Rescued Canadian-U.S. couple reunited with family; receiving medical attention

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TORONTO (Reuters) – A U.S.-Canadian couple freed in Pakistan this week, nearly five years after being abducted in Afghanistan, reunited with the husband’s family on Saturday, the Associated Press reported.

Joshua Boyle and Caitlan Coleman arrived with their three children late on Friday in Toronto, where the husband said one of his children was murdered and his wife had been raped.

Citing an email from Boyle, the AP reported the family had “reached the first true ‘home’ that the children have ever known — after they spent most of Friday asking if each subsequent airport was our new house hopefully.”

Boyle, a Canadian, and Coleman, an American were kidnapped while backpacking in Afghanistan in 2012 by the Taliban-allied Haqqani network.

Pakistani troops rescued the family this week in the northwest of the country, near the Afghan border. The United States has long accused Pakistan of failing to fight the Haqqani network. The couple had three children while in captivity.

Boyle opened his Friday media statement by saying he was delayed due to a medical emergency involving one of his children.

AP, citing Boyle’s email, said his daughter had a cursory medical exam and hospital staff were “enthusiastically insistent that her chances seemed miraculously high based on a quick physical.”

Boyle made a brief statement at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport late on Friday, calling on the Taliban “to provide my family with the justice we are owed.”

“God willing, this litany of stupidity will be the epitaph of the Haqqani network,” he said.

Reporting by Maggie Parkhill; Writing by Denny Thomas; Editing by Bill Trott

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U.S.-backed SDF to let Syrian Islamic State fighters leave Raqqa

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AIN ISSA, Syria/BEIRUT (Reuters) – Syrian Islamic State fighters are set to abandon Raqqa in a withdrawal agreed with U.S.-backed Syrian militias that have them surrounded, a militia spokesman said on Saturday, as the jihadists’ defeat in their former Syrian capital edged closer.

Officials gave conflicting accounts on whether foreign fighters would also be leaving the city, where the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have been battling to defeat Islamic State since June.

SDF spokesman Talal Silo said the foreign fighters would be left behind “to surrender or die”, without saying when the evacuation of Syrian fighters would take place.

But Omar Alloush, a member of Raqqa’s Civil Council, said the evacuation would include foreign fighters. He said it would take place overnight into Sunday. The jihadists would be taking some 400 civilians with them as human shields, he said.

The final defeat of IS at Raqqa would be a milestone in efforts to roll back the theocratic “caliphate” the group declared in 2014 in Syria and Iraq, where earlier this year it was driven from the city of Mosul.

IS used Raqqa as a base to plan attacks against the West.

The Kurdish YPG militia, which dominates the SDF, told Reuters earlier on Saturday that Islamic State was on the verge of defeat in Raqqa, and the city may finally be cleared of the jihadists on Saturday or Sunday.

The U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State said a convoy was due to leave Raqqa on Saturday, in an arrangement agreed by local parties. It described the arrangement as “a civilian evacuation” and said it would not condone any arrangement that allowed “terrorists to escape Raqqa without facing justice”.

Coalition spokesman Col. Ryan Dillon said the coalition’s stance was that IS fighters must surrender unconditionally, but added that he could not comment on who would be in the convoy. He said difficult fighting was expected in the days ahead.

The coalition statement said the arrangement brokered by the Raqqa Civil Council and local Arab tribal elders on Oct. 12 was “designed to minimise civilian casualties and purportedly excludes foreign Daesh terrorists”.

The coalition believed the arrangement would “save innocent lives and allow Syrian Democratic Forces and the coalition to focus on defeating Daesh terrorists in Raqqa with less risk of civilian casualties”, it said.

Children play inside a truck at a refugee camp for people displaced because of fightings between the Syrian Democratic Forces and Islamic State militants in Ain Issa, Syria October 14, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

Tribal leaders from Raqqa said the SDF had agreed to allow safe passage out of the city for Syrian Islamic State fighters still inside, and they were organising a “mechanism” for them to leave.

