Afghanistan’s Shi’ites call for protection after latest mosque attack

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KABUL (Reuters) – Victims of the latest attack on Shi’ite Muslims in Afghanistan directed their anger squarely at the Afghan government, accusing it of failing to protect them despite repeated attacks.

Suicide bombers and gunmen, some dressed in police uniforms, attacked a mosque in Kabul during prayers on Friday, killing more than 40 people and wounding more than 100, according to mosque leaders.

Many of the victims were women trapped on the mosque’s second floor.

The United Nations put the preliminary toll at 20 civilians killed and more than 30 wounded, while the Interior Ministry said 28 people died and 50 were wounded.

At least 30 victims were buried on Saturday on the grounds of the same mosque as hundreds of family members, friends, and other mourners gathered under bullet-marked buildings.

Inside the mosque itself, blood was spattered everywhere and the walls were burnt and scarred.

“The government does not care about us,” said Akhtar Hussain as he attended the funeral of a relative. “What should we expect from a government that has never tried to protect us?”

Islamic State-affiliated militants claimed responsibility for the attack, the latest in a number of deadly assaults on Afghanistan’s Shi’ite population.

Sectarian violence has been relatively rare in Afghanistan, but since 2015 Islamic State militants have helped escalate fears by killing scores of Shi’ites at mosques, public gatherings and elsewhere.

Friday’s attack was the sixth attack on Shi’ite mosques so far this year, with Islamic State claiming responsibility for half of them, according to the U.N.

“This latest in a series of attacks targeting members of the Shi’a community at worship has no possible justification,” Toby Lanzer, acting head of the U.N. mission in Afghanistan, said in a statement.

“Such attacks directed against congregations and places of worship are serious violations of international law that may amount to war crimes.”

The attacks often take political overtones as members of the Shi’ite minority complain that the government ignores their needs.

“This attack could have been avoided,” said Abdul Razaq Sakha, a leader at the mosque. “Our government is guilty in this regard.”

After past pleas for more protection, the government assigned one policeman to help guard the mosque, he said.

That policeman died alongside a private guard when the attackers stormed the gates.

Mourners who gathered on Saturday said the government should help provide security, otherwise they would take the matter into their own hands.

“A police check point is very close to our mosque but they did not act until terrorists killed and wounded dozens of people,” said Mohammad Jahfar Rezaee, whose aunt died in the attack.

“The government is deaf so we have to defend ourselves at any cost.”

Writing by Josh Smith; Editing by Stephen Coates

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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Russia’s Alrosa abandons search for eight missing diamond miners

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MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian diamond producer Alrosa said on Saturday it had called off the search for eight miners who went missing three weeks ago when an underground mine flooded.

The state-run company’s Mir mine in the remote Yakutia region of eastern Siberia flooded on Aug. 4 when water seeped in from an open-cast mine above it. Another 134 miners were brought to the surface safely.

“It is with a heavy heart that I have to say that there is no hope of rescuing alive the workers who had been left in the mine,” said Sergey Ivanov, president of Alrosa, the world’s largest producer of rough diamonds in carat terms.

“We are deeply shaken with what had happened,” he added.

Production at the mine, which accounts for about 9 percent of Alrosa’s annual diamond output, has been halted since the incident due to the persistent risk of flooding.

Together with Anglo American’s De Beers unit, Alrosa produces about half the world’s rough diamonds. Soviet geologists discovered the first diamond deposits at the Yakutia site in the 1950s.

Reporting by Polina Devitt; Writing by Vladimir Soldatkin; Editing by Helen Popper

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New video emerges of deadly Barcelona van attack

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BARCELONA (Reuters) – Security footage released on Friday showed pedestrians narrowly avoiding a white van as it raced down Las Ramblas boulevard at high speed in a deadly militant attack in Barcelona on Aug. 17.

The video showed passersby running to avoid the speeding vehicle and taking shelter in a storefront.

Thirteen people died and more than 100 others were injured in Spain’s deadliest attack in more than a decade. Two others were killed during the driver’s getaway and in a separate attack in the town of Cambrils.

