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Taliban audacity trumps Afghan forces' weak defenses in Kunduz

Reuters

Under cover of darkness, groups of Taliban fighters carrying rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons sneaked through fields and villages toward the northern Afghan city of Kunduz from four directions.

TALIBAN

Before sunrise, they had overrun at least eight of dozens of police perimeter checkpoints, each staffed by 15-20 men, that were the sole protection for the city center, according to witnesses and senior Afghan officials.

By sunset, the Taliban had effectively seized control of their first provincial capital in nearly 14 years of war.

As details surfaced of Kunduz's stunning capture, a picture emerged of a carefully coordinated insurgent assault, and of Afghan police and soldiers who were surprised, overwhelmed and unprepared to fight inside a major city.

"The Taliban were attacking from several directions and we did not know what to do," Kunduz deputy governor Abdullah Danishy said.

"The policemen at the outposts were there to provide security, but not to respond to such a large-scale attack."

It was a frank admission that points to the limitations of Afghan security forces, numbering some 352,000, upon which the United States has spent $61 billion to train and equip.

That effort has been the main thrust of Washington's exit strategy from Afghanistan, nearly 14 years after the United States led a military campaign to drive the Taliban's hardline Islamist regime from power for harboring the al Qaeda network.

"IT WAS TOO LATE"

Afghan reinforcements backed by U.S. air support battled to retake Kunduz on Tuesday, but faced fierce resistance and were hampered by a reluctance to use attack helicopters and heavy artillery in urban areas crowded with civilians.

Some Afghan officials believe that lack of readiness for urban warfare was why Kunduz fell so quickly once insurgents were inside the city limits.

"This is the first experience for Afghan forces to battle insurgents inside a major city," said Abdul Wadud Paiman, a member of parliament from Kunduz.

"They might not have such training and that's why they were confused and did not know what to do."

A senior Afghan government official agreed.

"Once the Taliban were inside the city, it was too late," said the official, who was familiar with Monday's events.

The U.S. and NATO training mission in Afghanistan declined immediate comment on events in Kunduz, but a spokesman defended the overall performance of fledgling Afghan security forces.

"They've understandably struggled at times to adjust. In light of these challenges, however, they've displayed remarkable courage and resilience," said Colonel Brian Tribus.

Interviews with Afghan officials and witnesses in Kunduz showed the swiftness with which the city fell.

The first attacks hit at least eight police checkpoints forming a perimeter around the city center.

Some questioned why Afghan National Police, and not better-armed army units or even special forces, were protecting the center of a city, especially given the Taliban had threatened to take it earlier this year.

"None of this should have come as a surprise to the security forces," said Omar Hamid, head of Asia analysis for IHS Country Risk security analysts.

"Under any normal tactical thinking, the Afghan forces would have put more seasoned troops in those positions."

Others noted that Kunduz officials had been asking for reinforcements for months.

"They asked for more troops but unfortunately did not get them," said Ghulam Bahawuddin Jilani, an Afghan politician.

TALIBAN LEARN FROM MISTAKES?

On Monday morning, Kunduz had about 2,000 national police and 3,000 soldiers protecting the city, backed by about 1,000 militiamen linked to local power brokers, Kunduz police spokesman Sayed Sarwar Hussaini said.

If the battle for Kunduz exposed Afghan government forces' weaknesses, it also proved a public relations coup for the Taliban's tactical and strategic prowess.

U.S. and Afghan officials have this year sought to portray the Taliban as unable to take and hold major territory and weakened by confirmation of the death of the movement's founder, Mullah Mohammad Omar.

The swift and well-planned assault on Kunduz, a city of 300,000, was intended to show the Taliban's new leader, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, is able to win in battle, a spokesman said.

"This is a message to those saying the Taliban had divided or weakened after Mullah Omar's death," Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said.

He added that fighters who stormed Kunduz were under instruction to treat civilians well, admitting the movement had made mistakes in the past, including alienating the public with its brutal interpretation of Islamic law.

"There is a separate section within the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan that will start its peaceful work later to invite people towards religion," Mujahid said, using the formal term used to describe the Taliban.

"They will not use any force or violence to force people into following sharia (Islamic law). We have learnt lessons from the past and will not repeat mistakes."

Whether the Taliban can hold Kunduz remains to be seen. Government reinforcements have been stalled by Taliban disruptions to supply routes, but may arrive overnight.

"I have no doubt the Afghan forces will retake Kunduz eventually," said IHS's Hamid. "But the damage to the reputation of Afghan forces is already done."

(Additional reporting by Jessica Donati in Kabul and Jibran Ahmed in Peshawar, Pakistan. Writing by Kay Johnson; Editing by Mike Collett-White)

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Russia's Syria military build-up is self-protection – Kerry

BBC

Mr Kerry's comments follow reports that Russia is expanding its military presence in Syria through the development of two additional bases.

Russia's bolstering of its military aid to Syria has concerned US officials.

But Mr Kerry said on Tuesday the US was prepared to work with Russia to end Syria's bitter four-year war.

KELLY

He urged Russian president Vladimir Putin to play a constructive part in finding a diplomatic solution to the conflict, which has killed more than 200,000 people and displaced millions.

Mr Kerry has been critical of Mr Putin's support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which he said on Tuesday was a factor in motivating foreign fighters to travel to Syria to oppose Mr Assad.

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This Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2015 satellite image with annotations provided by GeoNorth, AllSource Analysis, Airbus shows Russian tanks and armed personnel carriers at an air base in Latakia province, SyriaImage copyrightAP

What's at stake for Russia in Syria?

How far is Russia prepared to bolster Assad?