Its statement made no mention of the fate of Islamic State’s foreign jihadists, but said the remaining fighters in the city were only “a small number besieged in one or more positions in the city, who have no choice but surrender or death”.

Alloush earlier told Reuters that the IS fighters would go to remaining territory held by the group in Syria.

BUSES ARRIVE

Negotiated withdrawals of combatants facing defeat have become a common feature of the six-year-long Syrian war.

An activist group that reports on Raqqa, Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, said on its Facebook page that dozens of buses had entered Raqqa city overnight Friday from the countryside to the north.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based organisation that reports on the war, said Syrian Islamic State fighters and their families had already left the city, and buses had arrived to evacuate remaining foreign fighters and their families.

The Syrian army, which is supported by Iran-backed militias and the Russian air force, declared another significant victory over Islamic State on Saturday, saying it had captured the town of al-Mayadin in Deir al-Zor province.

The eastern province is Islamic State’s last major foothold in Syria, and it is under attack there from the SDF on one side and Syrian government forces supported by Iran-backed militias and Russian air strikes on the other.

Islamic State fighters had previously agreed to an evacuation last August, from an area on the Syrian-Lebanese border.

But as their convoy moved towards Islamic State-held territory in eastern Syria, coalition planes blocked its route by cratering roads, destroying bridges and attacking nearby Islamic State vehicles.

Reporting by Lisa Barrington and Tom Perry in Beirut; Editing by Richard Balmforth

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French army charter plane crashes in Ivory Coast, four Moldovans killed

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ABIDJAN (Reuters) – Four Moldovan citizens were killed and two others were injured on Saturday when a cargo plane chartered by the French military crashed into the sea near the airport in Ivory Coast’s main city, Abidjan, Ivorian and French officials said.

Four French citizens were also injured in the crash, which occurred as the Antonov 26 plane, en route from Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou, neared the airport, said Sinaly Silue, director general of Ivory Coast’s civil aviation authority.

A witness had earlier told Reuters that the plane crashed shortly after takeoff.

“There were 10 people aboard including six crew members, three French soldiers and a French civilian who was working for the (aviation) company,” Silue said at a news conference. He said the plane was registered in Moldova, but did not name the company.

The control tower in Abidjan lost contact with the plane at 8:24 a.m. (0824 GMT) during a heavy thunderstorm, Silue added.

Abidjan’s airport is located in a heavily populated area but it did not appear that anyone on the ground was hurt.

Rescuers pull the wreckage of a propeller-engine cargo plane after it crashed in the sea near the international airport in Ivory Coast’s main city, Abidjan, October 14, 2017. REUTERS/Luc Gnago

The French military operates a logistics base next to the airport in support of its Barkhane operation, combating Islamist militants in West Africa’s Sahel region.

“This was a plane chartered by the French army in the framework of the Barkhane force in order to carry out logistical missions,” French army spokesman Colonel Patrick Steiger said.

Silue said he did not yet have information about what caused the crash, though he noted that the weather was “very bad” along the approach to the airport.

An investigation had been launched and Ivorian authorities were in contact with their French and Moldovan counterparts, he said. The four injured French citizens were being treated at the French military base adjacent to the airport.

France’s ambassador to Ivory Coast, along with French gendarmes and soldiers, had quickly arrived at the crash site, where hundreds of local residents gathered to look at the wreckage.

Some of them assisted firefighters and rescue divers who had to contend with rough seas as they freed the bodies of the dead from the plane, which had broken into several large pieces.

Reporting by Ange Aboa; Additional reporting by Elizabeth Pineau and Clotaire Achi in Paris; Writing by Joe Bavier and Aaron Ross; Editing by Andrew Bolton

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Soccer legend, VP maintain early leads in Liberia election

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MONROVIA (Reuters) – Former soccer star George Weah maintained his lead over Liberian Vice President Joseph Boakai as more provisional results from the West African country’s presidential election were announced on Friday.

If current trends hold, the rivals would contest a runoff next month to decide who will succeed Nobel Peace Prize winner Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in what would be Liberia’s first democratic transfer of power in decades.