Reporting by Sam Edwards; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg

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Belgian soldiers shoot dead knife attacker in Brussels

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BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Belgian soldiers shot dead a man in the centre of Brussels on Friday evening after he came at them with a knife shouting Allahu Akbar (God is great), in a case authorities are treating as a terrorist attack.

The man, a 30-year-old Belgian of Somali origin, died after being rushed to hospital. The soldiers were not seriously hurt in the attack; one had a facial wound and the other’s hand was wounded.

Prosecutors said the man, who was not known for terrorist activities, had twice shouted Allahu Akbar during the attack, which occurred at around 8:15 p.m. local time (1815 GMT) just outside the city’s central pedestrian zone while the soldiers were on patrol.

The case passed from local to federal prosecutors, who typically handle terrorist cases. A spokeswoman for the prosecution service said they were treating the case as one of attempted terrorist murder.

Brussels mayor Philip Close said the alert status, already just one off the maximum level, had not been increased.

“Initial indications are … that it is an isolated attack, a single person,” Close told reporters beside a street blocked by police.

Soldiers routinely patrol the streets of the Belgian capital due to a heightened security alert level after Islamist shooting and bomb attacks in Paris in 2015 and Brussels in 2016.

In June, troops shot dead a suspected suicide bomber at Brussels’ central train station. There were no other casualties. Authorities treated the incident as an attempted terrorist attack.

Reporting by Philip Blenkinsop; Additional reporting by Robert-Jan Bartunek, Christopher Stern; Editing by Andrew Roche, Toni Reinhold

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Man with knife assaults two police officers outside Buckingham Palace

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LONDON (Reuters) – A man with a “large knife” who assaulted two police officers outside Buckingham Palace on Friday night has been arrested, British police said.

The officers suffered minor injuries and were taken to a hospital for treatment. The man, who is in his mid-twenties according to the police, was arrested on suspicion of grievous bodily harm and assault on police near Queen Elizabeth’s London residence.

No members of the royal family were present in the palace at the time. A Metropolitan Police spokeswoman said she was unable to comment at this stage on the motivation for the incident.

Britain has been hit this year by four militant attacks in which 36 people were killed, and the country’s threat level is at severe, meaning an attack is highly likely.

A police officer stands at a cordon after police arrested a man carrying a knife outside Buckingham Palace in London, Britain, August 25, 2017.Hannah McKay

A Reuters witness near the scene said police had cordoned off a large area for security, including The Mall, a wide avenue leading up to the palace. Footage on Sky News showed emergency vehicles lining the street outside the palace.

“The man was stopped this evening, Friday 25 August at approximately 20:35 hours (1935 GMT) by officers at the Mall outside Buckingham Palace in possession of (a) knife,” the police said in a statement.

“During the course of detaining him, two male police officers suffered minor injuries to their arm.”

The suspect was taken to a London hospital for treatment of minor injuries, the police statement added. There were no other reported injuries.

The police said the suspect will be questioned by detectives and that it is too early to speculate further.

Reporting by Kate Holton and David Milliken; Additional reporting by Kanishka Singh; Editing by Matthew Lewis and James Dalgleish

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Trump slaps sanctions on Venezuela; Maduro sees effort to force default

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CARACAS/WASHINGTON/ (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order that prohibits dealings in new debt from the Venezuelan government or its state oil company on Friday in an effort to halt financing that the White House said fuels President Nicolas Maduro’s “dictatorship.”

Maduro, who has frequently blamed the United States for waging an “economic war” on Venezuela, said the United States was seeking to force Venezuela to default — but he said it would not succeed.

The order is Washington’s biggest sanctions blow to date against Maduro and is intended to punish his leftist government for what Trump has called an erosion of democracy in the oil-rich country, which is already reeling from an economic crisis.

It suggests a weakening in already strained relations between the two countries. Just three days ago, Maduro said the relations between Caracas and Washington were at their lowest point ever.

“All they’re trying to do to attack Venezuela is crazy,” said Maduro on a TV broadcast on Friday. “With the efforts of our people, it will fail and Venezuela will be stronger, more free, and more independent.”