Russia says Islamic State, not Assad, is the danger

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The Wall Street Journal journal reported on Tuesday that new satellite images appeared to reveal Russia expanding its military presence in Syria, near the Mediterranean coast.

The appearance of new Russian fighter jets has raised concerns that Russia intends to play a more aggressive role in the conflict.

"For the moment, it is the judgement of our military and experts that the level and type represents basically force protection," Mr Kerry told reporters.

But he said that Russia's longer-term intentions remained unclear and called on Mr Putin to aid efforts to end the crisis.

"If [Russia is] there to shore up Assad and to certainly provide Assad with the continued sense he doesn't have to negotiate, then I think it's a problem for Syria, and it's a problem for everybody who wants to bring an end to this conflict, which has gone on for too long," Mr Kerry said.

Russia's support for Mr Assad is a headache for Mr Kerry as the US attempts to find a diplomatic solution to the civil war under which the Syrian leader steps down.

UN-led peace talks on Syria have failed to bring the opposing sides together to agree on a transitional government body that would take over from Mr Assad.

But the increased presence of the Islamic State militant group, Russia's military build-up and an exodus of Syrian refugees into Europe have added urgency to finding a political settlement.

Mr Kerry will meet counterparts from Europe and the Middle East on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly next week to discuss solutions to the conflict.

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'Ginger extremist' wanted to shoot Prince Charles dead – and put Harry on the throne

Independent.co.uk

A man who likened himself to Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik and fantasised about assassinating Prince Charles has been convicted of plotting a terrorist attack from his bedroom on behalf of “the Aryan people”.

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Mark Colborne, 37, from Southampton, had made notes in his diary detailing his plan to kill the heir to the throne using a silent, high-powered sniper rifle, a jury at the Old Bailey in London was told.

His plot was uncovered by his half-brother, who found chemicals and papers detailing his racial hatred stashed in his bedroom at the family home.

The jury convicted him of preparing terrorist acts by a majority after it emerged that he had made notes from internet sources including The Terrorist Handbook, The Complete Improvised Kitchen and The Jolly Roger Cookbook, which gave instructions on how to make viable explosives.

The court heard that he had written in his notebook: “I don’t want to be a serial killer. I’m more of an Anders Breivik. I have left potential targets open. I was waiting for an opportunity to kill one of them. Let it be Prince Charles which would be good.”

Writing of his wish to obtain a “silent rifle” to carry out the assassination, he added: “Take up a good position and put a bullet in Charles’s head. He is protected but not too protected. I would sacrifice my life for that one shot. Kill Charles and William and Harry become king. Kill the tyrants.”

Colborne also possessed books with titles including Assorted Nasties, Silent Death and The Poor Man’s James Bond, which contained recipes for the production and delivery systems of lethal poisons such as cyanide, jurors were told.

He bought ingredients to make cyanide over the internet and had stockpiled dust masks, metal filter funnels, plastic syringes and latex gloves by the time of his arrest on 3 June last year. However, they rejected allegations that he had intended to use the chemicals and other paraphernalia as part of a terror plot.

The court heard that Colborne felt alienated and “belittled” for being a white, ginger-haired man and was also suffering from agoraphobia and depression. In his defence, he admitted buying the chemicals and writing the diary, but said his entries were merely “angry rants” prompted by him being off medication for depression.

 “Fantasies about killing people as a hitman – that was my number-one fantasy. Terrorism fantasies were sort of subsidiary but my main interest in being a professional hitman had taken over,” he said.

However, prosecutor Annabel Darlow QC said Colborne’s notes also revealed his hatred for “non-Aryans”, who he referred to as “blacks and Caucasian idiots”. Comparing himself to other right-wing extremists such as Breivik, he wrote: “I’m looking for major retribution, a mass terrorist attack which will bring to the attention our pain not just mine but my brothers around the world.”

Colborne was arrested after his half-brother Kevin discovered a bundle of receipts for chemicals as he was preparing to do some decorating at the family home in Southampton.

Telling their mother, Patricia, what he had found, the pair went into Colborne’s “extremely cluttered” bedroom and uncovered an assortment of chemicals, his racist notes, the books and other equipment and called the police.

Colborne had faced a retrial after a jury failed to agree a verdict in May. At the second trial, the jury reached a verdict by a majority of 10 to two after more than 14 hours of deliberations. Colborne made no reaction in the dock as the verdict was delivered. Adjourning sentencing until 3 November, Judge John Bevan QC said: “It is a very strange case involving, if I may say it, a very strange person.”

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Refugee crisis: First of the 20,000 Syrian asylum-seekers the UK promised to take in have arrived

Independent.co.uk

The first Syrian refugees coming to Britain as part of the Government's new resettlement programme have arrived in Britain.

The Home Office confirmed that the refugees had arrived in the UK but did not give details about how many had been admitted or where they were located.

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The refugees are drawn from camps bordering the war-torn country rather than anyone who had made progress travelling to Europe on their own accord.

David Cameron said the UK's expanded vulnerable person resettlement scheme would take 4,000 refugees a year over the next five years, a total of 20,000.

David Cameron has said the UK will take 4,000 refugees a year He has however previously warned that the UK cannot take "more and more" people - despite the UK's contribution being significantly smaller than other similarly sized countries'.

Germany could take up to a million refugees this year, according to the country's vice chancellor.

The UK is not participating in a European Union plan to relocate 120,000 refugees who are already in the continent.

Those people will be moved from mainly southern European countries like Greece and Hungary, where large numbers of refugees have travelled.

They will be redistributed to other countries in order to take the strain off places on the route into Europe.