Based on returns from about a third of the country’s more than 5,000 polling stations, Weah has received 39.6 percent of votes cast, with Boakai of the ruling Unity Party (UP) at 31.1 percent, the elections commission said.

“We are still confident that there are places that we believe are our strong support … We are very optimistic that with reports coming in, UP is going to take the lead,” Boakai told Reuters after Friday’s results announcement.

Charles Brumskine, a lawyer, was running third with 9.3 percent of the vote.

The final certified results from Tuesday’s poll must be announced by Oct. 25, although the provisional first-round winner is expected to be known in the coming days.

George Weah, former soccer player and presidential candidate of Congress for Democratic Change (CDC), arrives for his presidential election vote in Monrovia, Liberia, October 10, 2017. REUTERS/Thierry Gouegnon

Weah, a star striker for Paris Saint-Germain and AC Milan who won FIFA’s World Player of the Year in 1995, came in second behind Johnson Sirleaf in a 2005 election that drew a line under years of civil war that killed hundreds of thousands of civilians.

He has served in the senate since 2014 for the Congress for Democratic Change opposition party.

Boakai, the former head of Liberia’s petroleum refinery company and agriculture minister, has served as Liberia’s vice president since 2006.

Brumskine and the parties of two other candidates have said the vote was marred by fraud and vowed to contest the results, though international election observers have said they saw no major problems.

“The Liberian people deserve to know what was done,” Brumskine said. “They deserve a valid, transparent election. So many Liberians were deprived of their constitutional right to vote. We will, therefore, be requesting a re-run of the election.”

Liberia, Africa’s oldest modern republic, was founded by freed U.S. slaves in 1847, but its last democratic transfer of power occurred in 1944.

Johnson Sirleaf’s nearly 12 years in office have seen the country’s post-war peace consolidated, although Liberians complain about poor public services and widespread corruption.

Reporting by James Giahyue and Alphonso Toweh; writing by Aaron Ross and Joe Bavier; editing by Alison Williams and G Crosse

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In a sudden flurry, Trump looks to deliver for his voters

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) – For the moment, U.S. President Donald Trump is going it alone.

After weeks of seeing his agenda imperilled by Republican divisions and infighting among his aides, Trump has been a whirl of activity this week, reasserting his campaign priorities and trying to deliver wins for his fervent but frustrated base of supporters.

Trump took steps to dramatically undercut the Obamacare health system, sent notice he was willing to scuttle the nuclear deal with Iran, moved to roll back coal-plant limits, and again demanded a wall along the Mexican border.

And on social media the Republican president appeared to relish his feuds with the news media, senior Republicans in Congress, and National Football League players who have protested during the national anthem.

In a sense, it was the vintage, freewheeling Trump: throwing red meat to his voter base, following his gut, and haranguing his critics.

But by the end of the week, he had made more progress in undoing the policy accomplishments of his Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama, than he had in some time.

“Trump knows he has to make good on several of his campaign promises,” said Ford O‘Connell, a Republican strategist. “The clock is ticking, Congress is useless and portions of his base are growing frustrated.”

At the same time, there is still chaos and uncertainty in the White House, so much so much so that Trump’s chief of staff, John Kelly, took the unusual step of telling reporters that he was not resigning. Meanwhile, the job status of his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, appears to remain tenuous.

The timing of some of Trump’s measures this week was driven by external deadlines, especially in the case of the Iran deal. And his administration has also been occupied by a spate of deadly hurricanes and the shooting spree in Las Vegas, which have hampered its ability to move forward on its policy agenda.

But Trump this week was also sending a clear message: that he plans on doing as much as he can without waiting for Congress to act.

“The president campaigned on a bold agenda, and Congress’s inaction won’t stop the administration’s tireless efforts to boost the economy, improve healthcare, and protect the American people,” said Raj Shah, the White House’s principal deputy press secretary.

When he sat in the Oval Office, Obama defiantly declared that he would circumvent a hostile Congress by using a “pen and a phone,” issuing executive orders where possible.

And when Trump ran for president last year, he frequently said that only he “alone” could fix the nation’s problems.

