed up to 670 prisoners in Mosul. Pillay described other crimes that she said amounted to "grave, horrific human rights violations."

In its push to seize parts of northern Iraq, Islamic State fighters most recently caused the expulsion of tens of thousands of civilians who scrambled for safety on a desolate mountain top, where some died of exposure and thirst. The civilians, who belong to Iraq's ancient Yazidi minority, also reported that dozens of women were seized by the fighters and were being kept in schools in Islamic State strongholds. Their fate is unknown.

The U.N. commission report, which is investigating potential war crimes in Syria, also said Wednesday that the Syrian government of President Bashar Assad likely used chlorine gas to attack civilians.

It was the first time the U.N. assigned blame for the use of the chemical agent.

The report cited victims and medical workers who described symptoms caused by exposure to chemicals, and witnesses who reported chlorine-like smells immediately after government helicopters dropped explosive-filled canisters from helicopters in the provinces of Idlib and Hama eight times from April 11-29.

Chlorine is not banned under the chemical weapons convention, but the use of any toxic material as a weapon is illegal under international law.

"In Syria, it is total impunity," said commission member Carla del Ponte, a Swiss former war crimes prosecutor. "Crimes are committed each day, from all parties, and nobody's dealing with the criminal responsibility for those crimes."

 

The Canadian Press


John Lennon's killer is sorry

John Lennon's imprisoned killer says he still gets letters about the pain he caused in his pursuit of notoriety nearly 34 years ago.

"I am sorry for causing that type of pain," Mark David Chapman told a parole board last week, according to a transcript released Wednesday. "I am sorry for being such an idiot and choosing the wrong way for glory."

It was Chapman's eighth appearance before a parole board. In again denying his release, the three-member panel said it would "so deprecate the serious nature of the crime as to undermine respect for the law."

Chapman fired five shots on Dec. 8, 1980, outside the Dakota apartment house where Lennon lived on Manhattan's Upper West Side, striking the ex-Beatle four times. After pleading guilty to second-degree murder, Chapman was sentenced in 1981 to 20 years to life in prison.

Last week, he told the parole board members that he would understand if they denied him release based solely on the number of people he hurt.

"Many, many people loved him. He was a great and talented man and they are still hurting," Chapman, 59, said. "I get letters so that's a major factor. It's not a regular crime."

Chapman, who is at the Wende Correctional Facility, east of Buffalo, can try again for release in two years.

The Canadian Press


Hate-crime convictions overturned

Personal conflict, not religion, was the driving motive behind beard- and hair-cutting attacks targeting Amish, an appeals court panel ruled Wednesday in overturning the hate-crime convictions of 16 men and women.

A 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel sided with arguments brought by attorneys for the Amish defendants, who were convicted two years ago in five attacks in 2011. The attacks were in apparent retaliation against Amish who had defied or denounced the authoritarian style of Sam Mullet Sr., leader of the Bergholz community in eastern Ohio.

In a deeply divided decision, two of the three judges on the panel concluded that the jury received incorrect instructions about how to weigh the role of religion in the attacks. They also said prosecutors should have had to prove that the assaults wouldn't have happened but for religious motives.

"When all is said and done, considerable evidence supported the defendants' theory that interpersonal and intra-family disagreements, not the victims' religious beliefs, sparked the attacks," the judges wrote.

They said it was unfair to conclude that "because faith permeates most, if not all, aspects of life in the Amish community, it necessarily permeates the motives for the assaults in this case."

Church leaders, "whether Samuel Mullet or Henry VIII, may do things, including committing crimes or even creating a new religion, for irreligious reasons," they wrote.

Mullet has served nearly three years of his 15-year sentence, while seven other men in the community are serving between five and seven years in prison. The other eight Amish convicted in the attacks either already served one year in prison and have returned to their communities or are about to be released from two-year sentences.

Defence attorney Wendi Overmyer, who represents the Amish, said she likely would be seeking the release of Mullet and the seven other men as the government considers its appeal options.

"Sam and the rest of the defendants pose no danger to the community, they don't pose a flight risk," she said. "They're needed at their homes."

U.S. Attorney Steven Dettelbach said prosecutors are "reviewing the opinion and considering our options."

"We respectfully disagree with the two judges who reversed the defendants' hate crime convictions based on a jury instruction," he said. "We remain in awe of the courage of the victims in this case, who were subject to violent attacks by the defendants."

Amish, who live in rural communities organized around bishops, dress and live simply and shun many aspects of the modern age such as electricity, refrigeration and computers. They don't drive and often get around in horse-drawn buggies or by paying drivers to shuttle them places.