EU interior ministers approved the plan today but the Commission confirmed that participation in the scheme would be effectively voluntary.

arrival of the first vunerable people from Syria follows a broad-based campaign, including by the Independent, for the Government to take in more refugees.

A Home Office spokesperson said: "We are working closely with the with UNHCR and local authorities to make sure we are ready to welcome more Syrians who desperately need our assistance.

"Today a number of people have arrived in the UK as part of the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement (VPR) scheme. As the Prime Minister announced earlier this month, we will resettle 20,000 Syrians over the course of this Parliament through this scheme."

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Kamilah Brock: Woman held in mental health facility because police didn't believe BMW was hers

 

Independent.Co.Uk

A woman is suing New York City after she claims she was forced to spend eight days in a mental health facility and given a $13,000 (£8,500) bill because a police officer didn’t believe the BMW she was driving was hers.

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Kamilah Brock, 32, who is a banker, said that police had initially pulled her over at a red light in Harlem and asked her why her hands were not on the steering wheel. She said “I was dancing, I am at a light,” and was then asked to get out of the car.

Brock was then taken into custody and transported to the NYPD’s 30th precinct where she says she was held for several hours before being released without charges.

She was told to return to pick up her 2003 BMW 325Cl the next day.

She goes on to say that when she returned to claim the car, police said they didn’t believe she was the rightful owner of the vehicle.

“I just felt like from the moment I said I owned a BMW, I was looked at as a liar,” Brock told PIX 11. “They put me in handcuffs and said they just need to put me in handcuffs to take me to my car. And I said OK, whatever it's gonna take to get to my car.”

“Then EMS approached me. And they said we're gonna take you to your car. And I'm like, in an ambulance? I'm going to my car in an ambulance? I'm going to my car in an ambulance? I was just so confused.”

She was taken to Harlem hospital psychiatric ward, where she claims medical records obtained by her attorney, Michael Lamonsoff, show she was forced to take lithium and injected with powerful sedatives.

“He held onto me and then the doctor stuck me in the arm and I was on a stretcher and I woke up to them taking my clothes off, specifically my underwear,” she said in the interview,” according to the Daily Mail.

While in the hospital, Kamilah Brock, 32, reported being stripped naked and injected with sedatives, the Daily Mail reports.

 

Her lawyer claims that over the eight days in the hospital, personnel repeatedly tried to get Brock to deny that she owned the BMW, that she was a banker, and that President Barack Obama followed her on Twitter. All of which are true.

“I was looked at as a liar,” she said.

According to Lamonsoff, Brock has no history of mental health problems.

"If a white woman was trying to reclaim her BMW impounded by police, would she have been made a victim?" he told the Huffington Post.

"Would she have been questioned? Would she have been subject to sarcastic comments? Would she be made to justify who she was in order to ask for help? I don't think so. I do think race played a part in this."

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Death row British grandmother plays with granddaughter for 'first and final' time

 

 

Independent.Co.Uk

A British grandmother who faces death by firing squad in Indonesia has met her granddaughter for the first time.

Lindsay Sandiford, 59, was informed she was among a group of 10 convicted drug smugglers scheduled for execution on the 21 September, prompting a desperate attempt to reach out to her family for the last time.

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Officials in Indonesia later informed Ms Sandiford’s legal team that all executions would be suspended until at least the end of this year.

But that plans were already in motion for two-year-old Ayla, who was born seven months after Ms Sandiford’s arrest in Bali in May 2012, to fly out and meet her grandmother for the first time.

The pair met a number of times over the last week, according to the Mail on Sunday, along with Ayla’s parents. They were pictured sat on the floor, playing with a Barbie toy set.

Ms Sandiford’s stay of execution means she now has at least three months to try and raise the £25,000 she needs to fund a final appeal against her death penalty.

She told the Mail the delay represented “just more torture”. “I’m just grateful I’ve met Ayla,” she said. “It’s hard to come to terms with the fact I might not see her again and she might not remember me, but I’m so glad I got to spend time with her.”

David Cameron raised the case when he made a state visit to Indonesia in late July, and said he hoped to “help the family concerned”. The British government has nonetheless said it will not help fund any of Ms Sandiford’s legal costs.

Dee Stepo, a British pastor who lives in Australia and runs a Facebook page raising funds for Ms Sandiford’s cause, oversaw a blessing ceremony for the family in Bali.

She wrote on Facebook on Sunday: “Please note no dates have been set for executions. We will always believe for justice and a miracle.”

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Mecca crane collapse: Deadly accident at Grand Mosque 'a blessing in disguise for those killed'

 

 

Independent.Co.UK 

The collapse of a crane at the Grand Mosque in Mecca was not a disaster but “a blessing in disguise” for the 107 people killed, according to a British Muslim leader.

A father-of-four from Bolton was among those killed when a crane operated by the Saudi government crashed into the mosque on Friday ahead of the start of the annual hajj pilgrimage.

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Dr Hojjat Ramzy, an imam and director of the Oxford Islamic Information Centre, said he was “very saddened” to hear about the deaths and offered condolences to the families of those killed.

“But in the same breath, I would like to congratulate those people who lost their lives for going straight to heaven without any question,” he said.

“This is great honour from God that every one wishes for but not many will be granted.”

Dr Ramzy said that, according to the Koran, “there is no reward for the accepted hajj except paradise”, and added: “Many Muslim pilgrims wish to pass away during the journey of hajj and to have honour of being buried in the holy city of Mecca.”

The Saudi King Salman has promised a public inquiry into the cause of the crane collapse, which also injured at least 238 people. Officials have defended safety measures at the construction site, and said the accident occurred during a fierce thunderstorm. 