But once he took office, Trump attempted to follow the lead of Republicans on Capitol Hill, and he watched with dismay how little movement was made on priorities such as healthcare, immigration, and national security.

LESSONS FROM ALABAMA

Trump, too, remains bothered by another time he deferred to congressional Republicans and supported incumbent Senator Luther Strange in a divisive primary fight last month in Alabama.

Strange lost to Roy Moore, an archconservative backed by Trump’s former adviser, Steve Bannon, with many of Trump’s core supporters voting for Moore.

The loss came after Trump alarmed some conservatives by saying he could cut deals with Democratic congressional leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi to advance his agenda, particularly on providing relief from deportation for ”Dreamers” – immigrants brought to the country illegally as children.

That led to speculation that he was going to chart a more centrist course.

But there was little of that talk this week after the White House released a series of hard-line immigration proposals that stand to threaten any bipartisan deal. Pelosi called the proposals “trash.”

Trump, too, rejected the advice of Kelly, Tillerson, Defense Secretary James Mattis and other aides in decertifying the Iran nuclear deal, according to two administration officials, intent on staying true to his fierce criticism of the deal during the campaign.

Sam Nunberg, a former campaign aide to Trump, said Strange’s loss served as a reminder to Trump that he has to look after the interests of his political base.

“That was a big punch in the stomach,” Nunberg said, one that showed the president that “this is not a cult of personality. It’s about deliverables.”

Those deliverables are the fulfilment of the campaign promises that Bannon once featured on a whiteboard in his White House office, said Nunberg, who added that Bannon’s shadow “still hovers over the West Wing.”

Bannon has pledged to support primary challengers to Republican Senate incumbents in several states next year in a bid to unseat Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, whom he blames for impeding Trump’s policy agenda.

A Reuters/Ipsos poll released this week showed Trump’s approval slipping among the rural voters he so successfully courted in last year’s election.

In September, 47 percent of people in rural areas approved of Trump while 47 percent disapproved, the poll found. That was down from Trump’s first four weeks in office, when 55 percent said they approved of the president while 39 percent disapproved.

The poll found that Trump has lost support in rural areas among men, whites and people who never went to college. He lost support with rural Republicans and rural voters who supported him on Election Day.

Additional reporting by Steve Holland, Roberta Rampton and John Wolcott; Editing by Jonathan Oatis

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Advocates for Americans held in Iran worried by Trump’s hard line

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Advocates for Americans imprisoned by Iranian authorities said on Friday they were concerned the Trump administration’s hard line on Iran would close off the chance for talks to secure the prisoners’ release.

In a major shift in U.S. policy, President Donald Trump announced he would not certify that Iran is complying with a 2015 nuclear deal and warned that he might ultimately terminate the agreement.

The administration also designated Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the dominant player in the country’s security, economy and politics, as a terrorist group, a move one expert said would make the group less willing to negotiate over the prisoners.

Jason Rezaian, a Washington Post reporter who was detained by Iran for 18 months, said on Twitter that Trump’s Iran strategy “will only hurt American hostages being held in Iran.”

“I hope I‘m wrong, but it looks to me as though Americans being held hostage in #Iran were just abandoned by @realDonaldTrump,” Rezaian wrote, using Trump’s Twitter handle.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment. A State Department official said the United States calls for the “immediate release” of U.S. citizens held “unjustly” in Iran.

The seven known American citizens and permanent residents who have been detained in the last two years in Iran are businessman Siamak Namazi and his 81-year-old father Baquer Namazi; Princeton doctoral student Xiyue Wang; art gallery owner Karan Vafadari and his wife Afarin Niasari; Robin Reza Shahini, an Iranian-American from California; and Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese national with U.S. permanent residency.

“My biggest frustration is still the U.S. government has no plan for how to resolve this, and my husband has been in prison for 15 months,” Wang’s wife, Hua Qu, told Reuters.

She said the new U.S. sanctions made her “afraid” for her husband’s fate, because they show “that the relationship is deteriorating.”