They believe the Bible instructs women to let their hair grow long and men to grow beards once they marry. Cutting it is considered shameful and doing so forcibly is considered offensive.

In a strong dissenting opinion of the 6th Circuit's Wednesday ruling, Judge Edmund A. Sargus, Jr. wrote that religion was a clear motive for the 2011 attacks and that the hate-crime convictions were appropriate, especially against Mullet.

Sargus quoted several statements made by Mullet acknowledging his religious motivations, including in an interview with The Associated Press in which he said that the goal of the hair-cutting was to send a message to the Amish community and that he should be allowed to punish people who break church laws.

The convictions of members of the Bergholz community marked the first involving religion under a federal hate crime statute enacted in 2009 in response to the murders of Matthew Shepard because he was gay and James Byrd Jr. because he was black.

Attorneys for the Amish defendants have argued that the statute was meant for egregious offences motivated by race, sexual orientation and religion, not for what their clients did.

"The impetus behind the hate-crime statute, the Matthew Shepard tragedy and James Bird — those are heinous, egregious, tragic crimes, and I think in responding to those crimes, (the statute) is a little overbroad, and I think it can have an effect that perhaps Congress didn't intend," Overmyer said. "This is a really good case that exemplifies where that line can be drawn of what is a hate crime and what is not a hate crime."

The ruling will make it more difficult for federal prosecutors to obtain hate-crime convictions, because the court made it clear evidence must show the crime was based solely on religious hatred, said Ric Simmons, an Ohio State University law professor.

"It's always hard to prove state of mind or motive of a defendant," Simmons said. "Now it's going to be even harder because you have to prove not only was this a reason why they did it, you have to prove this is essentially the only reason, or the motivating reason."

At sentencing, Judge Dan Aaron Polster said it was clear to him and the jury that the attacks were motivated by religion and that "anyone who says this is just a hair- and beard-cutting case wasn't paying any attention."

"These victims were terrorized and traumatized," he said

 

The Canadian Press


Child with Uzi kills instructor

A 9-year-old girl accidentally killed an Arizona shooting instructor as he was showing her how to use an automatic Uzi, authorities said.

Charles Vacca, 39, died Monday shortly after being airlifted to University Medical Center in Las Vegas, Mohave County sheriff's officials said Tuesday.

Vacca was standing next to the girl at the Last Stop outdoor shooting range when she pulled the trigger and the recoil sent the gun over her head, investigators said.

Video released Tuesday by sheriff's officials shows the 9-year-old, wearing a grey T-shirt and pink shorts with her hair pulled back in a long braid, holding the firearm in both hands. Vacca, standing to her left, tells her to turn her left leg forward.

"All right, go ahead and give me one shot," he tells the girl, whose back is to the camera during the entire 27-second video. He then cheers when she fires one round at the target.

"All right full auto," Vacca says. The video, which does not show the actual incident, ends with a series of shots being heard.

Authorities said the girl was at the shooting range with her parents. Her name was not released.

A woman who answered the phone at the shooting range said it had no comment. She did not provide her name.

It is not known if the range had an age limit on shooting or if the girl was going through a safety class.

Ronald Scott, a Phoenix-based firearms safety expert, said most shooting ranges have an age limit and strict safety rules when teaching children to shoot. He said instructors usually have their hands on guns when children are firing high-powered weapons.

"You can't give a 9-year-old an Uzi and expect her to control it," Scott said.

The Canadian Press


Police arrest 'serial killer'

A man in custody is a serial killer who is suspected of randomly shooting seven people, leaving four dead, over five days in the Los Angeles area, authorities said Tuesday.

Deputy Chief Kirk Albanese said at a news conference that the three other victims were critically injured and two dogs were also shot and killed before the arrest of 34-year-old Alexander Hernandez of Sylmar.

Los Angeles police SWAT officers took Hernandez into custody Sunday evening with a pistol-grip shotgun in his possession that they believe was used in the attacks.

Prosecutors have charged Hernandez with one count of capital murder, two counts of attempted murder and three counts of animal cruelty. He's scheduled to be arraigned Wednesday and remains held on $1 million bail.

Prosecutors didn't know if he had retained an attorney. Albanese said Hernandez was being unco-operative with police.

The shootings began on early Aug. 20 when a woman was shot and wounded by a lone man in an SUV as she exited a freeway. The other shootings occurred over four straight days leading to the killing of three people on Sunday.

Hernandez has only been charged in one of the killings. Still, Los Angeles County sheriff's Chief of Detectives Bill McSweeney said he "is and was a serial killer."