The incident has not stopped people from making the journey to the Grand Mosque, where visitor numbers always surge significantly ahead of the hajj. Official figures suggest nearly 910,000 pilgrims have already arrived in Saudi Arabia for this year’s pilgrimage season.

Some visitors took pictures with the huge crane, which was still yet to be cleared away. One pilgrim from Egypt, named Mohammed Ibrahim, told the AFP News Agency: “I wish I had died in the accident, as it happened at a holy hour and in a holy place.”

Tributes were paid on Sunday to Bolton man Qasim Akram, who died in the crane accident just hours after arriving in Mecca for his first hajj.

Friend and local councillor for the Halliwell ward in Bolton, Councillor Akhtar Zaman said he had seen Mr Akram only days before his death, which he described as “a huge loss to the family and a big loss for the wider community”.

On the Masjid Al Aqsa mosque's Facebook page a picture of Mr Akram was shared with the message: “We share not only the picture but also the pain and grief of his departure from this world to the eternal abode of bliss.”

Bolton MP Yasmin Qureshi tweeted: “Saddened to hear that a young man from Bolton was amongst those killed in tragic Saudi crane collapse. Thoughts and prayers [with] the family.”

King Salman and the imam of the Grand Mosque visited some of those injured in the accident on Saturday evening and Sunday. The king was accompanied by his son, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman.

Many of those in hospital face the prospect of being unable to begin this year’s pilgrimage when it starts around 22 September. Grand Mosque imam Sheikh Abdul Rahman al-Sudais told the injured pilgrims that they would be spiritually rewarded for the intention to perform the hajj even if they were physically unable to take part.

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Husband bites estranged wife's nose off and eats it after she fails to return his calls

Independent.Co.Uk

A husband reportedly bit off his wife’s nose and ate it after she failed to pick up his calls.

The pair, from the city of Dezhou in China, allegedly got into a fight after the woman did not answer her estranged husband’s calls after a late work shift on 6 September.

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Enraged, her husband apparently stormed into her work the following day and attacked her: biting off her nose and then swallowing it, according to the People’s Daily Online.

The woman, partially identified as Ms Yang, told Shangdong Television station: “And the next thing I knew, he pushed my head towards the way and ate my nose in one go.”

Surgeons believe it will be at least three months before her nose can be cosmetically reconstructed.

The couple, who were both divorcees when they married, appear to have a tumultuous relationship.

According to local news reports Ms Yang claims her husband – who had two grown children from his previous marriage - attempted to sell the couple’s child so she could care for his grandchildren. When Ms Yang refused the couple separated, although she claims he continued to ring her regularly.

Police officers are reportedly attempting to locate her husband, who remains at large.

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Queen Elizabeth II becomes longest reigning monarch: Key moments from an eventful six decades

Independent.co.uk

Queen Elizabeth II becomes Britain’s longest reigning monarch after 63 years as the Head of State on Wednesday. 

In that time, she has overseen 12 prime ministers, made official visits to 270 countries, and is now said to be worth £340 million .

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Her Majesty has presided over post war recovery, the 7/7 London terror attacks and posturing that sparked fears a nuclear war with Russia was nigh. She served as Second Subaltern Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor in the Second World War, sent her first email from an Army base and travelled more miles than any other monarch in history. 

The Queen has also had memorable moments more recently, such as being spotted impatiently driving around a coupleblocking her way to church.

Buckingham Palace calculates she will have reigned for 23,226 days, 16 hours and approximately 30 minutes at the moment she became longest reigning monarch, a few minutes longer than Queen Victoria. Here a just a few of those moments from over six decades of power.

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BA plane fire: Flight 2276 passengers describe 'scary' 'mad dash' to evacuate burning aircraft

 

Independent.co.uk

Passengers have spoken of the “mad dash” and “panic” to evacuate a British Airways plane that caught fire on the runway of a Las Vegas airway on Tuesday evening.

Dramatic pictures and videos on social media showed flames and huge plumes of black smoke pouring from the centre of the Boeing 777-200 as it sat on the tarmac at McCarran International Airport.

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The 159 passengers and 13 crew were evacuated using safety slides as around 50 fire fighters fought to control the blaze. Seven people were later treated in hospital for minor injuries.

Jacob Steinberg, a Guardian sports writer, was on board the plane bound for London. He said the air stewardess had a "look of panic" as they opened the doors and smoke poured into the cabin.

“The air stewards were saying 'stay seated, stay seated' and some people were panicking, running off.

"Within about a minute or so, suddenly they said 'evacuate the plane, evacuate the plane'," he told Sky News.

"There was a mad dash to the front of the plane, where thankfully there was no smoke coming in through one of the front doors on the right-hand side of the plane".

“They opened the back door and slide went down and smoke started coming in plane, followed by mad dash to front. A lot of panic,” he added on Twitter.

 

In the aftermath of the incident a voice recording of the pilot in the moments before the evacuation has emerged. “Speedbird 2276 heavy, we are evacuating on the runway. We have a fire, repeat, we are evacuating.”

The pilot, who was reportedly "pretty shook up" following the incident, has been praised for his actions. He was greeted with a round of applause by passengers after the evacuation. Images on social media showed passengers streaming from the flaming aircraft, many carrying their bags.

He told reporters the plane's engines suffered "catastrophic" failure.

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Tension grows over 'lost' North Korean submarines as South Korea searches for vessels

 

Independent.co.uk

The mystery of 50 missing North Korean submarines deepened fears yesterday over Pyongyang’s threat to fire across the border.

South Korea yesterday said the submarines, comprising about 70 per cent of a North Korean submarine fleet, had left their home ports and were nowhere to be found.