FILE PHOTO: Jason Rezaian (2R), Washington Post reporter and one of the U.S. citizens recently released from detention in Iran, poses to media together with his wife Yeganeh Salehi (L) and mother Mary Rezaian outside the Emergency Room of the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center (LRMC) in the southwestern town of Landstuhl, Germany, January 20, 2016. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

Wang was arrested in August 2016 while doing dissertation research and has been sentenced to 10 years in prison on espionage charges, allegations his family and university deny.

“I don’t know when the U.S. government is going to engage Iran,” Qu said. “He is living in this terror everyday. He is in despair.”

Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, said on a conference call with reporters that designating the IRGC as a terrorist group would “make it far more difficult to have a direct line of communication with them.”

“The IRGC is going to be in much less of a mood to engage in a serious negotiation with the United States after this,” said Sadjadpour, a friend of Namazi.

In January 2016, the Obama administration secured the release of five Americans imprisoned in Iran by agreeing to a much-criticized prisoner swap after protracted direct talks with Iran.

In the months following the swap, the Iranian government arrested several more Americans. The IRGC is typically the entity that has detained and interrogated the Americans, according to their family members and human rights groups.

Jason Poblete, a U.S.-based attorney for Zakka, said the sanctions could be helpful “if it gets these parties talking to each other.”

He criticized the Obama administration’s approach to Iran as not being focussed enough on “the unconditional release of hostages.”

“Anything that moves us to speaking clearly with one another, which is what the president’s doing, is much better than all this flimsy talk that had been taking place until now,” Poblete said.

Reporting by Yeganeh Torbati in Washington; Additional reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Yara Bayoumy and James Dalgleish

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Canadian says child killed, U.S. wife raped during Afghan kidnapping

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OTTAWA/TORONTO (Reuters) – A U.S.-Canadian couple freed in Pakistan this week, nearly five years after being abducted in Afghanistan, returned to Canada on Friday where the husband said one of his children had been murdered and his wife had been raped.

American Caitlan Coleman and her Canadian husband, Joshua Boyle, were kidnapped while backpacking in Afghanistan in 2012 by the Taliban-allied Haqqani network. They arrived in Canada with three of their children.

“Obviously, it will be of incredible importance to my family that we are able to build a secure sanctuary for our three surviving children to call a home,” Boyle told reporters after arriving at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport, wearing a black sweatshirt and sporting a beard.

Pakistani troops rescued the family in the northwest of the country, near the Afghan border, this week. The United States has long accused Pakistan of failing to fight the Taliban-allied Haqqani network.

“The stupidity and the evil of the Haqqani network in the kidnapping of a pilgrim … was eclipsed only by the stupidity and evil of authorizing the murder of my infant daughter,” Boyle said, reading from a statement, in a calm voice.

“And the stupidity and evil of the subsequent rape of my wife, not as a lone action, but by one guard, but assisted by the captain of the guard and supervised by the commandant.”

He did not elaborate on what he meant by “pilgrim”, or on the murder or rape. Coleman was not at the news conference.

Boyle said the Taliban, who he referred to by their official name – the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan – had carried out an investigation last year and conceded that the crimes against his family were perpetrated by the Haqqani network.

He called on the Taliban “to provide my family with the justice we are owed”.

“God willing, this litany of stupidity will be the epitaph of the Haqqani network,” said an exhausted-looking Boyle.

He did not take questions form reporters.

The family travelled from Pakistan to London and then to Toronto.

Boyle provided a written statement to the Associated Press on one of their flights saying his family had “unparalleled resilience and determination.”

Joshua Boyle stands with his father Patrick Doyle (L) after arriving with his wife and three children to Toronto Pearson International Airport, nearly 5 years after he and his wife were abducted in Afghanistan in 2012 by the Taliban-allied Haqqani network, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, October 13, 2017. REUTERS/Mark Blinch

AP reported that Coleman wore a tan-coloured headscarf and sat with the two older children in the business class cabin. Boyle sat with their youngest child on his lap.

U.S. State Department officials were on the plane with them, AP added.