Venezuela faces a severe recession with millions suffering food and medicine shortages and soaring inflation. The South American nation relies on oil for some 95 percent of export revenue.

Citgo Petroleum [PDVSAC.UL], the U.S. refiner of Venezuela’s ailing state-run oil company PDVSA, is “practically” being forced to close by the order, warned Maduro, adding that a preliminary analysis showed the sanctions would impede Venezuelan crude exports to the United States.

He said he was calling “urgent” meetings with U.S. clients of Venezuelan oil.

The new sanctions ban trade in any new issues of U.S.-dollar-denominated debt of the Venezuelan government and PDVSA [PDVSA.UL] because the ban applies to use of the U.S. financial system.

As a result, it will be it tricky for PDVSA to refinance its heavy debt burden. Investors had expected that PDVSA would seek to ease upcoming payments through such an operation, as it did last year, which usually requires that new bonds be issued.

Additional financial pressure on PDVSA could push the cash-strapped company closer to a possible default, or bolster its reliance on key allies China and Russia, which have already lent Caracas billions of dollars.

“They want us to fall into default,” said Maduro, adding that just under two-thirds of Venezuelan bond holders are in the United States.

Maduro insisted that Venezuela would continue paying its debts.

The decision also blocks Citgo Petroleum from sending dividends back to the South American nation, a senior official said, in a further blow to PDVSA’s coffers.

Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro speaks during a meeting at Miraflores Palace in Caracas, Venezuela August 25, 2017. Miraflores Palace/Handout via REUTERS

However, the order stops short of a major ban on crude trading that could have disrupted Venezuela’s oil industry and worsened the country’s faltering economy.

It also protects holders of most existing Venezuelan government and PDVSA bonds, who were relieved the sanctions did not go further. Venezuelan and PDVSA bonds were trading broadly higher on Friday afternoon.

“Maduro may no longer take advantage of the American financial system to facilitate the wholesale looting of the Venezuelan economy at the expense of the Venezuelan people,” U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on Friday.

Venezuela’s Oil Ministry and PDVSA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

PDVSA UNDER PRESSURE

PDVSA, the financial engine of Maduro’s government, is already struggling due to low global oil prices, mismanagement, allegations of corruption and a brain drain.

Washington last month sanctioned PDVSA’s finance vice president, Simon Zerpa, complicating some of the company’s operations as Americans are now banned from doing business with him.

Trump has so far spared Venezuela from broader sanctions against its vital oil industry, but officials have said such actions are under consideration. The Republican president has also warned of a “military option” for Venezuela, although White House national security adviser H.R. McMaster said on Friday that no such actions are anticipated in the “near future.”

Venezuela has for months struggled to find financing because of PDVSA’s cash flow problems and corruption scandals have led institutions to tread cautiously, regardless of sanctions.

Russia and its state oil company Rosneft have emerged as an increasingly important source of financing for PDVSA, according to a Reuters report.

On at least two occasions, the Venezuelan government has used Russian cash to avoid imminent defaults on payments to bondholders, a high-level PDVSA official told Reuters.

“At this point our view is that the country can scrape by without defaulting this year, largely with the help of Chinese and Russian backing and by further squeezing imports. Next year is a tossup,” said Raul Gallegos, an analyst with the consultancy Control Risks.

However, China has grown reticent to extend further loans because of payment delays and corruption. Russia has been negotiating financing in exchange for oil assets in Venezuela, sources have told Reuters, but going forward it would be difficult for the OPEC member to provide enough assets to keep up loans destined for bond payments.

Venezuela’s government has around $2 billion in available cash to make $1.3 billion in bond payments by the end of the year and to cover the import of food and medicine, according to documents reviewed by Reuters.

Reporting by David Lawder in Washington and Alexandra Ulmer in Caracas; Additional reporting by Deisy Buitrago, Girish Gupta, Eyanir Chinea, Corina Pons, Deisy Buitrago and Hugh Bronstein in Caracas, Marianna Parraga in Houston, Tim Ahmann and Ayesha Rascoe in Washington, Rodrigo Campos and Riham Alkousaa in New York; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer and Girish Gupta; Editing by Leslie Adler

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