US and South Korean reconnaissance planes and naval vessels searched yesterday off the east and west coasts of the Korean peninsula  for the submarines. Military officials said deployment of the submarines was the largest in the region since the Korean War.

The question is whether the 50 submarines, 1,400-ton Romeo-class and 1,000-ton Whiskey-class vessels, have orders to target commercial or naval vessels – or are just putting on a show of force. “No one knows,” said a military spokesman. “We are mobilising all our surveillance resources.”

Concern about the missing submarines compounded worries as North Korea doubled the amount of heavy artillery and other weapons massed on its side of the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) that has divided the two Koreas since the truce ending the Korean War was signed in 1953.

The artillery equipment that has been moved forward will be able to fire accurately on the banks of huge loudspeakers on the South Korean side of the 4km-wide DMZ, which have been broadcasting news and music loud enough to be heard by North Korean troops at least 10 miles away.

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Signs of impending North Korean attack grew as talks continued for a second day between the two countries in Panmunjom, in the middle of the DMZ, yesterday evening.

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Briton arrested in Cambodia for 'violent rape' of British woman at backpackers hotel

Independent.co.uk

A young British man has been arrested for the rape and assault of a female tourist – also British – at a guesthouse in Cambodia.

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Local media reported the 22-year-old victim was left with injuries and bruises all over her body, including a fractured wrist, after the attack.

The Foreign Office has confirmed the arrest and incident and is providing consular assistance to both people.

The incident is said to have happened during a party involving about 20 people at the Arcadia Backpackers, in Kampot, on Friday night.

The 25-year-old man is alleged to have assaulted and raped the woman after they briefly left the party together.

Local media report local police chief Brigadier General Mao Chandara Makthuras as saying she returned shaken, shocked and crying.

He said the victim was unable to talk when asked what happened but then asked two female friends to accompany her to hospital for treatment.

Police questioned witnesses at the hospital and the alleged attacker was arrested at the hostel yesterday afternoon.

A Foreign Office spokeswoman said: “We can confirm the arrest of a British national in Cambodia and are providing consular assistance.

 “We can confirm an incident involving a British national in Cambodia. We are providing consular assistance.”

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Squeezed between two armies in divided Kashmir

BBC

On a forested hill on the Pakistani side of the disputed region of Kashmir there's a small village in Nakyal Sector.

The view from the remote village of the surrounding lush green mountains is scenic. But it can be deceptive.

The village happens to be located just a few hundred metres from the heavily militarised Line of Control, the de facto boundary dividing Kashmir between Pakistan and India.

The mountains are dotted with army check posts.

Random violence by trigger-happy troops is a constant threat here.

The most recent death came on 8 August. The victim was a young woman, a mother of a four-year old child.

The villagers were celebrating a family wedding at night when a sniper bullet shot her dead, says her husband, Tariq Mohammed.

"The fire came from there," he says pointing to an Indian army post overlooking the village. "They [the Indians] turned our celebrations into a mourning, and for no reason."

More than two weeks after the killing, Mr Mohammed is struggling to come to terms with his loss. He feels angry towards India, but also blames Pakistan for failing to protect its people.

"We are squeezed between these two armies and paying the ultimate price," he says. "They say they are fighting for Kashmir, but neither of them really cares about the Kashmiri people."

It's a similar story on the other side of the 740km (460 mile) Line of Control.

The two armies frequently trade heavy gunfire and mortars, violating a ceasefire agreed back in November 2003. Recent violence has left scores of civilians dead on both sides, with each blaming the other for "unprovoked" attacks.

After a 10-minute walk further up the hill, we pass through maize fields and a fresh water stream to arrive at another house.

There, we meet Javed Ahmed, a retired soldier. On a table in front of us, he lays out spent mortar shells and other Indian ammunition he has collected from attacks on his neighbourhood.

Over the years, he has lost his uncle in cross-border firing. In other attacks, some of his relatives were wounded, livestock lost and property destroyed.

"No one from the state government of Pakistan-administered Kashmir came to check up on us," he says dejectedly.

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"We were never offered any monetary compensation, even though we are ones living on the frontline in Pakistan's fight with India over Kashmir."

The fear and intensity of recent cross-border attacks was so unsettling, it forced hundreds of villagers to leave their homes in search of safer surroundings.

Since mid-August, about 260 families have relocated to the outskirts of Nakyal town, essentially taking over a hilly slope of tall pine trees to set up makeshift camps - mainly on a self-help basis.

But in the absence of any government help, the camps make for a miserable existence.

"My children are terrorised and traumatised by all that mortar shelling. Sometimes, they can't eat or sleep. I can't take them back to the village," says Zulekha Khatoon, a mother of four children.

Tears roll down her cheeks as she adds: "This is no way to bring up children. We feel like we've been abandoned by the (Pakistani) authorities."

 

This feeling of having been let down is widely shared in Pakistani-administered Kashmir today.

One reason it probably goes unreported is because the Pakistani state likes to have a firm grip over its Kashmir narrative. It does this by denying independent journalists access to the region and by making it difficult for them to work there.

Many journalists reporting on Kashmir experience intimidation and harassment from the Pakistani army - something our team was also subjected to while we were there.

It seems the human cost of the Kashmir conflict on this side of the de facto border is greatly underestimated, and frequently hidden from the public eye.

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Australia raises terror threat level against police to ‘high’

(Reuters) - Australia raised the threat level of a terrorist attack against law enforcement officers to “high” on Tuesday, federal police said, citing intelligence, discussions with international partners and recent high-profile attacks in Europe and Canada.

The change in the threat level for police officers brings it in line with the current threat level against the general public, which was raised to high in September and has remained so following a hostage crisis in Sydney in December.