‘HELPING VILLAGERS’

One of the children was in poor health and had to be force-fed by their Pakistani rescuers, Boyle told AP.

Reuters could not independently confirm the details.

They are expected to travel to Boyle’s family home in Smiths Falls, 80 km (50 miles) southwest of Ottawa, to be reunited with his parents.

Canada has been actively engaged with Boyle’s case at all levels and would continue to support the family, the Canadian government said in a statement.

“At this time, we ask that the privacy of Mr Boyle’s family be respected,” it said.

The journey home was complicated by Boyle’s refusal to board a U.S. military aircraft in Pakistan, according to two U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity. Boyle instead asked to be flown to Canada.

But Boyle said he never refused to board any mode of transportation that would bring him closer to home.

Boyle had once been married to the sister of an inmate at the U.S. military detention centre at Guantanamo Bay. The marriage ended and the inmate was later released to Canada.

The families of the captives have been asked repeatedly why Boyle and Coleman had been backpacking in such a dangerous region. Coleman was pregnant at the time.

Boyle told the news conference he had been in Afghanistan helping “villagers who live deep inside Taliban-controlled Afghanistan where no NGO, no aid worker, and no government” had been able to reach.

The Taliban and Haqqani network share the same goals of forcing out foreign troops and ousting the U.S.-backed government in Kabul but they are distinct organizations with separate command structures.

Reporting by David Ljunggren; Additional reporting by Andrea Hopkins; Writing by Denny Thomas; Editing by Diane Craft, Robert Birsel

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California wildfires rage as record death toll climbs to 35

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SONOMA, Calif. (Reuters) – Fire officials in Northern California reported further headway on Friday against the most lethal outbreak of wildfires in state history, as the death toll rose to 35 and teams with cadaver dogs combed charred ruins for human remains.

The wind-driven blazes, which erupted on Sunday night in the heart of California’s renowned wine country, north of San Francisco, have destroyed an estimated 5,700 homes and businesses and forced the evacuation of at least 25,000 people.

With more than 200 people still missing on Friday in Sonoma County alone, and rubble from thousands of incinerated dwellings yet to be searched, authorities have said the number fatalities from the so-called North Bay fires would likely climb higher.

Even as firefighters gained more ground during a second day of better weather, they braced for a return of higher temperatures, lower humidity and strong, gusty winds that could increase the threat to communities still in harm’s way.

Ground crews raced to clear drought-parched vegetation along the southern flanks of fires, removing highly combustible fuels adjacent to populated areas before extreme heat and winds were forecast to revive over the weekend.

”We’ve challenged the troops to get out there and secure mainly the south parts of these fires in preparation for those strong north winds,” Bret Gouvea, deputy chief of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), told a news conference.

As of Friday afternoon, 17 major wildfires – some encompassing several smaller blazes merged together – had consumed nearly 222,000 acres of dry brush, grasslands and trees across eight counties.

Governor Jerry Brown planned to visit the area with California’s two U.S. senators on Saturday.

Officials have said power lines toppled by gale-force winds the first night may have sparked the conflagration, though the official cause remained under investigation.

Much of the devastation centred in and around the Sonoma County town of Santa Rosa, where whole neighbourhoods were reduced to landscapes of grey ash, smouldering debris and burned-out vehicles.

Some victims were asleep when flames engulfed their homes, and many survivors had only minutes to flee.

RESORT IN DANGER

The picturesque town of Calistoga, at the northern end of Napa Valley, faced one of the biggest remaining hazards. Its 5,000-plus residents were ordered from their homes on Wednesday night as a fierce blaze dubbed the Tubbs fire crept to within 2 miles (3.2 km) of city limits.

On Friday evening, fires raged along mountain ridges overlooking Calistoga, threatening to rain embers onto the town if strong winds blow out of the north as predicted, Cal Fire spokesman Dennis Rein said.

A resort and spa destination dating from the mid-1800s, Calistoga is famed for its mud baths, hot springs, geysers and a historic Western-style downtown.