The charges against Hernandez carry a potential death penalty, and prosecutors will ask that he be held without bail.

Authorities said the shootings appeared random and there was no known link between the victims or motives. Authorities requested the public's help in filling in details on the shootings.

Police believe Hernandez worked alone and is the sole suspect in Sunday's shootings. Detectives pieced together the incidents because of the timing, weapon used and descriptions of the vehicle, McSweeney said. Investigators will be reviewing unsolved shootings dating back several years, that involve similar descriptions of a tan or gold SUV and shotgun.

The Los Angeles Police Department and Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department created a 70-person taskforce along with San Fernando police to investigate the shootings, examining surveillance video among other measures.

Hernandez was charged with murder in the shooting of 48-year-old Gildardo Morales as he drove his pickup truck to work on Aug. 21 in Pacoima. He's accused of firing at a couple in their vehicle in West Hollywood on Aug. 20, and shooting three dogs, killing two, on Aug. 20.

Police say Hernandez killed three people within an hour on Sunday. He has not been charged in those deaths, but Albanese said investigators are confident they have the man who did it in custody and the public is no longer at risk.

Hernandez has served prison time and has four prior convictions, including possession for sale of methamphetamine, possession of a controlled substance with a firearm, and possession of a firearm by a felon, authorities said.

The Canadian Press


Sexual exploitation in England

About 1,400 children were sexually exploited in a northern England town, a report concluded Tuesday in a damning account of "collective failures" by authorities to prevent victims as young as 11 from being beaten, raped and trafficked over a 16-year period.

Report author Alexis Jay cited appalling acts of violence between 1997 and 2013 in Rotherham, a town of some 250,000. The independent report came after a series of convictions of sexual predators in the region and ground-breaking reports in the Times of London.

Reading descriptions of the abuse make it hard to imagine that nothing was done for so long. The report described rapes by multiple perpetrators, mainly from Britain's Pakistani community, and how children were trafficked to other towns and cities in the north of England, abducted, beaten, and intimidated.

"There were examples of children who had been doused in petrol and threatened with being set alight, threatened with guns, made to witness brutally violent rapes and threatened they would be next if they told anyone," Jay said. "Girls as young as 11 were raped by large numbers of male perpetrators."

The report's author took great pains to make sure the identities of the children were not revealed, but offered a general description of the cases showing the victims were between 11 and 16 years old. Most, but not all, were girls, who are preyed upon by unrelated older men.

A sampling of case studies showed the victims first came into contact with authorities for a variety of reasons, including being reported missing from their homes, leaving school with unknown men or as victims of stalking. While most of the victims in the older cases were described as "white British children," but the report said that more recently a greater number of cases were coming from the growing Pakistani, Kashmiri and Roma communities.

Attention first fell on Rotherham in 2010 when five men received lengthy jail terms after convictions of grooming teens for sex. A series of other high-profile cases featuring Pakistani rings also emerged in Rochdale, Derby and Oxford— and communities began to look more closely at their child sex exploitation cases.

Rotherham decided to conduct a formal inquiry and Jay, a former chief social work adviser to the Scottish government, was appointed to investigate. But she told the BBC that she was "very shocked" by what she found.

Police "regarded many child victims with contempt," Jay said, adding that many of the children were known to child protection agencies. Even though earlier reports described the situation in Rotherham, the first of these reports was "effectively suppressed" because senior officers did not believe the data.

"The collective failures of political and officer leadership were blatant," Jay said. "From the beginning, there was growing evidence that child sexual exploitation was a serious problem in Rotherham."

Complicating the reporting was the fact that victims described the perpetrators as "Asian" and yet the council failed to engage with the town's Pakistani community.

"Some councillors seemed to think it was a one-off problem, which they hoped would go away" Jay said. "Several staff described their nervousness about identifying the ethnic origins of perpetrators for fear of being thought racist; others remembered clear direction from their managers not to do so."

Rotherham has had its problems even before Tuesday's report. It has seen the loss of traditional industries from the 19th and 20th centuries and, though the local economy has grown recently, it is also marked by deprivation and high unemployment. The report said the take-up of "welfare benefits is higher than the English average, as are the levels of free school meals and limiting long-term illness."

But news of the sheer scale of the abuse and the lack of official concern about the problem until it was exposed shocked the country. Charities that deal with abused children were taken aback by the number of victims and by the apparent reluctance of authorities to accuse members of one ethnic group for the violence.

The local council leader, Roger Stone, resigned immediately.

The Canadian Press




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