“As a result of intelligence information and discussions with our partners, the terrorism threat level against police is assessed as high, which is commensurate with the broader threat level for the community,” the Australian Federal Police (AFP) said in a statement.

“Recent events in France, Canada and Australia serve as a sobering reminder of the risks associated with policing,” the statement said.

 

In December, two hostages and a gunman were killed after police stormed a downtown Sydney cafe to end a 16-hour standoff with the hostage-taker, a loner and convicted criminal who identified himself with radical Sunni Islamist groups.

Australia, a staunch ally of the United States and its action against the Islamic State militant group in Syria and Iraq, is on high alert for attacks by sympathizers of the radical group and from home-grown militants returning from fighting in the Middle East.

Last week in Belgium, two gunmen were killed during raids against an Islamist group that authorities there said were planning to attack police.

Two police officers were among the 12 people killed earlier this month when a pair of gunmen stormed the Paris offices of French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo.

In October, one soldier died during an attack by an Islamist radical on the Canadian parliament in an incident cited by the AFP in their statement on Tuesday about the decision to raise the threat level against Australia’s police.

The AFP singled out Australian citizens who may have gone overseas to fight with the Islamic State group and returned home as a potential threat, although police commissioners in two states said no specific threats had been identified.

 

(Additional reporting by Jane Wardell and Lincoln Feast; Editing by Paul Tait)

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Isis threatens to kill two Japanese hostages unless government pays $200m ransom

Independent.coUk

Isis appears to have uploaded a video purporting to show two Japanese hostages and demanding $200 million (£130m) from the Japanese government to save their lives.

 

A militant dressed all in black appears in the footage wielding a knife and standing behind the two kneeling men, who are wearing orange clothing.

 

The hostages are identified in the video as Kenji Goto Jogo and Haruna Yukawa.

 

The video, entitled ‘A message to the government and people of Japan’ has similar elements to those uploaded showing US and UK hostages being threatened by Isis.

 

Get Flash Player However, this is the first to specifically and openly ask for a ransom. Previous videos preceding the beheading of the British and American hostages had political demands or called for governments to stop bombing Isis targets.

 

Militants had reportedly instead asked for ransom and the release of prisoners held by the US in exchange for photojournalist James Foley in emails to his family.  The US and UK have a stated policy of not paying ransom to kidnappers.

 

The militant warns the Japanese public had 72 hours to pressure their government to stop its “foolish” support for the US-led coalition waging a military campaign against Islamic State.

 

“Otherwise this knife will become your nightmare,” the black-clad figure said in English. He demanded “200 million” without specifying a currency, but an Arabic subtitle identified it as US dollars.

 

In Tokyo, a Japan foreign ministry spokesman it would, with other countries, make maximum efforts to free the two Japanese if they were in fact being held hostage, a foreign ministry spokesman said by telephone, but he made no comment on the ransom demand, according to Reuters.

 

Timeline: The emergence of Isis

The foreign ministry said it was checking whether the video is genuine.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga declined to say whether Japan would pay the ransom.

 

“If true, the act of threat in exchange of people’s lives is unforgivable and we feel strong indignation,” Mr Suga was quoted as saying by the Associated Press. “We will make our utmost effort to win their release as soon as possible.”

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Houthis, accused of coup, surround Yemeni PM’s residence

(Reuters) - Yemen’s powerful Houthi movement fought artillery battles with the army near the presidential palace in Sanaa on Monday, surrounded the prime minister’s residence and drew accusations they were mounting a coup.

Explosions echoed across the city and smoke hung over downtown buildings as the most intense clashes since the Shi’ite Muslim Houthi movement seized the capital in September, throwing the fragile Arab state deep into turmoil.

In the evening, the government said a palace in central Sanaa where the prime minister lives had been encircled by Houthi forces and that Houti representatives were talking with the president.

“Houthis in meeting with president to agree on terms for releasing chief of staff in return for changes in constitution and national authority,” Information Minister Nadia al-Saqqaf said on her Twitter account.

The Houthis’ September takeover made them the country’s de facto top power, and tensions between them and President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi had been growing since Saturday when they abducted his chief of staff, Ahmed Awad bin Mubarak, to gain leverage in a bitter dispute over a proposed new constitution.

 

Earlier on Monday, Saqqaf said Houthi fighters had fired on Prime Minister Khaled Bahah’s motorcade after he left a meeting with Hadi and a Houthi adviser that had been called to try to resolve bitter disagreements over a draft constitution.

 

A Yemeni government spokesman described the shooting at Bahah’s armoured convoy as an assassination attempt. Bahah’s residence, the Republican palace, was later cut off.

 

“The gunmen have surrounded the palace and the prime minister is inside,” government spokesman Rajeh Badi said. Two eyewitnesses confirmed the siege.

 

Al-Saqqaf earlier told Reuters the presidential palace had come under “direct attack” in what she described as an attempted coup. Hadi was believed to have been at home in another district at the time. “If you attack the presidential palace ... This is aggressive, of course it is an attempted coup,” she said.

 

Government ministers said a ceasefire had come into force in the evening after the Houtis had seized the state news agency and television station. Nine people were killed and 90 wounded, Health Minister Riyadh Yassin told state news agency SABA. Final numbers are likely to be higher.

 

Widely seen as Iran’s ally in its regional struggle for influence with Saudi Arabia, the Houthis -- now part of Yemen’s government -- said they would “escalate the situation” if their demands for a fair stake in a new constitution were not met.

 

Yemen has long been plagued by tribal divisions, a separatist challenge in the south and the threat from a regional wing of al Qaeda, which claimed a deadly Jan. 7 attack in Paris on a satirical journal known for mocking Islam.