A cadaver dog team with the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue Team searches for two missing people amongst ruins at Journey’s End Mobile Home Park destroyed by the Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa, California, U.S. October 13, 2017. REUTERS/Stephen Lam

The enclave is surrounded by vineyards and wineries, upscale hotels and even a replica of a medieval Italian castle, Castello di Amorosa, one of its best known attractions.

The 35 confirmed fatalities – 19 in Sonoma County – mark the greatest loss of life from a single fire event on record in California, surpassing the 29 deaths from the Griffith Park fire of 1933 in Los Angeles.

Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano said his office had investigated nearly 1,500 missing-persons reports stemming from the fires, and all but 235 had since turned up safe as of Friday evening.

Disruptions in communications and the failure of many evacuees to promptly check in with authorities or loved ones accounted for the overwhelming majority of individuals initially reported missing, authorities said.

Still, Giordano said 45 search-and-rescue teams and 18 detectives had been deployed to scour obliterated neighbourhoods for more victims.

FINDING SHELTER

At a fairground converted to a shelter in the nearby city of Petaluma, about 250 cots were full by Friday, and people slept in tents in the parking lot as volunteers served porridge and eggs for breakfast.

Yasmin Gonzalez, 28, her four children and husband, a grape picker, were anxious to leave the shelter and return to their apartment in Sonoma.

“It’s horrible to leave your home, and your things and not know what’s going to happen,” Gonzalez said.

The region’s health system has also been weakened by the fires. Kaiser Permanente was forced to close its Santa Rosa medical centre and pharmacy, and many doctors and small practices evacuated.Kaiser said on Friday that it was rerouting patients, some of whom complained of respiratory ailments as a result of smoke, to nearby medical centres.

At least 40 Sonoma County physicians have lost their homes in the fires, leaving the county medical association to seek alternative accommodations for them, agency director Wendy Young said.

The year’s wildfire season is one of the worst in history in the United States, with nearly 8.6 million acres (3.5 million hectares) burned, just behind 2012, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

In the worst year, 2015, about 9.3 million acres burned.

The fires have thrown California’s wine-producing industry, and related tourism, into disarray at the end of the region’s annual grape harvest, damaging or destroying at least a dozen Napa Valley wineries.

The state’s newly legalized marijuana industry was also hit hard, with at least 20 pot farms in Sonoma, Mendocino and Napa counties ravaged, a growers’ association said.

Additional reporting by Stephen Lam, Dan Whitcomb, Steve Gorman and Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles, Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento, Calif.,; Gina Cherelus in New York, Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee, Heather Somerville in San Francisco.; Writing by Dan Whitcomb and Steve Gorman; Editing by Jonathan Oatis, Cynthia Osterman, Toni Reinhold

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Kenya’s Odinga says October poll would be illegal

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LONDON (Reuters) – Kenya’s opposition leader Raila Odinga said on Friday his withdrawal from a presidential election rerun scheduled for Oct. 26 meant the poll had been “cancelled” and there should be fresh nominations for a new vote.

Odinga said that based on a 2013 Supreme Court ruling, Kenya’s Independent Electoral Boundaries Commission (IEBC) now had 90 days to accept new nominations following his withdrawal this week from the rerun against President Uhuru Kenyatta.

Kenyatta and Odinga were due to return to the polls because the Supreme Court nullified Kenyatta’s win in an Aug. 8 election, citing procedural irregularities.

But Odinga’s withdrawal this week has thrown the country into political turmoil. A regional and trade gateway, Kenya is East Africa’s richest economy and an important Western ally in the fight against militant Islamists in the region.

The opposition leader said he could return to the Supreme Court to seek a clarification, but if the IEBC went ahead with the Oct. 26 election it would be “in breach of the law”.

“If it goes ahead it is not an election, it is a selection,” Odinga told Reuters in an interview during a visit to London. “This must be done right in the interest of electoral democracy in our country.”

“As far as we are concerned, the elections are cancelled and we expect that the IEBC will return to the process of nominations shortly,” he said.

Odinga’s withdrawal had fuelled speculation about whether the vote would go ahead at all. But on Wednesday, the election board said the polls would be held as planned and all eight of the original candidates would be on the ballot.

Only Odinga and Kenyatta polled more than 1 percent in the August election.

PROTESTS BANNED

Kenya’s opposition party leader, Raila Odinga, gestures during an interview with journalists in London, Britain October 13, 2017. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

Odinga said the only relevant law now was the Supreme Court decision of 2013 stating that if a presidential election were nullified, the election commission would hold a ballot in which the president-elect and the petitioner were the only candidates.

“That law also goes on to say that if one of the candidates dies or pulls out, the election commission is obligated to carry out fresh nominations. That is where we are right now,” he said.

“What we are demanding is that the electoral commission should respect the Supreme Court and carry out elections in accordance with the ruling,” Odinga said. “If need be we will go for clarification.”

Kenya’s opposition party leader, Raila Odinga, prepares for an interview with journalists in London, Britain October 13, 2017. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

In 2013, Kenyatta defeated Odinga in a hotly contested election. Odinga challenged the decision in the Supreme Court, which ruled that Kenyatta had won fairly.

The standoff over the elections has sparked demonstrations, but the numbers of protesters has tended to be in the hundreds rather than the thousands.

Earlier on Friday, police used teargas to disperse demonstrations in Kenya’s three main cities, and shot dead two protesters in the southwestern country of Siaya, a local official said.

On Thursday, the government banned demonstrations in the centres of the capital Nairobi, the port city of Mombasa and the western city of Kisumu, an opposition stronghold. The interior minister said demonstrators had damaged and looted property.

Odinga said he supported the right of Kenyans to demonstrate enshrined in the constitution and accused heavy policing for any outbreak of violence.

“(The government) are talking about a benevolent dictatorship – we can assure them that the people of Kenya will not take it lying down,” Odinga said.

“The government sending the police to stop the people by throwing teargas and using live bullets, they are basically violating the fundamental rights of the people … I support the exercise of their fundamental right.”

Reporting by Karin Strohecker; editing by David Clarke

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U.N. condemns anti-gay crackdowns in Egypt, Azerbaijan, Indonesia

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GENEVA (Reuters) – Azerbaijan, Egypt and Indonesia have all unjustly arrested dozens of people during anti-gay crackdowns in recent weeks, subjecting many to mistreatment in custody, the United Nations human rights office said on Friday.

“Arresting or detaining people based on their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity is by definition arbitrary and violates international law,” U.N. human rights spokesman Rupert Colville told a news briefing.

In Azerbaijan, more than 80 lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) people have been arrested since mid-September and the U.N. has received allegations that some were subjected to electric shocks, beatings, forced shaving and other forms of humiliation to force them to incriminate themselves before being released, Colville said.

There was no immediate comment from authorities in Baku.

More than 50 people have been arrested so far in Egypt’s widest anti-gay crackdown, a swift zero-tolerance response to a rare show of public support for LGBT rights in the conservative Muslim country.

Policemen holding rifles stand guard inside a men’s club after a weekend raid on what authorities described as a “gay spa” in Jakarta, Indonesia, October 9, 2017. REUTERS/Beawiharta

Two were arrested for waving rainbow flags at a concert and one for a Facebook page, Colville said.

“In some cases, individuals were reportedly arrested after being entrapped by law enforcement officials on apps and in internet chat rooms. Charges include ‘habitual debauchery’, ‘inciting indecency and debauchery’, and ‘joining a banned group’,” he said.

At least 10 men in Egypt have been sentenced to between one and six years imprisonment, while most others await trial and a few have been released, Colville added.

In Indonesia, more than 50 people were arrested at a sauna in Jakarta last Friday, Colville said. Four men and one woman were charged under the country’s pornography law, a vague statute used to arrest people for consensual same-sex relations, he said.

“In all three countries, authorities have alleged that those arrested were involved in sex work – although in almost all cases the accused have denied such allegations or indicated that they were coerced into confessing involvement,” Colville said.

He called for the release of people detained on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity and for authorities to drop charges based on vague or discriminatory laws, and to repeal such legislation.

Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Robin Pomeroy

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