 

GUNFIRE, EXPLOSIONS

In the early evening, state news agency Saba quoted Interior Minister Jalal al-Roweishan as saying a ceasefire had gone into effect. Residents reported that the intense artillery and gun battles of earlier in the day appeared to have tailed off.

 

But residents were uncertain about the immediate cause of the violence, which began in the early morning with explosions near the palace and the home of the national security chief.

 

Residents said army gunners had shelled a housing compound used as a Houthi base.

 

Heavy gunfire and explosions shook the Hadda district in the diplomatic quarter in Sanaa’s south. A Reuters witness saw gunmen in Al-Khamseen street, home to some senior government security officials, including the defence minister.

“On my way to work in the morning in Hadda street, there were gunmen swarming everywhere. They were in military fatigues. Their bazookas bore ‘Death to America, death to Israel’ signs, which is the Houthis’ sign,” said a hotel worker.

In a move that stunned the Arab world, the Houtis seized Sanaa in September and advanced into central and western regions of Yemen, where Sunni Muslims predominate. The Houthis want more rights for the country’s Zaydi Shi’ite sect and say they are campaigning against corruption.

 

PARTNERSHIP

A deal signed later that month between political parties and the Houthis called for the formation of a new unity government followed by the withdrawal of Houthi combatants from the capital. The fighters have remained in place, however.

 

In what he said was an attempt to defuse the violence, Saleh al-Sammad, a Houthi member appointed by Hadi as a political adviser in September, issued a statement with a list of conditions addressed to the government.

The conditions include a “fair” and inclusive partnership with Ansarallah, the political wing of the Houthi movement, and omitting sections of a draft constitution that he said violated September’s political agreement.

“If the previous agreement is not honoured, there is commitment to escalate the situation ... and it is difficult to undo the escalation, which will come at a big cost,” he said.

 

The draft, launched on Saturday, aims to resolve regional, political and sectarian differences by devolving authority to the regions, but has been opposed by the Houthis who fear it will dilute their power.

 

(Writing by Amena Bakr and Sami Aboudi; editing by William Maclean, Mark Heinrich, Giles Elgood and Philippa Fletcher)

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Crimean leader in New Delhi during Putin visit

(Reuters) - The leader of Crimea, the former Ukrainian territory annexed by Russia, arrived for unofficial talks in New Delhi on Thursday as President Vladimir Putin met Prime Minister Narendra Modi for a summit.

Sergey Aksyonov met a Mumbai businessman to discuss boosting trade with the Black Sea region. India does not support Western sanctions against Russia, but the meeting may prove an irritant before President Barack Obama visits India in January.

Russian officials declined to comment, but a senior diplomat arrived with Aksyonov at an upscale New Delhi hotel for the meeting to sign a memorandum with a business group called the Indian-Crimean Partnership.

Gul Kripalani, a seafood merchant who chairs the group, told Reuters before the meeting that it was unofficial, but added that Aksyonov “happened to be on the flight with His Excellency President Putin”.

A spokesman for India’s Ministry of External Affairs said he was not officially aware of the Crimean visit and that Aksyonov was not a member of Putin’s delegation.

India has made it clear that it would not support Western sanctions against Russia imposed over the annexation of Crimea in February, and the Kremlin’s support for an armed uprising in by pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine.

 

(Reporting by Douglas Busvine; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani and Robert Birsel)

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CIA ‘violated human rights’ - Afghan president

BBC

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has said the CIA’s brutal interrogation programme “violated all accepted norms of human rights in the world”.

He is among many world leaders condemning how the agency imprisoned and questioned al-Qaeda suspects.

A US Senate report on the programme has said the harsh methods did not lead to unique intelligence that foiled plots.

The report also concluded the agency misled politicians and public about the 2001-2007 programme.

The CIA has defended its actions in the years after the 9/11 attacks on the US, saying they saved lives.

And President Barack Obama has said it was now time to move on, despite acknowledging some of the CIA’s actions amounted to torture.

None of the countries where the prisons were located has been identified in the report, but several countries suspected to have hosted sites reacted strongly to the publication.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani speaks to journalists in Kabul, Afghanistan, 10 December 2014

Ashraf Ghani said there was “no justification for such acts”

In a press conference on Wednesday, Mr Ghani, who became president in September, called the report “shocking”.

“There is no justification for such acts and human torturing in the world.”

He vowed to investigate how many Afghans had suffered abuse at US detention centres.

On Wednesday, US military officials said the final prisoners had left Parwan Detention Center at the Bagram air base, bringing to an end the US operation of any prisons in the country after more than a decade of war.

Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Myles Caggins told the BBC that all prisoners held at Bagram had now been either transferred to Afghan custody or repatriated.

He said the Kabul government would now be responsible for all detentions in Afghanistan.

Bagram is one of the sites identified this week in the US Senate report.

Meanwhile, Poland’s former president has publicly acknowledged for the first time his country hosted a secret CIA prison.

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Palestinian minister dies after confrontation with Israeli police

(Reuters) - A Palestinian minister died on Wednesday shortly after an Israeli border policeman shoved and grabbed him by the throat during a protest in the West Bank, an incident Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas described as barbaric.

Ziad Abu Ein, 55, a minister without portfolio, was among scores of Palestinian and foreign activists who were confronted at an Israeli checkpoint while heading to a demonstration against Jewish settlements in the occupied territory.

Around 30 Israeli soldiers and border policemen fired tear gas and sound grenades at the group and a scuffle ensued in which a border policeman pushed Abu Ein and grabbed his neck firmly with one hand. Footage of the incident and pictures taken by Reuters do not show Abu Ein responding with any violence.

Minutes later the minister began to look faint and fell to the ground clasping his chest. He died on his way to hospital.

It was not clear what caused his death. An autopsy is being carried out with Palestinian, Israeli and Jordanian pathologists present, with the results expected later on Wednesday.

The incident comes at a time of heightened tension between Israel and the Palestinians, following months of violent unrest in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Hoping to head off any escalation as well as a possible erosion of security cooperation with Abbas’s forces, Israel reinforced troops in the West Bank. It also issued an apology.

“We are sorry about his (Abu Ein’s) death,” Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said in a statement. He said Israel was investigating the incident as well as taking part in the autopsy. “Security stability is important for both sides and we will continue coordinating with the Palestinian Authority.”

 

PROTESTS

Clashes broke out in a refugee camp near Ramallah and an Israeli soldier shot and critically wounded a Palestinian youth, Palestinian medics said. Ramallah shops were shuttered for the day in protest at the minister’s death.

Israel’s army spokesman said the march toward the settlement involved “approximately 200 rioters” and was stopped by its forces using “riot dispersal means.” Footage shows the marchers moving peacefully toward the demonstration, although at one point an Arab man struck an Israeli soldier with a flag.

Abbas described the incident as “a barbaric act which we cannot be silent about or accept”. He announced three days of national mourning and said “necessary steps” would be taken after an investigation, but did not elaborate on whether security ties with the Jewish state would be affected.

Abu Ein, who was convicted of killing two young Israelis in a bomb attack in 1979 and released as part of a prisoner swap in 1985, was a vocal opponent of Israel’s settlement expansion in the West Bank, which Palestinians want as part of an independent state together with Gaza and East Jerusalem.

A leader of Palestinian civil society groups for decades, Abu Ein was a regular attendee of non-violent protests and was appointed this year to head a government-backed protest group, the Committee to Resist Settlements and the Wall.

Shortly before his death, Abu Ein spoke to television reporters, sounding hoarse and short of breath.

“This is the terrorism of the occupation, this is a terrorist army, practicing its terrorism on the Palestinian people,” he told the official Palestine TV. “We came to plant trees on Palestinian land, and they launch into an attack on us from the first moment. Nobody threw a single stone.”

Ten Israelis and a foreign visitor have been killed by Palestinian assailants over the past three months, while more than a dozen Palestinians have also been killed, including most of those who carried out the attacks.

 

(Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta and Noah Browning; Editing by Jeffrey Heller, Luke Baker and Mark Heinrich)

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Iraq denies woman detained in Lebanon is IS leader’s wife

BBC

Iraq says a woman detained in Lebanon is not the wife of the Islamic State (IS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Lebanese officials said on Tuesday that the army had picked up a woman named Saja al-Dulaimi after she tried to enter from Syria with forged papers.

But the Iraqi interior ministry said on Wednesday that while Ms Dulaimi was from a family of known militants, she was not married to Baghdadi.

Unofficially, the Lebanese army says it still thinks it is holding his wife.

A source told the BBC it believed the woman was a current or former spouse of the IS leader.

The Iraqi interior ministry said Baghdadi’s wives were believed to be named Asma Fawzi Mohammed al-Dulaimi and Isra Mahal al-Qaisi.

Lebanese tanks on the lebanon syria border 3 December 2014

The Lebanese army detained a woman and a child who had crossed from Syria with forged travel documents

A woman called Saja al-Dulaimi was detained by the Syrian authorities before being freed in March as part of a prisoner exchange with al-Qaeda’s local affiliate, the al-Nusra Front.

The exchange saw al-Nusra hand over a group of abducted Greek Orthodox nuns in return for the release of 150 women held by Syria.

Saja al-Dulaimi’s father is an active member of al-Nusra, according to the Iraqi interior ministry.

Its statement said her sister was Duaa Abdul Hamid al-Dulaimi, who was being detained for “attempting to blow herself up” in Irbil.

Her brother, Omar Abdul Hamid al-Dulaimi, had been sentenced to death for his part in bombings in Basra and al-Bathaa, it added.

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Iranian ambassador’s house targeted in Yemen

Al Jazeera

A suicide attacker drove a car laden with explosives at the Iranian ambassador’s residence in the Yemeni capital Sanaa, security officials said, killing as many as three people.

Ambassador Hasan Nam Wadi was not harmed when the attack took place in the diplomatic district of Hada, officials said.

The Wednesday morning blast also heavily damaged several buildings in the area.

Interior ministry said that one of the embassy guards and two transpassers, a woman and a child, were killed in the attack, adding that four were injured, one in critical condition.

Shia Muslim Houthi rebels close to Iran took control of Sanaa in September and fanned out across the country, clashing with Sunni tribesmen and also with Yemen’s local branch of al-Qaeda.

Hakim al-Masmari, the editor-in-chief for the Yemen Post newspaper, told Al Jazeera that no one has claimed responsibility yet for the incident.

“It is probable that it was al-Qaeda behind the attack as the group often targets Yemeni state targets as well as Houthi rebels and Shias,” he said. 

“This is first of many expected attacks that al-Qaeda has been threatening against Houthi and Shia targets as Houthi offensive against al-Qaeda back tribesmen continue,” he added

“This shows how tense the situation in Yemenis. Iran is seen as the one of the main backers of Houthis in Yemen.”

The US and Yemen’s Sunni Gulf neighbours suspect Iran is meddling in the impoverished state and there are fears of sectarian warfare spreading to other countries of the region. Iran denies interfering in Yemeni affairs.

Iranian diplomats have been targeted in Yemen in the past. One Iranian diplomat is still being held hostage by suspected fighters and another was killed this year when he resisted a kidnapping attempt.

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